In the annals of American cartooning few men have risen to nobler heights of pure foolishness than William Holman. As if born with fun-house mirrors for corneas, everything Holman sees has a zany twist. He is a master nut in the tradition of such past masters as Goldberg, Gross and Herriman.
While Holman’s Smoky Stover has delighted readers with outrageous gags for 22 years, Holman, the man, has provided a fascinating shower of anecdotes for his friends for most of his 54 years. Holman’s foibles are legendary. Many Holmanisms refer to his parsimonious resemblance to Jack Benny. Holman, they say affectionately, has spent 40 years working to the top of a hotly competitive profession, inspired by a passionate devotion to money. Holman would be the last to quarrel with these observations.
Although Holman is not considered a lavish spender (his money is completely tied up in cash), John Pierotti recalls at least one exception: “I roomed with Bill on one European tour with Wilson McCoy, Hilda Terry, and Bill de la Torre. On our last night in Germany we drank and ate it up real good. Came the bill, we discovered we were broke because we had spent our last marks on shopping sprees. But Holman, as usual, had hoarded his. It was the only time I saw Bill stuck with a check.”
In seeming contradiction to the legend, more than one artist in distress could tell of considerable Holman financial help. One close friend observed that both pictures are true and Holman is a man with conflicting impulses. His nature, generous and outgoing, is restrained by a conservative midwest rearing and early years of financial insecurity.
It was while tending a popcorn machine in a dime store that Holman, age 16, abandoned his early ambition to be a fireman and went to Chicago to study cartooning under Carl Ed at the Academy of Fine Arts. He started his career that year as a copy boy for the Chicago Tribune for $6 a week. Among his new cronies were Garret Price and Harold Gray.
For $35 a week Holman moved on to Cleveland to draw a strip called “Billville Birds”. It was here that he met two men who became his lifelong friends: a fellow wearing a fur collar, named J. R. Williams, and a tall, skinny blond (with whom he was to swipe gags from the local vaudeville house) named Chic Young.
At 21, Holman felt prepared to move to the big time and New York. “Holman was a success right from the start in New York”, says Reamer Keller. “He got a job at Hubert’s Flea Circus. He’d lay down every evening at five and let the fleas feed on his head. The job kept Bill in scratch for a long time.” This episode is not fully documented, but it is certain that Holman’s itch to become a top cartoonist was unrelieved.
He started a strip, “G. Whizz Jr.” [make that “Gee Whiz Jr.” – Allan], with the Herald Tribune. The Tribune syndicate office in the 1920’s was a colorful rallying place and Holman was completely at home. The great Winsor McCay, smoke curling under his straw hat, presided over an India ink court of cartoonists and assorted actors and publicists who came to roost. It was here that W. C. Fields taught Holman to juggle. He can still bounce a few off the walls with finesse. Will Rogers often dropped by. Also on view were Charles Voight, Clare Briggs and Frank Fogarty.
Frank recalls the then 26 year old Holman. “He held second base on the ‘Syndicate Indoor Baseball Team’ which played outdoors against ‘Ward Morehouse’s Editorials’ in the rooftop league, atop the Tribune building. Once Bill hit a tremendous wallop into 40th Street. Gathering up speed on its ten story descent, the ball tore through a woman’s umbrella and completely destroyed it. The lady sued the Tribune and Bill was the first baseball player benched for hitting.”
Holman’s early concern of cash expenditures was not limited to his own. Listen to Dave Gerard: “In the early 30’s, Holman lived two stories above me on East 39th Street. Bandel Linn and I had been up on the newly completed Empire State Building. We called Holman from the top to stick his head out of the window and wave a towel so we could see him through the telescope, which he did. One day later Linn was in my room and called Holman’s room. “Holman”, he said, “Gerard and I are on top of the Empire State again. Wave the towel!” We watched Holman wave his towel frantically two stories above. We repeated the gag ten days running with Holman just as energetically waving his towel. Finally he exploded, “Look, for God’s sake! You guys are always broke! What’s the idea of paying a dollar-ten to go up on the Empire State Building every afternoon to see me wave my towel!”
Holman’s romantic escapades of that era are largely unrecorded. Otto Soglow supplies one, however, that reveals Holman as the Great Lover. “One day Bill found himself at Coney Island and ventured into the Tunnel of Love and discovered a female sitting on one of the painted rocks. She explained that she was left there by some guy who was getting too familiar. Bill saw a lot of the girl and sentimentally recalls her in his strip to this day. She was a Lithuanian; Notary Sojac was her name.” No Holmanisms are more inspired than Soglow’s.
Holman is almost as well known as a performer as he is a cartoonist. He has appeared in movies and worked on radio and TV. Abner Dean, who was on a panel show with Holman, Gus Edson and Soglow, says of Holman the performer, “Bill has the rare quality of being able to switch from comic to straight man. He becomes a stimulant. His essential zanyism lifts others out of any rut.”
The effect of Holman upon his audiences is unique. He instantly establishes rapport as he strides on stage dressed in a dark blue suit, dotted bow tie and perhaps a light blue sweater. His mouth clamps a lit cigar and his bald head is topped incongruously by a bright red fireman’s hat. Before the audience can quite absorb the initial visual onslaught, Holman barks in deadpan, “Cut out that laughing, you idiots!” or “Shut up, you crazy screwballs!” The effect is electric. They howl.
This approach has also provided his fellow performers with some queasy moments. Al Posen, long time friend and associate, had this experience: “We were putting on a show at the military hospital at Northport, L. I. The doctor in charge cautioned us not to make any reference to the mental condition of the patients as the audience would be made up of G.I.’s from the psychiatric ward. Bill evidently missed the briefing because as soon as he came on he began referring to the patients as a bunch of nuts and screwballs — and they loved it. Bill was probably the only man in the world who could get away with it. Obviously, the audience recognized him as one of their own.”
Holman cavorts overseas as if Europe were his home town of Crawfordsville, Indiana, where everybody knows him. He assumes that everyone from an obscure Arab in Morocco to a barmaid in a remote French village is a rabid Smoky Stover fan. This blithe assumption is incredible to his traveling companions only until they find it more often than not to be true. Gus Edson was one. “We were flying 7000 feet over the stormy North Atlantic when the pilot turned to Bill and said, ‘There’s a Norwegian weather ship right below us,’ and with that the pilot radioed the ship and told them, ‘I have Bill Holman aboard, famous American cartoonist who draws Smoky Stover.’ The ship radioed back, ‘Ask that crazy guy what Notary Sojac means!’ “
After almost 40 years of cartooning Holman retains all his youthful enthusiasm for his work. He takes pride in his craftsmanship. His gentle nature is always masked in a jest. He is incapable of a mean intention. His head is a jackpot of puns. His comedy fuse never stops sputtering. Holman looks and acts like an operator newly in from promoting P. T. Bamum’s latest oddities.
Marty Branner wrote this “Owed to Bill Holman”, dedicated to Mrs. Holman.
About that cartoonist who draws Smoky Stover.
You could grow old waiting for William to buy,
Yet, when you know Holman, he’s not a bad guy.
He once threw a dinner, and ‘twixt me and you
Bill paid the whole check and he never said “FOO”.
But of all his virtues, the best, be it said,
Is his wife Dolores, that gorgeous redhead.
Dolores, the best Holman authority of all, has this to say: “Life with Bill certainly isn’t dull. I never know if on a week’s notice I will be heading for Paris, the middlewest or Timbuktu. He does have a faculty for not hearing at times (when I want something) but then, aren’t most husbands like that? To use that old cliche, I’d do it again. You just gotta love that guy.”
We all do, Dolores, we all do.