Berndt Toast Gang

“You should talk to Bunny Hoest,” my friend Susan said on the phone to me.

“What is a Bunny Hoest,” I said bewildered.

“She’s the writer for The Lockhorns comic strip. She lives in Huntington.”

And so I called Bunny. I had my first comic strip called Ralph the Clammer published by
Dan’s Papers in the Hamptons days earlier. Susan thought that since Bunny was a local, yet
international known cartoonist, I could maybe make a personal connection with her now that I
was a published cartoonist as well. And so after a formal meeting in which I told her I would
interview her for my blog, she agreed to have me join her and others at unpublicized meetings
held each month.

The meeting is held the last Thursday of each month at Alpert’s Mandarin Chinese restaurant in Huntington, New York. It consisted of members of the chapter for the National Cartoonists Society. This is a regional meeting where members gather to talk about their works and their careers. This particular chapter consists of four individuals in particular who I got to know.

Bunny Hoest, called the Cartoon Lady, has been writing for various comics including The Lockhorns, Howard Huge, and the Laugh Parade. She inherited all of them from her late husband. She has now been writing more years than him. Each year, Bunny, who got her nickname because she looked like a little bunny to her dad when she was younger, hosts a yearly barbeque on her lawn, on the bluffs in Huntington Harbor. “I couldn’t decide after Bill died if I should continue with The Lockhorns,” laments Bunny.

Marv Levy, who died earlier this year, illustrated some of the first comic books which were corporate sponsored such as Woolworth’s Christmas Giveaway Comics. These corporate sponsors were done in a less aggressive fashion than today. “Today, you have corporations who can influence programming. If they stop buying advertising for your creative works, the corporations see you as a liability. It never used to be like that. It’s like you have to please not only the audience but the people behind, behind the scenes,” frustrated Marv expressed to me a while ago.

Joe Giella, took over the helm as an artist for Mary Worth comic strip, a 70 year old comic strip. Joe was responsible for bringing Mary Worth, the main characters of the comic strip, up-to-date. “The audience was outraged when I penciled the first book with Mary’s new design. I updated her face, her hair and her clothing. Looking back, I guess we should have made subtle changes over time,” Joe says with an unlit pipe in his mouth.

“How bad was the audience’s reaction,” I said.

“Well, they wanted to throw me to the lions. The comic strip had been out for nearly two decades and so the image of Mary was very well ingrained into people’s minds. The studio typically got about one-thousand letters a week of fan mail. After the first book came out that I drew, they got almost four-thousand letters. I mean comic books redesigned other characters before by making them more modern. I know Peanuts redid Snoopy and then on TV they redesigned Bugs Bunny so it was just a matter of time when older designed characters were being made to look more modern.”

And Stan Goldberg, who this year is being honored in Los Vegas with the National Cartoonists Society’s Gold Key Award, sort of like the Academy Lifetime Achievement Award. Aside from the monthly regional meeting, each year all the chapters across the country get together to hold their annual award ceremony. “I never dreamed that I’d be able to write my whole life for something I truly, truly love. The award was something I never imaged even though I worked with Stan Lee in the past, who also got the award many years ago, I never thought I’d have the same honor,” Stan expressed with a half-smile. Stan worked on Spiderman back in the day with Stan Lee.

Officially, the Berndt Toast Gang is a chapter of the National Cartoonists Society, which has members involved in a variety of media, including comic books and advertising. The Long Island branch was born in 1966 when an initial core group — working on a project for the Hanna-Barbera animation studio — began meeting regularly. The nickname stuck when glasses were raised to a deceased member, Walter Berndt, who created the comic strip Smitty.

In fact, Walter Berndt was not only an artist; he coined the phrase, “Above the tit line.” This essentially means that when newspapers of yesteryear were trying to save space, they would cut the comic strips in half sometimes. So Walt told his fellow artist you should write all words above the tit line, the higher part of characters above the chest, so that the words would not be cut off.

Some of the artists are from the Golden Age of Comic Strips. This was a period of time from between the late 1930’s and the early 1950’s. This was when modern comic books were first published and had a tremendous impact on main stream Americans. This was the time when the archetype of the superhero was created and defined; and many of the most famous superheros debuted, among them were Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Batman and Superman.

