10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Orphan Annie

Tribune Media Services
Tribune Media Services

From 1924 to 2010, cartoonist Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie comic strip presented the adventures of a plucky young girl with empty pupils who fell in and out of trouble at home and abroad while endearing herself to her adopted family. You’ve probably seen one of the many stage or screen musicals based on the strip, but you may not know some of the details behind Annie’s tenure in newspapers. Check out some facts about her origin, concerns over the strip’s violence, and which president pushed "Daddy" Warbucks into an early grave. (You can also check out our list of facts on the 1982 Annie feature film here.)

1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY LITTLE ORPHAN OTTO.

Harold Gray was originally a hired pencil, owning and operating an art studio in Chicago following his service in World War I. After Gray began assisting cartoonist Sidney Smith on a strip titled The Grumps, Gray decided he might like to try his hand creating his own. Believing a character who had no allegiance to family or society would free them up for adventures, he decided to make his protagonist an orphan. Originally a young boy named Otto, Gray decided to switch genders when he realized that of the 43 strips running at the time, only three featured women in prominent roles. Little Orphan Otto became Little Orphan Annie, entering syndication in 1924.

2. ANNIE WAS A FIGURE OF FEMALE EMPOWERMENT.

In stark contrast to the portrayal of women in popular culture of the time, Annie was no damsel in distress. Though she found a guardian in rich industrialist Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks, her tendency to get caught up in criminal schemes or political intrigue meant she was often in physical danger. But Annie was resourceful and wily, and usually able to extricate herself from those situations without needing to be rescued. Annie, wrote historian Elizabeth Maurer, was “neither ladylike nor cute ... she was the antithesis of Shirley Temple ... While she frequently ends up in dicey situations, she usually saves herself.” 

3. SHE PIONEERED MARKETING TO KIDS.

Tie-in merchandising and marketing to children is commonplace today, but the template for it may have been laid down by Annie’s first foray into multimedia. In 1930, the Little Orphan Annie radio program debuted, bringing with it a unique strategy of marrying entertainment with corporate messaging. The show was sponsored by Ovaltine and written by its advertising executives, who concocted several ways to get listeners to pick up the chocolate drink mix. Box tops could be mailed in and redeemed for Annie decoder rings and shake cups, the equivalent of an Avengers Big Gulp today.

4. HAROLD GRAY USED THE COMIC STRIP TO DELIVER POLITICAL PROPAGANDA.

A staunch conservative, Gray often used the powerful platform he had as a widely distributed cartoonist to comment on the politics of the day. Opposed to government interference in private financial affairs, in 1936 he ran a series of strips in which "Daddy" Warbucks is harassed by “political racketeers” and denounces virtually anyone holding public office. Newspaper editors were not pleased, claiming Gray was being too subversive for the funny pages. West Virginia's Huntington Herald-Dispatch pulled the strip and replaced it with a banner that read: “Deleted! For violation of reader trust!” The syndicate soon circulated word that Gray would be starting a new story, one free of any political subtext.

5. SOMETIMES THE STRIP GOT TOO VIOLENT FOR NEWSPAPERS.

One might not normally associate Little Orphan Annie with controversial content, but the carrot-topped crime-solver sometimes found herself pushing the envelope a little too far. For a 1956 story in which Annie runs afoul of a vicious street gang, papers including the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the Ohio State Journal suspended the strip for depictions of muggings, knives, and other unsavory content. Annie returned to their pages only after her dalliances with juvenile delinquents had come to an end.

6. THE STRIP GOT SUPERNATURAL.

In the 1930s, Gray attempted to make Annie’s adventures slightly more escapist for readers mired in the Depression. When Annie would get into scrapes, sometimes accomplices like the eight-foot-tall Punjab would appear, throwing a magic blanket over crooks and teleporting them into unknown planes of existence. Annie later met Mr. Am, a bearded sage who could apparently enter other dimensions and bring the dead back to life.  

7. SHE MADE A DIFFERENCE DURING WORLD WAR II.

Annie’s efforts in wartime weren’t limited to the comics pages. While she sunk a German submarine and foiled spy rings, kids longing to become one of her “Junior Commandos” made their mark in the real world by collecting scrap for the government. Even something as simple as kitchen fat could be repurposed to make glycerin, which had applications in both medicine and explosives. Gray was apparently so pleased with his character’s influence that he asked for extra gasoline coupons during the fuel ration. The local board turned down his request.

8. "DADDY" WARBUCKS DIED BECAUSE GRAY HATED FDR.

