Monday, January 22, 2024
An Obscure Syndicate: Madison Features Service
We love H.T. Elmo here at Stripper's Guide, not because he was a great cartoonist ... because he wasn't ... but for his enduring and unassailable belief that there was some way to cadge a living from all those weekly newspapers published in the country. Elmo had his fingers in a lot of different pies over the years, but he always returned to the weekly syndicate concept despite undoubtedly never making any decent money out of it.
In 1949 Elmo came up with a new and unusual concept for a weekly feature syndicate. Rather than try to get money out of the newspaper owners (a task akin to panning for gold in your bathtub water) he would offer his cartoons for free, with the very small caveat that in exchange for using the cartoons the newspaper would give him a little ad space. A barter system, in other words. Ad space is worth money, even in crummy weekly papers, so the plan seemed to make a lot of sense. The only problem was that Elmo had nothing to sell in this ad space.
But luckily Elmo had friends who did. The Baron family of Wappingers Falls, New York, who were in the drugstore business, had come up with an ointment for dogs with mange. They called the stuff Goodwinol (after a vet named Dr. Goodwin who helped test the stuff). The Barons and Elmo got together and formed a company called Madison Features Service (why Madison? I haven't a clue.) Elmo would produce the cartoons and do the marketing to newspapers, and the Barons would pay him to do this in exchange for all the free ad space being given to Goodwinol.
The syndicate was formed in November 1949. Elmo got the ball rolling with a list of early adopter clients and then sent promotion material to weekly papers all over the country. And here is that mailer:
|Initial Fold-Out Page
|Main Promo Fold-Out
Okay, so the mailer isn't the easiest thing to read, considering it breaks every rule of layout you can think of. But you have to give this mailer points for a sense of frantic energy, I suppose. In the midst of the breathless screaming type, the details do emerge. The syndicate was offering a menu of features, and you could have one of them in exchange for 6 column-inches of spaces, or you could get two or more for 4" per feature. So if you took all four (the pictured features would turn out to be the only ones available), you'd get a half-way decent partial page of comics, and in exchange you owed Madison Features 16 column inches of ad space.
Looking at the four features offered, you just might discern a certain sameness to the art. Of course that's because Elmo was producing them all himself. But as was his habit, to make the operation look bigger (or utterly ridiculous to those who have eyes) he assigned ghost names. The Fumble Family he took for himself, while The Totsy Twins was assigned to Ben Baron, The Latest Laugh to "Nibby" (or to Leah Baron in the copyright submission), and World-Wide Wonders to Howard (or Howard Baron in the copyright paperwork). The Barons, of course, were the family paying the bills to get this venture off the ground.
The promo package also shows that the syndicate already had a pretty nice sounding client list. New York, Miami, Jacksonville ... wow! But of course they were all tiny papers. The most interesting one in the group is the New York Enquirer. This is the paper that would become The National Enquirer just a few years later in 1952. In the 1920s and 30s, I am told, it was a weekly that tried out new ideas for Hearst, ones he didn't want in his regular papers yet -- not even the Mirror! For that reason I'd LOVE to see some issues, but they are about as scarce as author-signed copies of the Bible.
Unfortunately, not one of the papers in Elmo's ring of mastheads seems to be available online, but I did manage to find a few papers that took the bait. The earliest I can find is the New York Age (a black paper), that ran some strips in December 1949. Others straggled in during 1950. Despite the small sampling I can pretty confidently say that the scheme did not work out nearly as well as planned. Luckily for us, Elmo loved to number his strips, and since the highest numbered strip of any of these I can find is #24, less than a half-years worth of weekly strips seems to have been produced. That certainly doesn't bespeak a big success.
But why didn't the scheme work out? I mean, on the face of it the deal was not a bad one, and weekly papers are notorious penny-pinchers, so why didn't they take the bait? It turns out that it wasn't so much that they didn't take the bait, but when they did they failed to play by the rules set out by Madison Features. In all the papers I found that ran the features, I found almost none of them printing the Goodwinol ads! They accepted the strips (all of'em), ran them, and when it came time to print the ads, they rarely even bothered.
No doubt the Barons were devastated by the unscrupulousness of these publishers, but I bet Mr. Elmo wasn't quite so surprised. After all, he'd been trying with little success to wring money out of weeklies for years. But I imagine even so he was at least a little taken aback that the baseness of these publishers went beyond even tight-fistedness with actual money to reneging on easily-kept promises. But bizarrely enough, it never stopped him. Elmo would be back again later, knocking on the weeklies doors again and again.
One little piece of good news to end this little story. Goodwinol survived their initial marketing misery, and the company is still around today, offering an entire line of pet and livestock animal care products.