The period saw the arrival of the comic book as a mainstream art form, and the defining of the medium’s artistic vocabulary and creative conventions by its first generation of writers, artists, and editors. One event cited for the beginning of the Golden Age was the 1938 debut of Superman in Action Comics #1, published by a predecessor of modern-day DC Comics. Superman’s creation made comic books into a major industry. As with World War II, the ushering in of the era following the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945 colored the content and subject matter of comic books in the mid to late 1940s. As World War II ended the popularity of the superhero comics diminished, and in an effort to retain readers comic publishers began diversifying more than ever into war, Western, science fiction, romance, crime and horror comics. As a result, many superheroes titles were canceled.

A few of the chapter members have come from the Silver Age of Comic Books. This period of time was seen more by commercial success from the mid 1950’s to 1970. However, controversy arose over alleged links between comic books and juvenile delinquency, focusing in particular on crime and horror titles. In 1954, publishers implemented the Comics Code Authority to regulate comic content. In the wake of these changes, publishers began introducing superhero stories again, a change that began with the introduction of a new version of DC Comics’s The Flash. Superheros made a huge come back commercially with comic successes as Superman, which became a TV series, followed by Batman.

Bunny Hoest stood up. “I want you all to meet Ray Palma. Ray is a new cartoonist and he wants to get to know you all and this group so he can assimilate.”

As a shy writer, I didn’t feel totally comfortable. “Well, I’ve done more newspaper articles but yes this is my first cartoon endeavor and I’m trying hard to get established in this field,” I coyly said.

“When you read the news these days, it’s such a downer,” said Mort Drucker, a longtime member and renowned cartoonist who has been cheering up the world, primarily in Mad Magazine, for the past 53 years. “Cartoons give you a chance to laugh a little.”

Mort was sitting next to me. At age 83 Mort had a wealth of knowledge. “You see young man, back then you had a chance if you were creative and approached somebody in a respectful way. Nowadays, you can bang somebody over their head with the hammer of Thor and never get a call back from an assistant to an assistant. Nobody cares about the artist as they used to.”

Bunny took me aside, “Don’t be bashful, you should move around the room and meet a few key people. Come with me.” Bunny grabbed me by the arm and introduced me to Stan Goldberg.

“All I have to say is, when I was starting out, I had a mentor named Sid Friedman who would show me around. He would take me from studio to studio introducing me as a new artist.”

“You’re kidding me. You mean you would just walk in studios and talk to key players?”

“Yes. I have my portfolio, that’s what they call it now, back then we used to just call it our works, in my hand. If they liked your smile and enthusiasm, they would say ‘have a seat let’s talk’. Right, Bunny?”

“What me and Bill would do is that every Wednesday, they would have what is called open time in the comic book industry. Every week you could just show up at a studio and say you’re there to have your works looked through. I and Bill did it on his motorcycle. You never see motorcycles in Manhattan even. I remember once I and Bill were at a studio and we left our works there by accident. Well, the studio manager got in his car and he drove to the other studios figuring we’d be visiting them all. He found us as we were pulling up to the studio around the block from his.”

Aside from the Wednesday open meetings, all of them remembered in the 50’s and early 60’s that they would have cartoonists beers together once a month. Essentially the head of one of the studios, Alfred Harvey would determine where he wanted to go eat and have cocktails and then the word press from there. “I remember the first cartoonist’s beer I went to,” said Marv, who barely spoke in the past few months. “I saw all the big honcho’s drinking and laughing and smoking cigarettes. I wanted to approach them as a young artist since none of them probably saw my work or heard of me before. When I approach Sammy Schmidt, the head of Timely (now known as Marvel), you know what he said to me? He was drinking and smoking a cigarette and I said hello my name is Marv Levy. And he said, I know who you are. But I don’t know why you’re not drinking or having cigarettes with us.”

Having worked for Stan Lee in the past, Stan Goldberg was somebody I wanted to get to know even more so than the other members of this group. Aside from Marv who had a major stroke and was wheel-chair bound, Stan spoke the least. When he did speak he made sure what he said was very exact. I don’t know if Stan felt I was digging for information or if he was just cautious even after having gone to 4 months of meeting earlier.

“I know Stan Lee is big now, but back then he was just your colleague. What was it like to work with him,” I said to Stan.

