Friday, November 21, 2014

Roy Anderson Ketcham (1894-1969)

Few artists are as accomplished in fine art as they are in cartooning and illustration. Roy Anderson Ketcham was one of them. Described as "a strapping big blond--a good cross between an Apollo and a college football center," (1) Ketcham studied in Indianapolis, Paris, and Provincetown, won two prizes for his paintings at the Hoosier Salon and other prizes in New York, exhibited among well known Chicago artists, and taught at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. He also drew a nationally syndicated comic strip and two comic panels.

Born on November 11, 1894, in Sandborn, Indiana, hardworking Roy Ketcham grew up in Indianapolis, where he attended Shortridge High School and delivered newspapers for the Indianapolis Star. His parents, Lewis (or Louis) M. and Sarah M. Anderson Ketcham, were not well off. If he was going to attend art school, Ketcham would have to earn his own tuition and expenses, so every morning, he arose at two o'clock to deliver newspapers on a route just southeast of downtown. "Seems as if I had hundreds of customers," Ketcham recalled, "about three times as many as most of the carriers." (2) Covering his route by bicycle, Ketcham hurried to get his work done before school. By eight o'clock he was in class.

At the same time he was attending Shortridge High School, Ketcham was taking classes at the Herron School of Art under William Forsyth and Clifton Wheeler. He studied at Herron from 1910 to 1913. Among his classmates were Wayman Adams, Minnie Ellsworth Bartlett, Clotilde Embree Funk, Carl C. Graf, Marie Gray, William F. HeitmanCobb Shinn, and the botanist J.E. PotzgerAnother fellow student, Grace Spear, remembered Ketcham as "a popular, likeable [sic] boy. He also was a musician and attended music school along with his art classes. He was a busy lad, also working in his spare moments." (3)

Ketcham's last session at Herron came to an end in June 1913, presumably at about the same time he graduated from high school. A moment of decision seemed upon him, but his uncle came to the rescue by paying for further schooling. In August 1913, eighteen-year-old Roy Ketcham left Indianapolis for New York City, there to embark for France and studies at the Académie Julian under Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921)Ketcham was in Paris when war broke out in August 1914. How he returned to the United States is a story known perhaps only to his surviving family members. In 1915 he won the Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney mural prize, presumably in New York. (4) He also won an award from the Art Students League in that city.

Roy Ketcham studied for a season with the portraitist and genre painter Charles Hawthorne (1872-1930) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and won a prize for his work there. By then, however, exhaustion had set in and the artist began suffering from poor eyesight. Repairing to his father's farm in Loogootee, in Martin County, Indiana, Ketcham spent the next several years in seclusion, pitching hay, working a team of mules, and operating a corn cultivator. "My feeling for painting was gone," he remembered. "It was like being lost."

It wasn't long before Ketcham found himself again. His eyesight improved and he began painting again while on the the farm. Sometime in the early 1920s, he went to Chicago, got a job in a department store, enrolled at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, and soon opened his own studio. The exhaustion and indecision had passed. "I've never been undecided since," Ketcham recalled in 1937. "It was just a matter of making up my mind, and that hard work on the farm helped do it." (5)

Roy Anderson Ketcham was known as a painter of portraits and still-life, but even a fine artist must eat. In the 1920s, Ketcham put food on the table by working as a cartoonist and illustrator for the Chicago Sun-Times and Junior Homes, The Something-to-Do-Magazine for Mothers and Children. (His work was printed in that magazine in 1927 and 1928.) In early 1927 (perhaps a little before), he began drawing the newspaper comic panel Poor Pa. Written by humorist and newspaper columnist Claude Callan (1881-1956), Poor Pa is a single-panel cartoon on the model of Abe Martin by Kin Hubbard. The art is uncredited and has been attributed to John H. Striebel. A newspaper article from April 1927 gives credit to Ketcham. (6) Very likely both men worked on the feature at various times. Poor Pa ran in syndication from 1926 to soon after Callan's death in 1956.

Roy Ketcham and John Striebel (1891-1962) may very well have had a working relationship, for Ketcham worked not only on Poor Pa but also on Aunt Het, a very similar single-panel cartoon in syndication from 1921 to 1967. Striebel, who also drew Dixie Dugan, was the credited artist from the inception of Aunt Het until his death in 1962. Ketcham took over then and drew the feature until it came to an end in early 1967. Aunt Het was written by newspaperman and humorist Robert Quillen from 1921 to his death in 1948, whereupon his widow, Marcelle Babb Quillen, took over the writing. It's worth noting that Roy Ketcham painted portraits of both Poor Pa and Aunt Het, both used in promoting the features. For the past thirty years, Quillen's hometown of Fountain Inn, South Carolina, has put on an Aunt Het fall festival. 

In 1931, Ketcham won the Indianapolis Star prize at the annual Hoosier Salon, held at the Marshall Fields and Company Galleries in Chicago. His entry was a portrait of a young boy, entitled "Bob." The artist repeated that win in 1937 with "The Long Grey Line," a portrait of Arthur Meier, Jr., a Chicago army cadet. Ketcham placed two other child portraits, "Sissie" and "Sailor," in the Hoosier Salon that year. In the previous year, his "Still-Life" was hung in the Fortieth Annual Exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity at the Art Institute of Chicago.

