News of Yore 1948: Gasoline Alley’s Frank King Profiled (and an Information Request)

NOTICE: This is a nice article about Frank King, but the real reason I’m running it is to solicit information on the current status of Gasoline Alley. Jeffrey Lindenblatt has notified me that there have been no new Gasoline Alley strips since November 11 2017 (daily) and December 24 2017 (Sunday). Is Jim Scancarelli okay? Has he retired from the strip, or is this just a vacation? Will Gasoline Alley be returning or is it going zombie on us?


 He’s the King of Gasoline Alley

by Joseph Hearst (originally printed in Chicago Tribune, March 28 1948) 


Frank King, the genial, little gray haired man with the bright blue eyes who in 30 years has brought three generations of the Wallet family to millions of readers of his famous cartoon strip Gasoline Alley, foresees a happy and pleasant future for the Wallets “There will be more of them, and they will continue to have their ups and downs in life as they have in the past,” he said as he sat in his pleasant home on the shore of Lake Tohopekaliga in central Florida, where he and Mrs. King have lived for 18 years. “Eventually Chipper will grow up and the day will come when Skeezix will make the change from father to grandfather, just as Walt did. And there are Corky and Judy to think about, too. I really have quite a family on my hands.”

King, who became dean of The Chicago Tribune cartoonists when John T. McCutcheon retired, had no particular plans for a Wallet family when in 1918 he drew the first Gasoline Alley cartoon and included it in a page of panels he called The Rectangle. Within a year the Alley became a daily strip, built around the bachelor Walt and his neighbors and cronies who gathered in Gasoline Alley to tinker with their cars.

“The late Capt. Joe Patterson decided there had to be a baby in the strip,” King recalled. “I pointed out that as Walt was a bachelor it would take quite a little time to bring that about, what with a courtship, marriage, and all. But Capt. Patterson said he was in a hurry to get a baby in the picture so we decided to make Skeezix a doorstep baby.”

With a baby on his ink-stained hands, King decided that it was going to have a normal life, growing year by year, and in that decision he was a pioneer among cartoonists, the first to let his characters take on age. In carrying it out he has moved Skeezix from diapers into grade school, thru high school, into the war, marriage with Nina, parenthood and thru the postwar conversion period into the business of Wallet & Bobble.

“It’s an odd thing that everyone who reads the strip seems to know that Skeezix is a doorstop baby but that many persons are confused about the parentage of Corky and Judy,” King said. “Every week I get letters asking about the two younger children, usually from persons who say they want to settle a bet.

“Corky, you will recall, is the son of Walt and Phyllis, but Judy was left in the Wallet car and adopted by the Wallets. We changed the technique a little in her case and instead of calling her a doorstep baby she was called the “running board baby.”

Reaction expressed by readers in their letters over the years has convinced King that persons are more broadminded or blase now than they were when Corky was “born.”

“That was in 1928,” he continued, “and as the time approached for Corky to take his place in the strip I occasionally indicated that Phyllis was about to become a mother. 1 did it as subtly as I could but even so I received many protests. Letter writers charged that it was immodest and shocking, and not the sort of thing for children to see.

“Well, when Chipper was on the way I made it much plainer in the pictures that Nina was going to become a mother, and there wasn’t a single letter of protest. But I did get some protesting letters later when some of the scenes indicated that Nina was nursing a baby.”

King received a fair volume of mail from the men and women who follow, apparently almost as closely as he does, the Wallet fortunes. Some offer suggestions (seldom taken) free or for cash; others demand that some favorite character not currently figuring in the continuity be returned to action. And if a mistake slips into the drawings it is sure to result in a flood of letters.

“In one scene recently we showed Skeezix getting some bananas out of the refrigerator, and the reaction was immediate,” he said. “I remember that one indignant woman said: ‘putting bananas in an icebox; what a dumb guy.”

King tries to answer all the letters, but he concedes that he is a poor correspondent and that frequently there is a long lapse between receipt of a letter and his answer.

 “I have a letter system that works fairly well, altho sometimes it gets me into trouble,” he explained. “First, I let the mail stack up until there is a pile about a foot high. Then, when I get a little time I sort it into three piles. Letters that must be answered go into one pile, letters that should be answered go into another, and letters that can be answered later go into a third.

“Then I take the three neat piles, place them in folders marked “must,” “should,” and “later” and file them neatly away until I have time to attend to them.”

There is one type of letter King has enjoyed getting and to which he replies quickly. After he established Skeezix in business with his repair shop, gas station, and radio repair department he began to receive letters asking for permission to establish actual “Wallet & Bobble” shops.

“Most of them came from former servicemen,” King said.

“In each case where it was an ex-G.I. or a sailor who wanted to use the name I told him to go ahead, and I believe there are about 30 such shops in the country now. But I’ve turned down those who weren’t in the service. Why, one fellow in New York wanted to put the thing on a national basis, and another fellow came from Oklahoma to see me with a proposition.”

King, his assistants, and Mrs. King scan the strips closely for slips and do considerable research to keep them accurate. Mrs. King is the authority on women’s styles and sees to it that her husband keeps the feminine members of the Wallet family attired in the proper fashions.

She also shares with her husband the task of selecting names for new characters, and apparently no fond parent ever exercised more care in naming his offspring than the Kings do with the actors in Gasoline Alley.

“I guess we studied the choice of a name for Nina’s baby for two weeks,” King said “We compiled a tentative list from a book of names the infant stores sell to prospective parents, and we added a few of our own choice. Finally we cut the list down to about 30 that we considered likely to strike the public’s fancy and stick in their memories. Chipper was the final choice.”
Selecting the name of Walt 30 years ago wasn’t so difficult, for Walt was one of the two characters in the Alley named for real persons. Walter Drew, brother of Mrs. King and a resident of Chicago for many years until his death, was a jolly bachelor with on unruly lock of hair, the inspiration for the original central figure of the strip.

