Funny Business: The Rise and Fall of Johnstone and Cushing

Dik Browne ran through the lobby shrieking, his bloody shirt tattered and flapping in his wake. Al Stenzel, art director at Johnstone and Cushing, screamed at Browne as he chased him with a bullwhip. “Don’t you ever bring work like that in here again!” A job-seeking artist looked on, his trembling hands clutching a portfolio case. As he eyed the exit, Browne and Stenzel stumbled back into the room, laughing uproariously. Browne pulled off the mercurochrome-stained shirt and put it away until the next time they would haze a job applicant. Welcome to Johnstone and Cushing.

By Tom Heintjes

ill-say-she-isThomas Arthur Johnstone had long been aware of the business potential of entertainment. In the early 1920s, he had a chance meeting with Chico Marx when the Marx Brothers’ careers had seemed to hit bottom. Johnstone listened as Marx explained the brothers’ plight, which included no work and no money. He contacted his older brother, Will, and the two hastily assembled a show that combined old Marx Brothers vaudeville routines, new material written by Will and new music composed by Tom. The cobbled-together I’ll Say She Is! opened in some smaller Pennsylvania venues—backwater hamlets such as Canarsie and Allentown—before it came to Philadelphia in June 1923, where it was an instant hit. A year later, the show hit Broadway, and the Marx Brothers suddenly found themselves at the beginning of their most successful years.

Johnstone learned that Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World was looking for a manager for its syndication company, the Press Publishing Co., and he won the job. During the 1920s, the Chicago Art Institute alumnus began working with the paper’s cartoonists every day, and brother Will drew editorial cartoons for the paper, popularizing the image of the overburdened, barrel-clad taxpayer.

Tom Johnstone

Born March 3, 1888, in Evanston, Illinois, Johnstone became friendly with many of the World‘s cartoonists, but the association was cut short in 1930, when Joseph Pulitzer II sold the struggling paper to the Scripps-Howard organization. Scripps-Howard combined its new acquisition with the Evening Telegram to form the World-Telegram, in the process putting most of the World employees, including Tom Johnstone, out of work. But he wasn’t idle for long—Johnstone would soon have an idea.

Dr. George Gallup’s first research study, released in 1931, analyzed the preferences of newspaper readers in Des Moines, Iowa. His report produced two startling conclusions concerning the Sunday comics: The least popular comic strip was better read than the main news story, and adults as well as children were avid readers of the Sunday comics section, refuting the assumption that the Sunday comics section was largely the purview of young people. Gallup’s revelation grabbed the attention of advertisers, who saw an opportunity to put their messages before a large and enthusiastic audience, and he expanded his research to 14 newspapers and interviews with around 40,000 newspaper readers. His subsequent studies showed that a popular comic strip had the second-highest readership of anything in the paper, behind the picture page.

Johnstone and Cushing promotional material (throughout this article, click on the images to see enlargements)

Advertisers’ perceptions of comic-strip readers become clear in the minutes of a March 12, 1932, meeting of J. Walter Thompson’s creative staff. When a discussion of the popularity of Cliff Sterrett’s Polly and Her Pals arose, copywriter John K. Jessup said, “Sterrett is frequently asked where he met Polly and her family, where they lived and so on. Such credulousness is only found among the sub-morons among his readers. But, Sterrett believes that that quality of realism which fools the cretins is what delights the morons as well.”

The meeting’s minutes further acknowledge the inevitability of the industry’s acceptance of cartooning as an advertising medium: “I think advertising must admit that it will have to make use of a modified form of comic strip. Only by sponsoring a comic strip can it probably take full advantage of the strip’s popularity,” Jessup said. Certainly, the unrelenting depression of the early 1930s served as a powerful incentive to adopt some humility about making a comics-style sales pitch. With agency commissions suffering in an ailing economy, Gallup’s research emboldened advertisers to create cartoon-style ads that would be published in Sunday comics sections.

