The sun won't come out tomorrow: A Remembrance of Annie
Through more than 85 years of hardships and challenges --- spanning the Great Depression, a World War, foreign cabals, corruption at home, several kidnappings and, well, simply being an orphan --- somehow, she always found a way to triumph.
But in the ever-changing media landscape, Little Orphan Annie has apparently run into an adversity that not even she could over come. And so, while the sun'll come out tomorrow, the tomorrow after Sunday, June 13th will be the first to dawn in generations without Annie appearing in a daily newspaper.
The final Sunday panel of the strip, once seen in hundreds of newspapers across the country, but now run by fewer than 20, will end with Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks uncertain over Annie's fate during her recent run-in with the Butcher of the Balkans. And, leapin' lizards, what of her always loyal dog, Sandy? Arf!
This cliffhanger is in fact a show of faith that there's still life the ol' gal. At least, that's the opinion of Tribune Media Services, division of Chicago Tribune parent company Tribune Company, which initiated the strip during the adminstration of Calvin Coolidge, profiting mightily as it parlaryed pop-icon status into a oft-performed Broadway musical, a hugely popular radio series, John Huston's 1982 theatrical feature of the musical, and two made-for-TV remakes in the late 1990s, along with tons of merchandise.
"Annie is definitely not dying," says Steve Tippie, TMS' Vice President of Licensing. She "will definitely have a life beyond this newspaper incarnation. The newspaper strip will go away, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Annie won't come back .... whether it's [in] comic books, graphic novels, in print, electronic --- it's just too richa vein [not] to mine."
Ironically, the strip is leaving, Tippie continues, because it's been targeting young readers who rarely "are encouraged to read newspapers these days." Yet in the almost 44 years when Harold Gray wrote and drew the strip until his death in 1968, Little Orphan Annie was decidedly adult, despite its preteen heroine at its epicenter.
One wouldn't necessarily know that from the upbeat 1977 Thomas Meehan-Charles Strouse-Martin Charnin Broadway musical, or its 1982 movie adaptation, directed by John Huston, or even two made-for-TV remakes of that film in the 1990s, all of which have come to define the strip's characters. Or even the late 1930's and 40's children's radio broadcast which once aired on Tribune's WGN-AM 720 Radio, then on the NBC Radio Network and, finally, on the Mutual Radio Network, as recalled by Bob Clark's wry holiday drama, A Christmas Story.
But Jay Maeder, who with artist Ted Slampyak has presided over these last years of the strip, described it in 1997 as "the eeriest comic strip of all time" and that, in its Depression-era phase, became "a terrifying pilgrimage through a loony, dark, paranoid and quite uniquely American nightmare."
Today's Annie has been reformatted into a kids' adventure, with the auburn-haired orphan very much a 21st-Century girl, and Daddy Warbucks into what Steve Tippie calls "sort of a buff, bald, Clive Owen-type," who, separately and together, have adventures all over the world.
Back when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was nominated to run for a fourth term as President in the midst of World War II, the decidedly anti-New Deal Little Orphan Annie killed off Daddy Warbucks, in part protesting on his deathbed that he need not have to apologize for being so successful.
" 'Some have called me [a] dirty capitalist,' " were Daddy's last words that August of 1944, says Maeder. " 'But I've merely used the imagination and common sense and energy that that kind of Divine Providence saw fit to give tome. And now? Well, Annie, times have have changed, and I've grown old and tired. And I guess it's pretty much time to go!' "
The following year, however, with FDR dead, Daddy returned to the living. " 'Somehow,' " he said, smoking his trusty cigar, " 'I feel that the climate here has changed since I went away.' "
Compare that with the 1977 stage and 1982 movie Annie, where we see Roosevelt coming off as nothing short of heroic.
Licensed merchandise has long been a top moneymaker in the world of Tribune Media. But, as Steve Tippie will tell you, the Charnin/Strouse/Meehan musical has practically become an annuity for the company, also keeping the cast of Annie alive as cultural touchstones.
It all began quite modestly. Gray, a Purdue grad from Kankakee, Illinois, joined the Tribune as a $15-a-week cub reporter, later moving to the art department. Following a stint in the Army, he spent 5 years assisting on the then popular strip The Gumps, frequently pitching story concepts to Tribune Syndicate boss Captain Joseph Medill Patterson a variety of ideas. The one about the orphan eventually got greenlit, with the Captain supposedly suggesting the switch from boy to girl.
Little Orphan Annie was among six new strips the New York Daily News would introduce on August 5th, 1924, just ahead of its then sister paper, the Tribune. But it was not until the Trib left Annie out of its comic strip section on October 27th, 1925, that it came to realize just how popular the Gray strip had become.
Issuing a front-page apology the very next morning, Annie's abscence was said to have "caused more rumpus on the Tribune switchboard than a World War, a big league baseball game or even the bombing of the post office."
The Chicago Tribune stopped running Annie, which has continued with fresh panels, save for 5 years of reruns of classic Harold Grey strips during the early to mid-1970s, in 1992. The New York Daily News remains among the last to still run the strip.
"Annie is more of a kids' property, so it's less relevant to newspaper audiences than, say, Dick Tracy or Brenda Starr," remarks Steve Tippie. "it's much easier for today's kids to get their comic fixes from TV or the Internet... Yet comic books and graphic novels still have huge audiences in print form."
For that little orphaned redhead in the world of newspapers, it truly is a hard-knock life.
That being the case, then, what will become of King Features' Prince Valiant, to which your Dragonmaster remains unceasingly loyal? What will become of Val's present conundrum, wherein he must now rescue his beloved Queen Aleta from the clutches of the vengeful Horridus, back from the dead to deceive the Thuatha into avenging themselves upon Humankind, who drove them into their underground world centuries before?
I know not about ye, Mortals, but at least Val's strip always leaves us pondering until next Sunday. May it e'er remain thus!