Thursday, March 05, 2015
Obscurity of the Day: Ecolo/Jest
If you are 50 or older, Jose Jimenez probably needs no introduction. The Hispanic alter-ego of comedian Bill Dana was pretty darn funny to us in those days when certain racist caricatures were still considered perfectly acceptable prime time fare on TV. Here's a taste:
Around 1970 Dana was getting enough heat from Hispanic groups who were offended by his character that he decided it was time to retire it. To his credit, Jose was his bread and butter and had made him a household name, so that wasn't an easy decision.
Though Dana continued in comedy, he never recovered the level of fame he had in the 60s. In the early 70s he also got interested in ecology, though, and started doodling cartoons on the subject. He showed them to a friend at the Honolulu Advertiser, and somehow they ended up in the hands of the LA Times Syndicate.
The minor problem that Dana was completely and utterly inept as a cartoonist (he later admitted as much) didn't seem to bother the LA Times Syndicate. They seemed to think that the combination of Dana's name recognition and the timely subject matter would grease the skids and have newspaper editors lining up to sign on. Why they didn't assign Dana an artist collaborator, seemingly an obvious solution, is anyone's guess.
Here's the spin the syndicate applied in their promotional material:
The stark art form of Ecolo/Jest sometimes leaves it visually to the reader's imagination to fill in his own local area that also would be affected if people refuse to care about their natural resources.
He [Dana] admits to not being a professional artist, but his ideas more than make up for it.
When you have to apologize for your cartoonist's lack of ability twice in a promo, that should really tell you that the marketing game plan just might need a little tweaking.
Historian Mark Johnson, who supplied me the initial proof that this obscure feature ever made it into newspapers, takes Ecolo/Jest with a dose of levity: "Is this the worst syndicated panel? The scribbling over the art, as if every single one was a reject, was a nice touch."
In fairness, Bill Dana certainly had his heart in the right place. But to expect newspapers to pay for stick figures and scribbles every day, with a message that droned on a single note, certainly took a lot of chutzpah.
Ecolo/Jest debuted with LA Times Syndicate on June 21 1971, possibly after a trial run in the Honolulu Advertiser or Star-Bulletin (Dana says it started as a local feature, but cites each of the Honolulu papers in different venues). According to Dana, the feature started out with a pretty healthy client list of over 75 papers. Subscribers weren't sticking with it, though, and on March 13 1972, seeing that the subject matter might be too thin to support a daily cartoon, Dana renamed the panel Head/Lines and varied the cartoon to comment on additional issues besides the environment.
The change in direction didn't help, because the panel seems to have succumbed on June 10 1972. Apparently Price/Stern/Sloan Publishers didn't get the memo, because they offered a book reprinting the cartoons that year, issuing it after the panel had ended. Dana apparently still has a batch of these books, because on his website he offers his fans personalized copies.
One odd footnote to this story is that Price/Stern/Sloan issued another Dana book, titled Clean Air, Clean Water and other Memories in 1991. Almost twenty years after the end of the series, Dana teamed up with cartoonist Rick Penn-Kraus to redraw some of the cartoons from the original series, plus a selection of new ones.
The JJ character was so poular in the early 1960's he had several fan clubs, and his own sitcom in 1963/4( "The Bill Dana Show"), where he played a bumbling bellhop at a swanky hotel. Jonathan Harris ("Dr. Smith") was the humorless manager and Don Adams played the incompetant house detective. I really liked it when I was a kid, but in more recent viewings, it's pretty bad.