Hindsight Bio: Rube Goldberg and NCS
Born in 1883, Rube Goldberg started in the sewer and wound up in the dictionary, creating en route one of the longest and most productive cartooning careers in American history. With a degree in engineering from the California School of Mining, he spent a few months in1904 helping design the sewer system in San Francisco but soon gave it up to pursue his first love, cartooning, beginning with his first published strip in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 7, 1904. During the next few years, he did sports cartoons for various San Francisco newspapers, replacing Tad Dorgan at the Bulletin when Tad went to New York in 1905. Then in 1907, encouraged by his sale of a Sunday color feature, The Look-Alike-Boys, to the World Color Printing Company in New York, Goldberg went to the Big Apple, finding a position at the New York Evening Mail.Like most newspaper staff cartoonists of the time, he produced a variety of individual features, most employing a catch phrase as punchline and title. If such a feature caught on with readers, it lasted until the cartoonist ran out of ideas; if it didn’t catch on, it sunk from view in a day or so. Among those of Goldberg’s that lasted were Foolish Questions; I’m the Guy; and Mike and Ike, They Look Alike. Later he created Phoney Films, Boobs Abroad, Life’s Little Jokes, Bobo Baxter (a humorous continuity strip, 1927-1928); and in the thirties, Doc Wright (a sentimental continuity strip, 1934-1935) and Lala Palooza (a humor strip, 1936-1938)--to name a few. For all this variety (about sixty cartoon features all told), Goldberg is most remembered for two features: Boob McNutt, a comic strip about the perennial fall guy (1915-1934), and a panel cartoon that he produced weekly (1909-1935), depicting the outlandish inventions of Professor Lucifer G. Butts. With the latter, Goldberg indulged his suspicion that maybe modern technology wasn’t all it purported to be, earning his place in the dictionary as the creator "of extremely intricate diagrams of contraptions designed to effect relatively simple results" (American Heritage Dictionary).
These zany invention cartoons would run at the rate of one a week for the next twenty-five years (and off-and-on thereafter), celebrating the complex mechanical wonders of the modern age by reducing them to human terms that exposed technology as possibly fraudulent. After all, the wondrous gadgets didn’t always work. And they were too complicated to fix at home. And the costly contraptions promised a life of ease and leisure, but paying for them took sweat and toil. For a generation, Goldberg would build cartoons on the foundation of these incongruities, ridiculing the seemingly needless intricacies of modern machinery until they were rendered tolerable.
In the late 1930s, Rube gave up the daily deadline grind for a time, devoting himself to writing magazine articles and advertising art. (He created Pepsi and Pete, the Pepsi-Cola Cops.) For newspapers, he did only a weekly feature called Rube Goldberg’s Sideshow, a miscellany of strips, gags, puzzles, and games. But he soon returned to semi-daily drudgery to do three editorial cartoons a week for the New York Sun, winning a Pulitzer in 1948.
Rube cartooned in all the forms possible (except comic books)--even, for a time, animation. Fascinated by the medium, he produced a weekly mock newsreel called The Boob Weekly, spoofing the news of the day. Starting May 7, 1916, he did it successfully for about a year. The pace was frenetic: 1,500 drawings a week, plus his regular cartoon features for the Evening Mail. Exhausted, he finally gave it up. Subsequently, he wrote reams of magazine articles and a few books, and he was the corner stone upon which the National Cartoonists Society was founded in 1946: he agreed to convene the group even though he disliked formal organizations.
Goldberg was trained as an engineer because his father, Max, thought that was the career most likely to garner a good salary. Rube wanted to be an artist but surrendered to his father’s insistence that he study engineering when Max convinced him that all the world’s great artists (like Leonardo Da Vinci) were trained as engineers before taking up their life’s work as artists.
Max was a determined presence in Rube’s life. He was, among other things, a wheeler dealer without equal, working the real estate and banking rackets in boom-town San Francisco and keeping his finger in politics. Max negotiated most of his son’s contracts with newspapers and syndicates. Shrewdly, he always insisted that Rube retain ownership of his cartoon characters and titles, merely licensing them to publishers.