“Well, working with Stan was a pleasure. He was like me, dedicated and didn’t let anything around him bother him while he was working. We would sit in the loft where he worked and we were talk and talk until we get the idea about what we wanted to write about. Spiderman was his favorite and he wanted to make sure I understand how he wanted him to look for each new book. Even though the character himself never changed design, Stan wanted to make sure that I knew how the character would come across for each story he wrote and I illustrated.”

In fact, some of these Golden Age and Silver Age Comic Strip artists are still able to create their works using older methods.

Bunny Hoest still has her illustrated John, draw each comic cell of her comic strips in pencil. He does not color it in. He then uses a color palette that has numbers associated with the different colors. So he uses the color #18 to show what color the floor should like in a room. Or he uses the color #34 to see what the tree truck color should look like. Then they take Bunny’s caption which is cut off from an index card. They then paste it to the bottom of the drawing. The method looks like something from the 50’s. After they send this pasted together drawing and caption with the color numbered palette numbered to an artists in Florida. It is this computer graphic artist who designs the final product that gets sent into King’s Features, the comic publishers who holds the publishing rights to The Lockhorns. Bunny still owns the rights to The Lockhorns, something that is not heard of today.

“Where do you continue to get your ideas for The Lockhorns?”

“Well, I use what is called gag writers. These are writers who somehow got in touch with me over the years. They send captions of The Lockhorns into me on a weekly basis. They are either called a gem or a germ. A gem is when I decide I’ll use the caption as is, that it doesn’t need tweaking. Then there is what I call a germ. A germ is a caption they sent me that needs more work, it needs to germinate in order for me to use it.”

Marv Levy would draw using colorized pencils. “I know years and years ago they wanted me to begin using the Mac to teach me how to draw on this tablet attached to the computer. I tell you, I could not draw on it. It stopped my creative flow every time I tried to draw on the gadget. I mean I could fill in the colors and that I liked it went very fast, but as far as drawing the characters themselves, I could not get the characters onto the board that way. And as soon as I picked up the pencils again, bingo, I draw as if I was being held back.”

Stan Goldberg didn’t have any problems with computers. He is the only artists in this group of his age that uses the computer to make designs. “I use a Mac Book Pro, the lite keyboard is something I enjoy because I’m nearly blind now,” he said jokingly. “My computer screen is three feet wide and two feet high. I do my designs by hand at first and then I go onto my computer and I redo them onto the computer. I can create designs on the computer from the get-go but I find it easier to draw it first by pencil, it just flows easier that way.

“Attention everybody,” says Adrian Sinnott the chapter president of The Berndt Toast Gang. “We have some announcements and some things to cover. First did everybody pay for lunch today?” Laughs from the chapter members. “Now, as you all know, Marv died and we are holding a special memorial service for him next month. Does anybody have any ideas how best to celebrate Marv,” lamented Adrian.

“A stiff scotch,” glibly says one member. More laughs from the audience.

“How about lots of food and a stiff scotch,” another member throws out. More laughs from the audience.

“Well, that all is a given with this crowd,” says Adrian.

“Well Adrian,” says Bunny. “I know Marv loved the north shore as much as he loved his craft, why don’t we have our next meeting on my sailboat at Willis Marina and then we can talk to Marv on the Sound about how much we miss him.”
Several weeks later, Sy Barry, who drew The Phantom, died. So once again, yet another Golden Age comic strip artists was gone.

I felt very sad. Even though I had been welcomed into this group for nearly a year now, I felt like I walked into the wrong funeral parlor room and that everybody was asking, “who is that guy?”

Some things have not changed with time. You can only join The National Cartoonist Society if you make more sixty percent or more of your income from the comic industry, according to chapter president Adrian Sinnott. Adrian takes pride in being an adjunct professor at SUNY Farmingdale, teaching computer graphics to the next cartoonist generation. And Adrian should know some things about making comic milestones in history. He drew a comic called Hunny Bunny Short Tails for two years. Ironically, Bunny Hoests’ daughter wrote the comic strip. This comic strip was the first, according to Adrian, to be submitted digitally to publishers. “They said, what do we do with this (the CD).”

The Berndt Toast Gang have been very gracious to me. Since they are “loose,” they have extended an open invitation to me to all their meetings and events. I learned that many aspects of our society, things back then were cruder but more civil. Making it in the business meant having great work and good manners. Although I feel like I have those qualities and more, I am very envious of these Golden-Silver Agers who are now fading with their penciled drawings.

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