Gray could never stay away from his thinly-veiled political commentary for long. A stubborn opponent to president Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” the cartoonist was astonished to learn FDR was aiming for a fourth presidential term in 1944. By way of protest, Gray had Annie’s benefactor, “Daddy” Warbucks, die of a mysterious illness—one some readers suspected was death by way of being a capitalist hero. But when FDR himself passed away in 1945, Warbucks miraculously recovered after Gray revised his fate to being in a coma. The character said that “the climate here has changed since I went away,” a clear reference to new leadership in the Oval Office.

9. THE BROADWAY MUSICAL GAVE IT NEW LIFE.

After Gray died in 1968, Little Orphan Annie was passed to a series of successors, including former assistant Tex Blaisdell and cartoonist David Lettick. But their efforts proved unpopular, and Annie originals left the comics pages in 1974: Reruns of Gray's work took up residence on newspaper pages. When the 1977 Broadway adaptation became a smash hit, interest in the strip was revived. Artist Leonard Starr took over the strip in 1979, restoring it to much of its former popularity. Starr retired in 2000.

10. THE STRIP ENDED ON A CLIFFHANGER.

Contemporary times were not kind to Annie, who was appearing in less than 20 newspapers in 2010, when Tribune Media Services announced the strip's cancellation. Readers were left with a cliffhanger ending, with Annie captured by a war criminal dubbed the Butcher of the Balkans. The story was resolved in 2014, when Dick Tracy—another Tribune strip—continued "Daddy" Warbucks’s search for his missing adoptee. The trench-coated detective found her alive and well. She continues to appear sporadically in the Tracy strip, still devoid of any pupils.

10 Words & Phrases Coined in Comic Strips

iStock/crisserbug
iStock/crisserbug

Cartoons, comics, and newspaper comic strips might seem like an unusual source of new words and phrases, but English is such an eclectic language—and comic strips have always had daily access to such a vast number of people—that a few of their coinages have slipped into everyday use. Here are the etymological stories behind 10 examples of precisely that.

1. Brainiac

The most famous brainiac is a cold-hearted, hyper-intelligent adversary of Superman who first appeared as an alien in DC Comics’ Action Comic #242, “The Super-Duel In Space,” in 1958. But after releasing his first adventure, DC Comics discovered that the name was already in use for a do-it-yourself computer kit. In deference to the kit, Brainiac was turned into a “computer personality” and became the great villain. As a nickname for an expert or intellectual, his (and the kit’s) name slipped into more general use in English by the early 1970s.

2. Curate’s Egg

Like the curate’s egg is a 19th century English expression that has come to mean something comprised of both good and bad parts. It comes from a one-off cartoon entitled “True Humility” that appeared in the British satirical magazine Punch in November 1895. Drawn by the artist George du Maurier (grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier), the cartoon depicted a stern-looking bishop sharing breakfast with a young curate, who has unluckily been served a bad egg. Not wanting to make a scene in front of the bishop, the curate is shown eating the egg anyway, alongside the caption “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent.”

3. Goon

Goon is thought to originally derive from gony, an old English dialect word once used by sailors to describe cumbersome-looking seabirds like albatrosses and pelicans. Based on this initial meaning, in the early 1900s, goon came to be used as another word for an equally dull-looking or slow-witted person, and it was this that presumably inspired Popeye cartoonist EC Segar to create the character of Alice the Goon for his Thimble Theater series of comics in 1933. But it’s Segar’s portrayal of Alice—as a dutiful but impossibly strong 8-foot giantess—that went on to inspire the use of goon as a nickname for a hired heavy or thug, paid to intimidate or terrorize someone without asking questions, in 1930s slang.

4. Jeep

Jeep is popularly said to derive from an approximate pronunciation of the letters “GP,” which are in turn taken as an abbreviation of “general purpose” vehicle. If so, then jeep belongs alongside only a handful other examples (like deejay, okay, veep and emcee) in an unusual class of words that begin their life as a phrase, then become an abbreviation, and then a whole new word based on the abbreviation—but in the case of jeep, that’s probably not the entire story. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the spelling jeep was likely influenced by the character Eugene the Jeep, a yellow cat-like animal (that only ever made a jeep! jeep! noise) that also first appeared alongside Popeye in EC Segar’s Thimble Theater in 1936. Jeep was then adopted into military slang during the Second World War as a nickname for an inexperienced or enthusiastic new recruit, but eventually somehow came to establish itself as another name for a specialized military vehicle in the early 1940s and it’s this meaning that remains in place today.