After he’d been in New York for awhile, Rube did what many cartoonists of his generation and standing did: he went on stage. Vaudeville. His act was solidly in the tradition of the cartoon chalk talk: he drew pictures on a huge easel while babbling away with comical patter. But his initiation into show business was characteristically unconventional.
In 1910 when he first trod the boards, his claim to fame rested on various series of cartoons he was doing for the New York Evening Mail: in addition to Foolish Questions ("Son, are you smoking that pipe again?" "No, Dad--this is a portable kitchenette and I’m frying a smelt for dinner."), he did I’m the Guy ("I’m the guy that put con in conventions."), and other similar one-note commentaries on the foibles of human nature in general and modern life in particular. These cartoons made Gold berg a household word in New York fairly soon after he arrived there, so even though he had not yet begun to draw the cartoons that would earn him lexical immortality, he was scarcely a stranger to his first vaudeville audience when he bowed on stage at the infamous Colonial Theater.
The Colonial Theater was not your normal theater. It was notorious for its Monday matinee audience--tough cab drivers, salesmen who had failed to make a sale, and other aspiring hecklers of dedicated rudeness. (It was at the Colonial that Jack Benny walked on stage and said "Hello, folks" and received such a welcome of catcalls and razzberries that he kept right on walking, saying "Good-bye, folks" as he exited the other side of the stage.) Goldberg knew the Colonial’s reputation, so he beat the unruly crowd to the punch. He strolled out on stage and greeted his audience with a cheerful "Hello, bums!" The split second of shocked silence was followed by howls of laughter and thunderous applause. Rube had conquered vaudeville.
Rube was a New Yorker the rest of his life--and a performer. So he was ready for his role in the founding of the National Cartoonists Society.
The Society was official founded on March 1, 1946, but it had been gestating for years, and it had actually been born, like many infants, in the middle of the night some months before. Accounts about the birth of the Cartoonists Society vary--as is their wont among the regularly imbibing band of bon vivants who put on chalk talk hospital shows during World War II with the American Theater Wing. Even those who were present on the legendary night in question couldn't agree later as to exactly where they had been. Rube Goldberg said it was Quantico, Virginia. Gus Edson alleged it was Charleston, South Carolina. Russell Patterson sided with Rube and Milton Caniff with Edson. But whether it was at Quantico or Charleston, it was clearly not at any of the five service hospitals in the New York area to which the American Theater Wing brought entertainment for recuperating servicemen. The Cartoonists Society, everyone agreed, had been born far from the comforts of home on one of those long-range junkets the group made to military bases along the southeastern seaboard.
It had all started in 1943. In the early months of that year, the first results of America's entrance into the European conflict began to trickle in from North America, filling beds in five huge hospitals in the New York area. And almost immediately, the United Services Organization and the Red Cross started drumming up entertainments for the recovering GIs. Among those who heeded the summons was C.D. Russell, who drew Pete the Tramp. Russell mustered a small entourage of fellow cartoonists to do chalk-talks for the wounded under the auspices of the U.S.O. In addition to Russell, the group usually included Bob Dunn and Paul Frehm from the King Features bullpen, Otto Soglow and Gus Edson.
"We played two spots," Edson recalled. "Fort Hamilton and Governor's Island. And then we quit the U.S.O.--and for good reason. They bolstered our act with cuties and acrobats. And they threatened us with a covey of Swiss bell ringers!"
Edson's comic embellishment of history not-withstanding, the cartoonists' desertion of the U.S.O. was more a case of their being attracted elsewhere than of their being unhappy with their treatment. They were not driven out: they were lured away. By a chorus girl.
Once a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall, Toni Mendez was now a choreographer as well as a dancer, and she was an active member of the Hospital Committee of the American Theater Wing, an organization of women in the entertainment and communications fields, which was then sponsoring several enterprises for the morale of soldiers. The Hospital Committee devoted itself to the wounded, meeting once a week to plan shows to give at armed services hospitals.
At just about the time that C.D. Russell and his troupe started feeling mutinous under U.S.O.'s wing, Toni had offered to help put together a show about New York that would use the talents of New Yorkers who were not necessarily professional entertainers. In a conversation with the director of public information at the telephone company who was a friend of Edson's, she learned about the cartoonists and their chalk talks. She met with Edson, and they arranged the first of the ATW-sponsored cartoonists' shows.
