Obscurity of the Day: Tommy of the Big Top

For some reason John Lehti’s delightful Tommy of the Big Top strip never found its audience. The art was wonderful, the stories good, but it just never seemed to take off. Perhaps an early sign of the demise of the story strip?

The strip started 10/28/1946. Young Tommy was living with his older sister, the parents not in the picture for reasons I haven’t discovered. Sister, who looks to be a teenager, is being successfully courted by a loathsome fellow, and Tommy wants nothing more than to be out of the picture in case the pair get married.

A circus comes to town and he resolves to join it, and our sample strips show a snippet of that sequence. Continuing this sequence the circus manager insists that the sister give permission for Tommy to join the circus. To keep the story from bogging down at that point, Lehti has good ol’ sis acquiesce to the proposal without so much as batting an eye. So Tommy is off on his adventures with the circus.

What I like about the strip is that it tries not to follow the well-worn path of just having the circus as a backdrop for stories about the kid solving mysteries and foiling crimes. The stories (at least as much as I’ve read of the strip) really try to evoke the exotic atmosphere of circus life, and the adventures are down to earth and believable. The stories very deliberately try to evoke the thrills and mysteries of circus life. In this era, running away with the circus was a standard youthful obsession, and Lehti milks that desire like a real pro by showing kids a highly sanitized but nevertheless exciting view of what a kid might experience if he or she acted on the fantasy.

Tommy of the Big Top ended sometime in 1950 (can anyone supply a specific date?) and Lehti went on to have far more success with his Bible story strip, Tales From The Great Book.

11 comments on “Obscurity of the Day: Tommy of the Big Top

  1. Hi Juri –
    Lehti was born in Brooklyn according to the biography in Goulart’s Encyclopedia of American Comics. No mention of his family history.


  2. Tommy of the Big Top Sundays were still being reprinted in 1954, in Denmark’s Skipper Skraek magazine. Their strips were usually 6 months behind the original publishing date. I’ll let you know if I can find out more.

  3. Hi Peter –
    Tommy was a daily-only strip, so there should be no Sundays. I’ll be interested to hear more from you on what those Danes were up to!


  4. I was looking for some info on my father, John lehti, and ran across your site. Juri is right he was of finnish extraction and right now in Finland an author is finishing, no pun intended, a book on finnish american artists to be available soon, of course in Finnish. I have alot of information on my dad and a lot of his original work..I am his only child and am looking right now to have someone do a retrospective of his work, included in his originals are three paintings that appeared as illustrations in the early pulps..I have a lot of the dailies on Tommy and lots of other originals..trying to figure out what to do with it all…Sandra Lehti-Culjak

  5. Hi Sandra –
    Any info you could provide on John’s comic strip work would be of great interest to me and the blog readers. One thing that has me wondering is regarding “Facts About The Bible”. I still find that running in some papers, so I assume it was sold in batches. Do you know how many installments were done? Is it just reworked versions of “Tales From the Great Book” or was it new material? Is the syndicate, Linage-Plus, your dad’s company or a syndicate that he sold the rights to?

    Inquiring minds wanna know!

    –Allan Holtz

  6. alan, Facts is an off shoot of Tales and was set up with enough material to run 10 years in fact it has been running 30 years now and there is still interest enough for it to keep running especially in the bible belt…when my dad stopped doing Tales in ’72 some people approached him about doing a sunday bible fact feature for church pages and he put it together and it has been running ever since. my personal take on Tommy was that when my dad returned from WWII anything about running away to such an idylic, fun world was something he wanted to do if only in the pages of a newspaper strip..he served with terry allen’s timberwolves and saw a tremendous amount of fighting through all of europe aand they helped open up some of the german concentration camps which memories and smell he could never get out of his head and running was something he very much felt like doing..he stared tommy right after arriving back from germany he said that the whole comic business was wide open then with everyone returning form the war and all of the old time cartoonist were a crazy bunch..i remember them as a child..i have wonderful drawings my dad did of wartime activities he did while “touring” europe..sorry this has taken so long to get back to you but lifwe has a way of intervening..hope this info is helpful…sandra lehti-culjak

  7. Hi Sandra –
    Thanks very much for the additional info about your dad.

    A few questions:
    1) I haven’t seen any “Tales” from beyond 1971. Do you know the specific end date in ’72?
    2) Did “Facts” gets started pretty much right after “Tales” ended, or was there significant time in between. In my collection I don’t have any “Facts” from before the 80s.
    3) Is the art and story in “Facts” just sort of rejiggered “Tales” material, or did your dad actually produce new material for this version?


  8. Tommy of the Big Top began when I was six or seven, and a year or two later my uncle's wife gave me the Standard Tommy comic #11 that her brother had left with her. Around 1990, my wife and I put out a monthly fanzine for comic strip collectors (which didn't last because we couldn't get enough ads), but I mentioned my interest in Tommy of the Big Top. In our final issue, we reran an ad a dealer in strip originals had placed earlier, just to fill up space, and he must have done some blockbuster business from the free ad, because in the mail I soon received a complimentary Tommy original from him. What a nice surprise that was! Joe

  9. For many years John Lehti has been connected with the Tarzan daily strip from UFS.

    Several sources, including Maurice Horn`s Encyclopedia, writes that Lehti helped Dan Barry with the Dailies in 1948-49.
    As late as in 2018, in The Complete Burne Hogarth Dailies and Sundays (Titan Books), Henry G Franke III mention that Lehti worked on Tarzan in the late 1940s.

    Other sources tells that Emil Gerswhin was the man that ghosted Lord of the Jungle, when Dan Barry could not do all the work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *