Obscurity of the Day: Otto Watt

We’ve discussed radio page features here on quite a few occasions, and Otto Watt is another from that genre. In the 1920s, the new technological marvel of radio was a fascination for practically everyone. Imagine having entertainment piped right into your home 24 hours a day, without even so much as a wire (well, except for that electrical cord)! It is hard today to even imagine the impact that radio had on American homes in that exciting decade. Before the US became a nation of television couch potatoes, radio already had our behinds firmly attached to the couch, and spreading.

Otto Watt was among the more successful of the daily radio page features for one overriding reason: it packed its entertainment into a very small footprint. As a longish single-column cartoon, newspapers didn’t feel their precious space being pinched too much, and certainly the ever-growing sea of type listing the radio programs needed that bit of graphic interest. Comic strips and two- to three-column panel cartoons were just too much space to lose on a daily basis, and so long after most of the other radio panels and strips had gone off the air, Otto Watt persevered.

The panel debuted on August 31 1925 to a smallish but good client list of newspapers. It was distributed by Associated Editors, a minor syndicate which specialized mostly in panels, and did best with specialized features for various sections of the newspaper, like Otto Watt. The feature was written by Barrie Payne, who also supplied gags for a golf panel for the same syndicate. Although primarily a writer, apparently he could draw as well, as he did a comic strip later under his byline alone.

The art was by Fred Neher, who also supplied art on Barrie Payne’s golf panel. Neher would later on prosper off of a rather generic panel gag feature called Life’s Like That, which for some reason found its way into a large client list of papers.

Neher was a perfect choice for this tall thin panel because his art, while not particularly exciting, was very clear and uncluttered. Perfect to get a gag across without a lot of fuss.

The minor success of Otto Watt was evidently not quite enough to keep the creators happy. On September 26 1927, Neher’s art was replaced by that of Nick Nichols, who had come on board with the syndicate to start a new weekly strip, The Adventures of Peter Pen. Soon Barrie Payne left, and as of November 10 Nichols was taking sole credit. Nichols gave Otto Watt a great burst of energy. The cartoonist liked continuities, and somehow managed to shoehorn them into the tiny space afforded by Otto Watt.

Late in the decade, Nichols may have been feeling he might be on a sinking ship as other radio features bit the dust, and he decided to take a powder after two years. On April 1 1929 the panel was handed over to a fellow named Paul Sell. I know nothing about this cartoonist’s background, but he brought the same sort of energy to the panel as Nichols. Perhaps the two kindred spirits found that they liked the cut of each others jib, because only a few months later, Nick Nichols returned as the writer of the feature.

Nick Nichols’ writing byline was added on July 1 1929, and he brought back the continuities that he so enjoyed writing. However, the problem of a shrinking subscriber list seemed to continue, and it certainly wasn’t helped by the first blasts of the Great Depression later that year. As the new decade of the 30s began, I notice that the Associated Editors syndicate stamps disappear from Otto Watt. While no other syndicate takes credit, I have heard that Nick Nichols did run his own syndicate.I wonder if he took over syndication of this panel when Associated Editors no longer considered the panel worthy of their distribution?

Nichols and Sell added a new feature to their cartoons in 1930, a small additional panel at the bottom of each installment titled Snappy Endings. Ideas were solicited, and credit was given, to reader submitted gags. While this did nothing to resurrect the client list, it did result in one interesting entry, seen below from unfortunately blurry microfilm:

It’s hard to make out, but the reader submission in the February 15 1930 edition is from a fellow by the name of Berne (not yet having settled on ‘Burne’) Hogarth. The young Hogarth, eventually a cartooning giant, was 19 years old and, according to some accounts, working at Associated Editors at this time, so it’s not too surprising that he’d supply a gag.

Otto Watt appears to have finally fizzled out on August 2 1930, or at least that’s as far as I can track it. That makes it one of the longest running radio-related cartoons, certainly worthy of some note in the scheme of things.

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