They expanded Russell's original group to include Martin Branner (Winnie Winkle), Ray Van Buren (Abbie `n' Slats), Ad Carter (Just Kids), Ernie Bushmiller (Nancy), Bill Holman (Smokey Stover), Al Posen (Sweeney and Son), and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates). Russell recruited an emcee for the act--Bugs Baer, humor columnist and after-dinner raconteur, one-time vaudevillian, sometime sports cartoonist, and all-time master-crafter of memorable one-liners. ("What America needs is a good five-cent cigar" is Baer's; but I like the telegram he sent to his wife in the hospital when their son Arthur, Jr., was born: "I hear you had a boy in your room last night.") Russell Patterson soon joined the more-or-less permanent ensemble, and when Baer's other obligations side-lined him, Rube Goldberg was drawn into the act (again by C.D. Russell).
The inaugural performance at Halloran Hospital on Staten Island was a unqualified success--and not entirely as a result of easel artistry. Several of the cartoonists were born comedians: they gloried in the spotlight of performing before an audience, and they augmented their drawings with waggish verbal wit and farcical flourishes that betrayed a more than nodding familiarity with burlesque houses and an almost defunct vaudeville stage. And they all basked in the warmth of their reception by the soldiers and were gratified by the immediacy of the response a successful performer earns from a live audience. In short, after but a single outing together, they were all eager to do another show. And Toni Mendez was quick to arrange an encore.
"I soon learned," she told me, "that one way to get them to assemble on time was to arrange to meet at a bar instead of at the Wing building."
A typical evening's expedition began in Child's restaurant at 57th and Fifth Avenue, where the cartoonists (some with their wives) collected to await the arrival of the bus that would transport them to their destination. As they waited--and while their number assembled--they oiled their vocal chords for the forthcoming performance. At the appointed hour, Toni (in her trade-mark giant chapeau) appeared at the door and beckoned.
They all clambered into the bus--a no-frills military conveyance with back-breaking springs and memorable seats of the unpadded variety--and when everyone was safely ensconced therein, it lurched into gear and headed for South Ferry. After a long jolting ride to the lower tip of Manhattan, the bus at last pulled into a line of vehicles, all waiting for the next ferry. Before the bus had quite stopped, Gus Edson would stand up and point out the window.
"I left my hat in that bar the last time we were here," he would shout, and then he would start for the bus's exit door.
It was a signal that everyone who was thirsty waited for. They waited for it every time. And when it came, they piled out of the bus and into the bar. As soon as the ferry arrived and the line started moving again, Toni dashed into the bar and rounded everyone up once more.
On one occasion, as the bus edged its way in line to the waiting ferry, it came alongside a big Cadillac, pulled off to the side with a flat tire. A couple minutes later, the driver of the Cadillac came walking along beside the bus, rolling a tire in front of him. He was so big a man that the tired looked like a candy life saver. The contrast was so ludicrous that Rube Goldberg couldn't resist making a comment.
"That guy looks like he's the one that's full of air," Rube quipped, projecting in his best emcee's manner for the benefit of his audience throughout the entire bus.
Overhearing the remark as he walked by, the Cadillac driver looked up at Rube in the bus window and said: "You look like you're the one that's full of crap."
Rube swiveled a deadpan visage to his fellow passengers. "I can't top that," he said and levered his cigar back into his mouth.
When cartoonists are permitted to wander away from their drawing boards for extended periods, they sometimes panic at the unaccustomed experience of confronting a great void of idle moments all in one place at the same time. Their nearly universal reaction is to fill those moments with as much boisterous adventure as they can stumble into or invent for themselves. The American Theater Wing trips to military installations beyond the New York environs consequently resulted in a certain quantity of lore being generated. And having created some history of their very own, the members of this dirty-fingernail fraternity delighted in regaling themselves with it for years afterwards in the meetings and publications of the Society.