5. Keeping Up With The Joneses

A Keeping Up With the Joneses strip from 1921
A "Keeping up with the Joneses" comic strip from 1921
Pop Momand, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Synonymous with the quiet rivalries between neighbors and friends, the idiom keeping up with the Joneses comes from the title of a comic strip created by the cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in 1913. Based partly on Momand’s own experiences in one of the wealthiest parts of New York, the strip ran for almost 30 years in the American press and even inspired a cartoon series during the height of its popularity in the 1920s. The eponymous Joneses—whom Momand wanted originally to call “The Smiths,” before deciding that “Joneses” sounded better—were the next-door neighbors of the cartoon’s central characters, but were never actually depicted in the series.

6. Malarkey

Etymologically, malarkey is said to somehow derive from the old Irish surname Mullarkey, but precisely how or why is unclear. As a nickname for rubbish or nonsense talk, however, its use in English is often credited to the American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan—better known as “TAD”—who first used it in this context in several of his Indoor Sports cartoon series in the early 1920s. But the spelling hadn’t been standardized yet. Once he spelled it Milarkey referring to a place, and in one famous example, depicting a courtroom scene, one of Dorgan’s characters exclaims, “Malachy! You said it: I wouldn’t trust a lawyer no further than I could throw a case of Scotch!” (Dorgan, incidentally, is also credited with giving the English language the phrases cat’s pajamas and drugstore cowboy.)

7. Milquetoast

Taking his name from the similarly bland breakfast snack “milk toast,” the character Caspar Milquetoast was created by the American cartoonist Harold T. Webster in 1924. The star of Webster’s Timid Soul comic strip, Caspar was portrayed as a quiet, submissive, bespectacled old man, whom Webster himself once described as the kind of man who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” His name has been used as a byword for any equally submissive or ineffectual person since the mid-1930s.

8. Poindexter

When Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat comic strip was adapted for television in the late 1950s, a whole host of new supporting characters was added to the cast, including a super-intelligent, labcoat-wearing schoolboy named Poindexter, who was the nephew of Felix’s nemesis, The Professor. Created by the cartoonist Joe Oriolo, Poindexter’s name—which was apparently taken from that of Oriolo’s attorney—had become a byword for a nerdish or intellectual person in English slang by the early 1980s.

9. Shazam

Shazam was coined in Whiz Comics #2 in February 1940, as the name of an old wizard who grants 12-year-old Billy Batson the ability to transform into Captain Marvel. The wizard’s name, Shazam, was henceforth also Captain Marvel’s magic word, with which he was able to call on the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

10. Zilch

As another word for “zero,” zilch has been used in English since the early '60s. But before then, from the 1930s onward, it was predominantly used as a nickname for any useless and hopeless character or non-entity or someone who didn't exist. In this context it was probably coined in and popularized by a series of cartoons that first appeared in Ballyhoo humor magazine in 1931, and which featured a hapless unseen businessman character named “President Henry P. Zilch.” Although it’s possible the writers of Ballyhoo created the name from scratch, it’s likely that they were at least partly inspired by an old student slang expression, Joe Zilsch, which was used in the 1920s in the same way as John Doe or Joe Sixpack would be today.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

Tony Stark’s Cabin From Avengers: Endgame Is Available for Rent on Airbnb

Robert Downey Jr. and Lexi Rabe in Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Robert Downey Jr. and Lexi Rabe in Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Marvel Studios

For fans who can't get enough of Avengers: Endgame, you can now book a weekend getaway in Tony Stark’s own cabin, courtesy of Airbnb, Complex reports. And it looks (for the moment, anyway) that there are still some available dates this summer.

According to Comicbook.com, this cabin is where Stark’s family lived during the film, and where he came to say his goodbyes toward its conclusion.

The cabin is located in Fairburn, Georgia, just 20 minutes away from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and can accommodate up to six guests. The listing boasts a central location while offering a wilderness retreat, saying: “Need to get away from it all without traveling more than 30 minutes from Atlanta? Need to have a corporate retreat with your elite team? Need to come take the kids fishing and watch a horse show? Then this is your place.”

The cabin was originally listed at $335 per night but has since gone up to $444 per night, most likely as a result of MCU fans catching on. It includes an indoor fireplace.

Even if Marvel Studios never responds to the viral petition calling for the return of Iron Man, at least fans can grieve Stark at this Georgia Airbnb while it still has availability.

[h/t Complex]

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