This coming Sunday, August 16th, is the 117th anniversary of the birth of Otto Messmer...
...the Father of Felix the Cat.
Felix the Cat was the first bonafide animated cartoon star. Premiering in 1919 he captured something in the eye of the American movie goer that no cartoon before ever had. Between 1919 and 1931 over 150 Felix cartoons were produced, and until the 1928-9 debut of Mickey Mouse with his novelty of sound, there was no knocking him off the top of the box office.
Felix Cartoons were released by Paramount and produced by Pat Sullivan. Pat was a good businessman to be sure. Nay, a GREAT businessman. As the producer and sole copyright holder of the character, he received all the credit, the accolades...and the monetary compensation generated by this black and white marvel. It's estimated that in licencing fees alone through toys, games, music (Yes, the King of Jazz himself Paul Whiteman had a hit with a song called "Felix Kept A-Walking"), a spin-off comic strip and dozens of endorsement deals (national AND international) Sullivan pulled down $100,000. This was the 1920's folks. This DOESN'T include direct money made just in producing the cartoons alone! AND it doesn't include actually creating the character or doing any of the work himself.
That fell to one of his employees...our birthday boy...Otto Messmer.
The story goes, Paramount was needing more and more content for it's "Paramount Screen Magazine" package of animation it released to theatres of a weekly basis and was being more demanding of Sullivan. Otto had an idea for a character, so Sullivan told him that if he wanted to do it on the side on his own time, he'd include it in his package for Paramount. Otto did. The thing was a huge success and Otto's work for the next 4 decades was set.
But still no credit. Otto worked anonymously as each and every cartoon boasted Pat Sullivan's name as the creator, director and artist behind Felix.
Before we delve into the rest of the story...it's time to watch a Felix cartoon...with me. Here's "Felix Goes to Hollywood" from 1923.
A few more indications of just how big Felix was...Felix was the first EVER television star. In 1927, General Electric through it's RCA division and it's young holding NBC, did the first ever experimental broadcast of pictures through the air. It was a static picture of Felix, see below.
Felix was the very first giant balloon constructed for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade...below is a picture from 1933...the first was 1929.
There was also a popular syndicated newspaper strip. Credited again to Sullivan, but all lovingly created by Massmer.
Here's an icon no one who's ever travelled down the Harbor freeway in Los Angeles has ever missed. Felix Chevrolet! Sullivan granted his friend (a car dealer, last name of Felix) permission (I'm sure for some compensation) to use this symbol for his business, and it still stands.
Otto Messmer worked for Sullivan creating Felix cartoons right through and past the heyday of the cartoon cat. He worked with the Van Beuren studio in 1936 on a brief 3 cartoon attempt at a revival of Felix. He worked on Felix Comic books for Dell and Harvey through the 1940's and 50's. Always uncredited.
Then in the early 1960's, television had finally come into it's own and a new series of Felix cartoons was being produced. These are the cartoons most folks nowadays think of when they think of Felix, with his magic bag of tricks, and a pale, pale, pale comparison to the original cartoons. Pat Sullivan had long since died and his trust fund contracted a shoddy and cheap animation outfit to do these, and they hired a man named Joe Oriola to direct them.
Joe had once been an assistant to Otto. He let the world know who Felix' daddy really was.
Otto finally received the pats on the back and appreciation of thousands of animation fans for the work he had done 40 years earlier.
He never had his by-line on any Felix cartoon he did or on any Felix comic strip or book he did. He never received a percentage of any of the fortune created by Felix, save for his payment as a grunt working the trenches (hardly a grunt though, creating, writing, directing, drawing every facet of the cat). Yet Otto considered himself a lucky man, by his own account.
He noted that he got paid a wage for almost 1/2 a century to do what he loved to do. How many other people can say that? He drew Felix. He fed and clothed his family and got up every day. Just to draw Felix.
Otto passed away in 1983 after a lifetime of doing what he loved to do.
He drew Felix. And that's enough for anyone.