There was the occasion, for instance, of the "tea party" in Rube's room in the hospital at Charleston Naval Shipyard where they had all been billeted for the night. Goldberg was running short of a vital commodity when he spied a mess-jacketed attendant passing the open door of his room. "Boy!" Rube cried, "please bring another bucket of cracked ice." "Yessir," said that uniformed worthy. And when he returned with the ice, he invited himself for a drink. The "boy," it turned out, was a captain in the Navy and the head surgeon at the hospital.
Then there was that rough flight to Quonset Point Naval Air Station that Gus Edson recalled so vividly. "The plane seemed to be running over an endless succession of Mae Wests," he remembered. "It proved too much for a gorgeous young model we had along for the show. She regurgitated in a beautiful parabolic arc all over the Fat Boy strapped into the bucket seat facing her. When it was all over--all over me, that is--the embarrassed siren turned to the guy next to her--Rube--to murmur her apologies, and did a retake all over him."
Models were good sources of lore. On another trip, Russell Patterson, who had been one of the judges of the recent Miss America Pageant, brought the new Miss America along for the show's pretty girl stunt. And when she stepped to the center of the stage in a decorously tailored business suit, the convalescing G.I.s hailed her with a chorus that thundered a time-worn refrain in perfect unison--"Take it off!"
And then there was Otto Soglow's intemperate request of a high-ranking Naval officer who was conducting the group on a sightseeing tour of historic Charleston: "Show us your houses of ill repute," Soglow demanded. And when his colleagues later remonstrated with him for his obvious lack of couth, Soglow was nonplussed. "I could have said whore houses," he said blandly.
Tales like these, so fondly recalled and so frequently retailed, embody the spirit of camaraderie that was fostered and nurtured among the cartoonists on their trips. Considering the solitary nature of the work they all spent so much of their time at, it is little wonder that they all enjoyed themselves immensely on these mirthful missions of mercy. The company of their fellow cartoonists was both compatible and convivial. And it wasn't long before some of them began to talk about finding a way of perpetuating their fellowship, of assuring its continuance after the end of the War presumably wiped out the need for the hospital shows, thereby eliminating the excuse for their periodic convenings. It may have been C.D. Russell who first put the notion into words. Tour leader Mendez remembers the trip on a military transport plane during which Russell, well fortified for the flight, patrolled the aisle of the plane, advocating a club for cartoonists.
"He said, Everybody has a club or an association or some kind--lumberjacks, undertakers, rug weavers, even garbage collectors--so I don't see why we can't have one, too. All during the flight, Rube kept saying, No--leave us alone; we're doing fine. And C.D. turned to me," Toni continued, "and he said, And no girls. Only boys. And he went up and down the aisle of the plane, repeating that this club would be just for boys."
The idea had been voiced. But everyone knew no club for cartoonists would succeed without Rube's participation. "They kept after him," Mendez said, "until they made him agree."
It was Russell Patterson who lobbied most convincingly for the cause. He shared a room with Rube on that storied night the Cartoonists Society was born (in either Charleston or Quantico.) Neither man could sleep, so they talked. And Patterson availed himself of the opportunity to urge Goldberg to endorse the idea of a cartoonists' club. Rube continued to scoff at the notion at first, declaring that cartoonists were such anarchists they'd never come to meetings. They'd tried it once before in the thirties, he said, and it hadn't worked. But Patterson was not to be put off. He persisted. Rube's resistance began to fade. According to Patterson (as reported by Stephen Becker in Comic Art in America), Rube finally yielded as the two climbed into bed: "All right," he growled, "but no more than twenty-five members." Patterson continued the story:
We'd been in bed about ten minutes when Rube raised himself to one elbow, snorted, and said, "All right. But no more than fifty members." After that, he went to sleep. I waited for him to bring it up in the morning, but he didn't say a word about it. Then we got on a plane to go back to New York, and when we were in the air a couple of the spark plugs turned out to be faulty. Rube was a little worried. He was mangling a cigar and looking out at the engine. Every once in a while he'd look down, as though he were estimating the fall.
"Why don't you be the focal point of a society, Rube?" I asked him. "We can send out invitations in your name."
"Yeah, sure," he said. "Anything." He peered out at the engine. "There's no way to get out of this damn machine, I suppose."
"Sometime when the War ends," I said, "we ought to call a dinner meeting."
"Absolutely," Rube said. "How high up do you figure we are?"
"We'd have to get it well organized at the first meeting. Officers, bylaws, and maybe a regular meeting place. You're the logical man to be president for the first year."
"Whatever you say," he growled. "You think this pilot's ever flown before?"
Thus was a cartoonists' club born. It needed only a name and some semblance of formal organization. For those, it awaited the War's end.
The cartoonists and the American Theatre Wing did not stop performing before hospitalized soldiers at the end of the War. The cartoonists continued traveling to military bases and putting on shows for years. Indefinitely, in fact. But they still wanted to have an organization of their own. And by February 1946, a group of six of them succeeded in bullying Rube into sending out letters to call a dinner meeting for the purpose of organizing the club. The letter went out on February 20:
Fifteen of us cartoonists were thrown together pretty often during the last few years when, as a unit, we entertained at army camps, navy bases and various hospitals.
Strangely enough, we grew to like one another. We looked forward to these meetings--and still do. There was no spirit of competition. There was plenty of glory for all. We had a swell time. Now we know that cartoonists have something in common besides a bottle of ink and a sheet of drawing paper.
So we got the idea it might be a very natural thing to have a cartoonists' club or society. Acrobats have clubs. Ski jumpers have clubs. Upholsterers have clubs. Why can't we have a club? We can.
Any cartoonist who makes his living at it is eligible to join. But he doesn't have to. Nobody is going to coax him. The idea is to bring a bunch of nice guys together for a little real, informal association. We can have an occasional dinner. Perhaps we might have a club room where we can make out-of-town cartoonists feel at home. We think New York is the logical headquarters for the club.
Your name has been selected to join a group to sit down at dinner to make some plans--select a name, determine the dues, elect officers, and other such nonsense.
Rube signed the letter as "temporary chairman." At the top of the epistle appeared the names of the "temporary committee" (recognized in subsequent histories as the founders of the Society): Rube Goldberg, Ernie Bushmiller, C.D. Russell, Gus Edson, Russell Patterson, Otto Soglow, and, at the top of the list, the best-known of their number in those post WWII days, Milton Caniff.
By reason of his strip's citation in the Congressional Record and all the other publicity that had been generated throughout the War by Male Call, Terry's wartime role, and Caniff's extensive contributions to the cause--not to mention his talent and the high quality of his product--Caniff had brought distinction to the profession, and his name at the top of the list signaled that the a-borning club would stand for prestige as well as a good time. But Caniff was more than just a name on the letterhead. He had been an active promoter of the organization from the very first.
"When somebody on one of those hospital trips first brought up the subject of a group for cartoonists," Caniff said, "somebody else said right away that they didn't think we could do it: cartoonists're too disorganized to get away with it. So I said, Well, we're already getting away with it: we're doing it right now. We're a group. Why don't we just give it a name and start to throw some weight around. Maybe become a union, somebody said. And somebody else said, You'll never become a union--how could you? The only way to be a union is to close the plant, and here you have guys drawing for five hundred papers around the country: you can't close 'em all. And somebody said, It doesn't have to be a union: we can just be a social club. And gradually that's how it evolved and what it evolved into. We were able to stay away from political stuff. Once in awhile it spilled over but not often. Mostly, it was the genuine enjoyment of your own peers--that and talking shop. It was a sounding board, too, for other things. But the sessions at the bar afterward were always better than the dinner or the speeches."
The official birthday was on a Friday night, March 1, 1946, when twenty-six cartoonists assembled at the Barberry Room on East 52nd Street in Manhattan. They met at 7 p.m. for drinks and dinner, and after dinner, they waved their inky-fingered hands and conjured into being the National Cartoonists Society. Then when the voting was over, they started a heated argument about how to define a cartoonist and retired to pour cooling emollients on the conflagration. Obviously, the evening was a success. The organization was officially founded: it acquired a name and officers. If it was still a little unclear about its purpose, it was nonetheless lively, judging from the report in the Cartoonists Society Bulletin some months later:
We are not a union but purely a social group which we proved the opening night by almost coming to blows twice. First in the selection of a name and again when we tried to decide just what the hell a cartoonist was. After much bickering, hemming, hawing, and speechmaking, we chose "The Cartoonists Society" over "The Cartoonists Club." Nuts to euphony was the attitude. Nuts to euphony too, Gus Edson shouted at the temporary chairman merely to keep the harmony rolling.