“The other person I transferred to the cartoon is Bill Gannon, who lives at 1040 Catalpa St., in Chicago, and who is the ‘Bill’ in the Alley,” King said. “But those two were the only real life persons I ever portrayed. Many persons thought they saw themselves as the various characters, but all the others, Phyllis, Rachel, Doc, Avery, and their friends were drawn from imagination.”

King’s assistants are Bill Perry, who has worked with him 22 years and who also draws Ned Handy for The Sunday Tribune, and Val Heinz, a young man he picked out of the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago two years ago. The three work a regular schedule in King’s studio in his home. They start their day at 9 a. m. and work until 4 p. m. with time out for lunch. They do this five days a week, keeping six weeks ahead on the daily strip and 10 weeks ahead on the Sunday page.

“I stay pretty close to home and so do most of my work here, but there were days in the early stages of the Alley when I used to travel a good deal by car, and I often worked away from the office,” King recalled.

“I sometimes pulled up off the road—they were dirt roads mostly in those days—and worked for a few hours. And many a time I have gotten a room in a hotel and used a dresser drawer for a drawing board. Now about the only work I do away from home is when I go to Chicago.”

If you are a Gasoline Alley fan and hope to meet King, you won’t have much luck tracking him down, for you won’t find him in the telephone book. He has lived without a telephone for 18 years.

“It isn’t that I ever had anything against the telephone,” he explains, “but when we built our home here we couldn’t get one. It seemed inconvenient at first, but after a while we discovered that it was rather nice not to have one in the house. Recently we decided to get a phone, only to discover that, just as 18 years ago, there is none available.”

The Kings live in the heart of some of the best fishing and hunting territory in Florida but they find their hobbies more interesting than seeking the wild turkey, quail, and wild pig to be found on the 250 acres of their farm or on the lands nearby.

“I did considerable hunting and fished the large mouth bass that abound in the lake when we first came down here, but now I find more interest in photografy, clay modeling, weaving, and working in my printshop,” King said.

His liking for the printshop is a throwback to his high school days in Tomah, Wis., where he set type by hand at 50 cents a column in the weekly newspaper shop. Even at that figure he made almost as much as he did in his first days in the art department of newspapers.

“I guess I’ve been drawing one thing or another ever since I was three years old and practiced on the wallpaper at home,” he said. “In high school I used to adorn the edge of my examination papers with little cartoons. I wasn’t trying to show off, but I figured it would distract the teacher’s attention and she wouldn’t check my answers too closely. Worked, too, because I got thru school all right.”

King was still in high school when a traveling salesman saw a sample of his work and helped him land a job on the Minneapolis Times.

“A friend who was working his way thru school asked me to fix up a sign for his boot-black stand at the hotel,” King said. “I drew the sign and ornamented it with some cartoons. That’s what caught the salesman’s eye- He talked to my father about the possibilities of a job in Minneapolis, sent some of my work to the editor, and helped me write a letter applying for a job.”

King was then 18 and had never had an art lesson. In Minneapolis he did layouts, courtroom sketches, and whatever chores the boss thought of. It paid $6 a week at the start and he was making $12 a week when he quit in 1905 to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago.

“I felt I had done pretty well, doubling my salary,” he smiled. “Moreover, the Times closed down a month after I quit, but I never thought my departure had anything to with its demise.

“One day in Chicago I dropped into the office of the American to see M. Koenigsberg, who had been on the Minneapolis Times,” King continued. “I wasn’t looking for a job but he assumed I was and put me to work helping out in the art department on Saturdays. About a year after I had been at the academy I went over to the Examiner to see an old friend, Walter Curtis, who was head of the art department.

“Curtis had just been replaced by Dom Lavin, who later headed The Tribune’s art department, and like Koenigsberg, he assumed I was looking for a job. He asked me if I’d ever worked on a newspaper and when I told him I had, he told me to take off my coat and get to work. So I went to work at $12 a week and three years later I was earning $25 a week.”

King laughed as he recalled that he left the Examiner because he couldn’t get a raise of $2.50 a week. “I had an offer of $27.50 a week from The Tribune and I wanted to take it mighty bad but I first gave the Examiner an opportunity to meet it,” he said. “I was delighted when they didn’t.”

So in 1909 King began his association with The Tribune and he likes to recall that every Sunday issue since 1910 has carried something from his pen. In 1911 he and his high school sweetheart of Tomah days, Delia Drew, were married at Tomah.

The Kings have one son, Drew King of Chicago.

“I think he would have made a good cartoonist, but he wasn’t interested,” King said. “I guess he saw so much of it as a boy he became bored with it. He used to say it was too bad his father was a cartoonist, because everyone called him Skeezix.”

5 comments on “News of Yore 1948: Gasoline Alley’s Frank King Profiled (and an Information Request)

  1. Currently the GA strips are from 2007.
    Tribune has (apparently) said this is what the are getting from the creator, and they will happily forward postal mail. I know the last I heard Jim S did not go online.

  2. As of Feb. 2020, the Gasoline Alley strips have been first-run for many months. Old recurring characters such as Corky and Chipper have reappeared, along with T-bone and Terry, employees at Corky’s Diner. New supporting characters such as waitress Baleen and Chipper’s fellow physician assistant Glabella have been introduced. The strip was particularly popular in the 30s and 40s when comic strips were perhaps the most widely read fiction in America. After more than a century it’s still the never ending story its original creator came to envision.

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