As we saw in our last post, the pathway to the character of Little Orphan Annie was longer and more interesting than one might think. Heck, we did an entire post and didn’t even get to the actual red haired Little Orphan Annie character we all know and every little girl loves.
Well, in August 1924 cartoonist Harold Gray, who had been trying unsuccessfully to get The Chicago Tribune to pick up one of his strips finally succeeded. Owner Joseph Patterson agreed to try out this Little Orphan Annie character in the New York Daily News to a test audience. The response was positive so the Chicago Tribune picked it up and soon the strip was running all over the country.
Gray had decided on the character based on a meeting with a little “ragamuffin” while wandering about Chicago. Her common sense and spunk (note, spunk in the american sense NOT the english) made an impression on him. He wanted to write and draw a successful comic strip and kids were popular stars to have in them.
Most comic strip featured boys as main character so a girl stood out. Furthermore, by making her an orphan he had the excuse to put her in whatever various adventures and places he wanted. He took the name directly from the Riley poem Little Orphant Annie which we covered last time.
Annie was popular enough but when the depression hit she became wildly successful, one of the most popular strips in the country during the 30s and according to Fortune magazine in 1937 THE most popular comic strip, beating out Popeye, Dick Tracy and Lil Abner.
Gray’s philosophy was more about conservative values then “the sun’ll come out tomorrow”. Annie outspokenly advocated hard work, respect for elders, and yes, keeping your chin up regardless of the circumstances. It also heartily criticized FDR’s New Deal and 1930s labor unionism.
Gray was occasionally criticized for the fact that because of the enormous success of the strip he rode out the depression well cared for while all the while preaching to the huddle masses.
In 1930 the Little Orphan Annie radio show began, which was also a runaway hit. It aired for 12 years until 1942.
The show’s sponsors were indeed Ovaltine and they made a killing out of cultivating the show’s fan base by offering special premiums, including secret decoders, shake-up mugs for drinking Ovaltine and rings for members of the Little Orphan Annie secret society. Announcer Pierre Andre’s exuberant pitches for Ovaltine and the many premiums were an integral part of the show. This has of course been immortalized in one of the greatest Xmas movies ever made, A Christmas story.
There was a (very bad) cartoon and two pretty bad Annie movies in the 30s. IN 1962 there was a pretty popular Annie spoof in the then wildly popular Playboy magazine. Written and drawn by Harvy Kurtzman, the guy behind Mad Magazine and Will Elder, it featured “Annie Fanny, a tall, blonde, amply breasted, round buttocked, curly-haired young female who seems to find herself in trouble and naked in each episode.” The Mad Men guys went crazy over it.
Well now, isn’t that interesting? Ask anyone around in the Mad Men era, they know about Little Annie Fanny.
Which FINALLY, after ALL THIS, brings us to the version of Little Orphan Annie everyone actually knows, the 1977 Broadway musical and that stupid damn song “Tomorrow”. Which i’m not gonna play here, although don’t get me wrong, i find the music from the show in general to be immensely hummable and catchy.
It led to the 1982 film and actually another in 1999 which i never heard of.
So there ya go. Little Orphan Annie, a character you probably dismissed as utterly uninteresting actually has one of the most interesting histories of any long running character still around.
I leave you with a medley from the musical. Personally i’d rather beat my own genitals with a hammer rather than have to sit through an entire performance of the show, but hey, that’s me. If i was an 8 year girl i would feel very, very differently and indeed know many who did.