Later, the Society would add "National" to its name as a way of telling cartoonists all across the country that they, too, were welcome in its ranks. The definition of cartoonist was an important preoccupation because it would establish eligibility for membership. The question was not resolved until it had been thoroughly discussed for several meetings. Finally, the NCS constitution defined cartoonists as "professional artists who portray by text and drawing a comic or adventure story or incident, or a commentary on politics, current events, or sports."
The elections that first evening were a much more perfunctory matter. Goldberg was elected president by acclamation; Patterson, vice president; Russell, secretary; and, as treasurer, Caniff. A second vice president was subsequently added ("to follow the first vice president around") in the person of Soglow. The Bulletin later marveled at these results:
Bunny Caniff, Milt's better half, is still in a quandary as to how Milt ever became treasurer. Bunny insists he has never been able to balance his personal check book. The other officers are not any better qualified than the treasurer. We have a president who can remember everything but to bring his gavel and has to use a beer bottle. The secretary never has a pencil and has to ad-lib the minutes a month later, while the two vice presidents just sit and sneer at the other three, mumbling scotch and soda for two.
Almost every endeavor at which a cartoonist could ply a pen was represented among the charter members--comic strips, panel cartoons (both magazine and newspaper), editorial cartoons, comic books, advertising and illustration. Animation was the only branch of the trade absent from the roster of the first members. The Cartoonists Society was now a reality. Cartoonists at last had a home, an organizational roof over their heads--thanks to the American Theatre Wing, which had first given them the reason to rally that had created a quasi-club and that, in turn, had bred among them a sense of unity that had eventually demanded expression in the form of an organization of their very own.
The cartoonists and the ATW did not stop performing before hospitalized soliders when the War ended. The cartoonists continued traveling to military bases and putting on shows for years. And NCS performed other public services, too--"other," that is, than keeping cartoonists off the street while in an inebriated state. They mounted exhibitions of cartoons and comic strips. And they often appeared on stage, as they had during the War, doing chalk talks--this time to encourage citizens to buy Savings Bonds.
In the fall of 1949, NCS had volunteered to send its members out on the road for the Treasury Department’s bond drive. It was an ambitious undertaking: a nation-wide tour stopping for three or four days in each of seventeen major cities. The road itself consisted of teams of ten or twelve cartoonists each and a traveling display, "20,000 Years of Comics," a 95-foot-long pictorial history that traced the development of the comic strip from cave wall scrawls to the present. In each city, a resident member of the Society worked with a sponsoring newspaper to arrange exhibit space for the display and a schedule of performances for the cartoonists. They gave chalk talks and touted bonds before civic groups, clubs of all descriptions, schools--anywhere they could find an audience.
The itinerary in Des Moines, Iowa, was typical. Arriving late in the afternoon on Sunday, October 16, Caniff (who had followed Goldberg into the presidential chair the year before) and eleven of his cohorts were treated to a buffet dinner hosted by the Des Moines Register and Tribune Syndicate. The next morning, they visited high schools and then appeared before a joint luncheon meeting of the Conopus, Cosmopolitan, Economic, and Exchange clubs. That afternoon, the cartoonists did a performance at Veterans' Hosptial and went from bed to bed, visiting the sick and disabled. The Register and Tribune Company treated the troupe to dinner Monday evening. Tuesday morning, they divided into two groups to do shows at two large high schools then reconvened for lunch with the Des Moines Advertising Club. In the afternoon, the cartoonists did a performance before a bankers' convention in the city. They started off Wednesday at the Raymond Blank Memorial Hospital then broke into four teams to appear at four high schools, coming together again for a dinner show before the combined Kiwanis and Rotary clubs. That evening came the finale--a free, public performance before a capacity crowd at the 4,200-seat KRNT Theater.
