Thursday, January 12, 2012


Obscurity of the Day: The Theatrical Alphabet

If the excruciatingly awful rhymes perpetrated in the samples above haven't turned your gray matter into a bubbling ooze pooling around your ankles, let me tell you that this is some mighty rare stuff you're looking at. The Theatrical Alphabet is a series Cole Johnson found in the Baltimore Herald, an obscure newspaper of 1900-1906 that might be totally forgotten had not H.L. Mencken alit there for a few years.

Cole says of this item:
Here's a local strip from the Baltimore Herald. I've seen "Hamb"'s work before. This is a very primitive section, with a mix of real artists and cro-magnons, such as Morrison, T. Barnes, Fenderson (unsigned), W.M. Goodes, C. Toles, Sissel, J.C. Mayer, Mark Dintenfass, Fithian (dated "99"), all one-shots but for this item, in April and May, 1901. The insides feature "M. Quad's Page", and the saga of "Mr. Bowser" , illustrated by McDougall, longtime staples of the McClure syndicate. In September, this paper picked up the McClure comic section. Did McClure syndicate cartoons before the section was introduced?
Whether this section of the first half of 1901 in the Herald was indeed some sort of proto-McClure section I don't know. McClure's 'official' comics section debuted on 4/28/1901 and had continuing series from the start. I do, however, think I can ID "Hamb" -- I think this is A.Y. Hambleton, who later did a little work for the Philadelphia North American.

Update: Acting on a tip from alert reader Fram,  I have determined that the poem "The Theatrical Alphabet" is indeed considered part of the H.L. Mencken canon by S.T. Joshi, who is an authority on the subject. The poem, properly attributed to the Sunday comic section of the Baltimore Herald, is included in Joshi's book of Mencken verse, Collected Poems. I had wondered if the poem might have been previously published elsewhere and then later re-used by Hambleton, but it appears that the Sunday comics were the original publishing locale of the poem. However, though I am a definite Mencken fan, I still stick by my opinion that the poem is awful. But pretty cool that one of the most erudite writers of the 20th century actually penned a comic strip!


Note that these "excruciatingly awful rhymes" may well have been written by H. L. Mencken himself, considering that he also performs it if we are to believe this
Mark Dintenfass? The film mogul?
Very exciting that Mencken may have penned a poem for the Sunday comics section (even if it was a stinker)! Unfortunately other than that youtube video I'm not finding any info online. Does anyone know the background of that poem, or do I need to order a copy of Collected Poems of HL Mencken?

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