On October 30, 1939, a new Western comic strip made its debut in American newspapers. Called Bowleg Bill, it was based on a book, Bowleg Bill, The Sea-Going Cowboy, written by Jeremiah Digges and illustrated by William Gropper (1938). (7) Bowleg Bill is a tall tale in the tradition of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Captain Stormalong. Its author, Jeremiah Digges, was the credited writer on the comic strip Bowleg Bill. The artist was Roy A. Ketcham, who signed his name simply "Ketcham." In August 1941, Bowleg Bill became Ramblin' Bill. Three months later it was taken over by Marvin P. Bradley, called "Tex" even though he, like Ketcham, was a Midwesterner. (8) By then the strip had put behind it any telling of tall tales. "So modern was the strip," wrote Ron Goulart, "that Bradley never got around to drawing a horse during his tenure." (9)

During his run on Bowleg Bill/Ramblin' Bill, Roy Ketcham taught at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Among his students was a young aspiring actress and artist, Barbara Hale. Born in 1922 in DeKalb, Illinois, Barbara graduated from high school in Rockford, Illinois, in 1940 and set off for art school in Chicago in September of that year. Her plan was to become a commercial illustrator and fashion illustrator. That plan changed while she was studying art, for Barbara began modeling for Roy Ketcham for the comic strip Bowleg Bill/Ramblin' Bill. Within a year or two, she was also modeling for newspaper and magazine fashion advertisements. Hollywood scouts took note, and in early 1943, she signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures. Barbara Hale went on to a successful career in movies and television. She is best known for her part as Della Street on the television show Perry Mason (1957-1966). (10)

According to Allan Holtz's American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide (2012), Roy Ketcham's last episode of Ramblin' Bill was printed in November 1941. The strip came to an end on August 28, 1943, when "Tex" Bradley sent him off to war. Ketcham continued drawing comics, presumably Poor Pa, Aunt Het, and possibly others. (He had also created illustrations for The Child's Story of Science by Ramon Peyton Coffman, better known as Uncle Ray [1939].) Ketcham lived in Blue Island, Illinois, for many years, then Portage, Michigan, and finally Schoolcraft, Michigan. Roy Anderson Ketcham died in Schoolcraft on November 10, 1969. He was a day short of his seventy-fifth birthday.

Bowleg Bill/Ramblin' Bill by Roy Anderson Ketcham, dated October 25, year unknown, and because the year is unknown, the correct title is unknown. (Bowleg Bill became Ramblin' Bill on August 4, 1941.) If this strip is from 1940 or 1941, Barbara Hale may have been a model for one or both female characters. As you can see, Bill was a modern-day character, at least in the later run of the strip. Image courtesy of Giancarlo Malagutti.
Ramblin' Bill by Marvin P. "Tex" Bradley, dated August 28, 1943, and the last episode of a strip begun by Ketcham.

Caricatures of members of the Chicago Palette and Chisel Club, drawn by Paul Plaschke, date unknown. Big, blond Roy Ketcham is number 18, in the lower center of the picture and smoking a pipe. Plaschke, Ketcham, Bradley, Hubbard, Striebel, and Uncle Ray all had Indiana connections, for all were either born, educated, lived, and/or worked in the Hoosier State.

I would like to say a special thanks to the Italian cartoonist and comics historian Giancarlo Malagutti, who led me to find out more about Roy Anderson Ketcham and who generously provided the first comic strip image shown above. Signor Malagutti's website is called Mathias, and you can reach it by clicking:


Thanks also to Carolyn, clerk at the Schoolcraft Community Library in Schoolcraft, Michigan, for Ketcham's obituary.


Notes
(1) "Roy Ketcham, Former Star Carrier, Twice Winner of Its Salon Prize," Indianapolis Star, Mar. 7, 1937, part 5, p. 3.
(2) Quoted in ditto.
(3) Quoted in "1937 Hoosier Salon Portraiture Winner Studied at John Herron," Indianapolis News, Feb. 18, 1937, part 2, p. 1.
(4) Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942), daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, heiress to his fortune, patron (or matron) of the arts, and founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art. 
(5) Quoted in "1937 Hoosier Salon Portraiture Winner Studied at John Herron."
(6) "Poor Pa, Himself!" Sandusky Register (Michigan), Apr. 17, 1927: 3.
(7) Jeremiah Digges was the pen name of journalist, author, editor, speechwriter, and television scenarist Josef (or Joseph) Isadore Berger (1903-1971).
(8) Like Ketcham, Marvin P. Bradley (1913-1986) studied at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis. He went on to draw Rex Morgan, M.D., among other comic strips.
(9) The Funnies: 100 Years of American Comic Strips by Ron Goulart (1995), pp. 156-157.
(10) In one episode, "The Case of the Absent Artist," Perry Mason clears a cartoonist, played by Wynne Pearce, of murder. In coming full circle, I should note that Barbara Hale's son, William Katt, played television's Greatest American Hero and has written for the comic book version of the show. His character's name in The Greatest American Hero (1981-1983) is Ralph Hinckley, Jr., changed to Hanley after the attempt on Ronald Reagan's life in 1981. As children, we in the Hanley family were thrilled to have a television character--a superhero, even!--with our name.

Text and captions copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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