Goldberg introduced the show by explaining a diagram of one of his celebrated machines: a man, hit on the head by a hammer loosened by applause from an electromagnet, falls on a teeter board. The other end of the board tosses a whale up into the air, and the whale snatches a worm which releases a spring that presses a finger that strikes a lever that sets off a bomb. At this point, the action shifted from Goldberg's easel to the stage: a real if harmlessly small bomb went off with a swish of smoke. The noise awakened a sleeper on stage, who ran off into the wings, and as he ran, a rope fastened to him pulled out onto the stage from the opposite side a cartful of cartoonists: Caniff, Alfred Andriola, Allen Saunders, Cecil Jensen, Gus Edson, Russell Stamm, Bob Schoeke, Dow Walling, Al Posen, Gib Crockett, and Bill Holman. As they climbed off the cart, the curtain went up, revealing twelve easels. Goldberg and the others took their places at the easels, and the show began.
When Rube stepped down as president after two years, the Society named him Honorary Chairman, a role he fulfilled until he died. For a man who didn’t like organizations, he had developed a powerful affection for this one. And he remained actively involved in the Society’s affairs.
In 1967, Goldberg was named Cartoonist of the Year by the Society, in token of which, he was presented with a trophy that had been known, since 1953, as the Reuben. The trophy for this honor had originally been named the Billy DeBeck Memorial Award, dubbed the "Barney" after DeBeck’s celebrated comic strip character, Barney Google. For the first several years, the Barney was a silver cigarette case, paid for by DeBeck’s widow on the condition that they name it after her deceased husband. But after her death, the Barney was retired and replaced by the Reuben.
Named in honor of NCS's first president, the Reuben trophy was pure Goldberg. In fact, it was cast from a sculpture that Rube himself made during his last "career" as a sculptor. A whimsical creation by the man who had made his name synonymous with outlandish inventions, it consisted of a comical pile of male nudes, traditional cartoon characters who had attempted, apparently, to form a human pyramid and had enjoyed some success in the attempt--as much success, that is, as any Goldberg invention ever achieved. The sculptor explained his creation as follows:
If you have been influenced by Freud you might say that the Reuben represents four cartoonists who hated their mothers for allowing them to become cartoonists and [who grope] for an acrobatic answer to the question of why sculptors and pretzel makers have so much in common. Or you might say that the Reuben represents the people of the world striving for a perfect balance to escape the same fate as the leaning tower of Pisa. You'd be wrong on both counts. The Reuben is pure fantasy, including the bottle of India ink that Bill Crawford placed on the posterior of the top man to give the design a little more symmetry. If the Reuben has an underlying significance in its present form, I will say that I created it to keep it from looking like a golf trophy, an Oscar, or a statuette presented to Miss Kitchen Utensils of 1953. My only hope is that each recipient will look upon it as a symbol of the admiration and love of his fellow cartoonists.
Goldberg's explanation was, of course, another of his inventions. He didn't create the sculpture to serve as the NCS award: when he made it, he thought he was making a lamp. The light bulb screwed into the aforementioned posterior of the uppermost figure. Happily, fellow cartoonist Bill Crawford saw this objet d'art in Rube's home at just about the time the Society was looking for a trophy for the Reuben, and he recognized at once that Goldberg's lamp was destined for greater things. He substituted a bottle of ink for the light bulb and made a cast for the trophy.
The first to receive the Reuben in all its glory, trophy and fanfare, was the sports cartoonist Willard Mullin, who was named cartoonist of the year in 1954. (The eight cartoonists who had won the Billy DeBeck Award for the years 1946-1953 were subsequently presented with Reuben statuettes and are termed Reuben winners in the annals of the Society.)
By the time Rube received the trophy named for him in 1967, he had only three years to live. He died of cancer in 1970, full of years.
And that’s the story
of Rube Goldberg and how he helped to found the National Cartoonists Society.
For the story of how NCS ceased to be a male chauvinist redoubt, click
here and read about Hilda Terry and the
All-boys Club. And for more tales of cartoonists and the shaping of the
medium, dip deeply into a book of mine, The Art of the Funnies,
about which you can learn more by clicking here.