Hearst papers were among the first to welcome advertisers to its comics sections, having performed research that corroborated Gallup’s. According to Stephen Fox in his book Advertising the American Dream, Hearst selected 1,000 subscribers from one of its papers and omitted the main news section from a Sunday edition; 45 subscribers complained. On another Sunday the paper failed to include the magazine supplement, and 240 people complained. When the paper withheld the comics section, 880 people registered their displeasure. Armed with this information, Hearst’s Comic Weekly began soliciting advertising. Young & Rubicam, one of the era’s most influential and respected ad agencies (and enhanced its credibility by bringing Gallup on staff in July 1932), grasped the appeal of comic advertising and became the trailblazer with its May 1931

Ad featuring Little Alby

“Suburban Joe” advertisement for Grape-Nuts cereal. Also in 1931, Roy Whittier created “Little Alby” to sell Grape Nuts. General Foods, the maker of Grape Nuts, reported a dramatic surge in the cereal’s sales, which had been steadily declining for years. The trickle of comic-strip advertising became a flood, and by 1933 advertising in nationally syndicated Sunday comics sections cost more than a page in such stalwart magazines as The Saturday Evening Post.

Raymond Rubicam of Young & Rubicam was one of the early champions of comics-style advertising (or “sequence-picture copy,” as he termed it). Rubicam’s chief advertising experience was as a copywriter, and he saw the narrative quality of the comic-strip form as an effective marketing tool. Young & Rubicam repeated the success of the “Little Alby” campaign with another Grape-Nuts cartoon-style campaign starring baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean. The agency was also responsible for Albert Dorne’s creation of the Mr. Coffee Nerves campaign, which increased sales of the General Foods coffee substitute, Postum. Success bred imitation, and the cartoon ad was suddenly an advertising staple.

Following his layoff from the World, Johnstone encountered some lean times, as many did during the Depression. “My father bounced around for several years, just trying to get by. He was hard pressed to find money to pay the man who put a new roof on our house,” said his son, also named Thomas Arthur Johnstone. Johnstone, 87 (and known to friends and family as Tim), said his father came home one day after having talked to someone about the economic opportunities in cartoon-style advertising, and he saw the chance to capitalize on his relationships with cartoonists. In the early 1930s he founded the Thomas A. Johnstone Comic-Art Studios and began visiting all the major advertising agencies, including J. Walter Thompson, N.W. Ayer and Young & Rubicam. “My father sold a few of the agencies on the idea, and that was the beginning for the company,” he said. The elder Johnstone—whom his employees fondly called “the Old Man”—groomed a stable of cartoonists capable of producing a wide range of advertising work. New York had long been the nexus of the cartooning world; it was the cradle of the newspaper strip, the magazine gag and the relatively new but fast-growing comic-book industry. With the city’s monopoly on talent, Johnstone could tap the industry’s best. By 1935, Johnstone’s studio was producing work that promoted Lux Soap, Chase & Sanborn Coffee, Nestle’s Chocolate, Shell Gasoline, Ivory Soap and Fleischmann’s Yeast, among others. Some of the company’s campaigns won advertising industry awards in 1935, conferring credibility on the company and allowing it to accumulate more accounts.

Building his new business didn’t dampen Johnstone’s love of Broadway, and he remained involved with the Great White Way. In 1930, around the same time that the World let him go, he was involved with a resurrected production of Artists and Models, a show that had been performed periodically on Broadway since 1923. One of the investors in the show was Samuel Dewey Cushing, and he and Johnstone struck up a friendship.

Jack Cushing

Sam Cushing was the civil engineer who invented the fuse for the tracer bullet, which allowed American troops in World War I to aim weaponry with greater accuracy; his innovation was credited with expediting the Allied victory. He also invented a semaphore system that was adopted as the nationwide standard for the railroad system. (Vestiges of the system endure in today’s railroad network.) These and other patents he held generated a sizable personal fortune, although much of it was lost by unprofitable investments in European bonds. Nevertheless, Cushing’s only son, John Dewey Cushing, born March 19, 1908, had a trust fund that afforded him an income, but not one so large that he didn’t need to work. Sam knew that Tom Johnstone was enjoying some success with his art agency, so in 1936 he suggested that his son Jack, as he was called, see Johnstone about a job. Johnstone made Jack a partner, and Johnstone and Cushing was born.

 Creig Flessel started drawing comic books in 1935, when he was 23. No one was getting rich drawing comic books, so he sought to supplement his income with advertising illustration. “In 1936, I went to J. Walter Thompson looking for work, because they had been doing a lot of comic ads,” he said. “All the secretaries there knew Tom Johnstone, and one of them told me I should go to Johnstone and Cushing.” Flessel went to the Johnstone and Cushing offices, then in the Commerce Building at 145 East 44th Street, and he took the elevator to the thirty-sixth floor penthouse suite that housed the offices. Flessel was in awe of the staff, which was a cartooning Who’s Who: “There was Albert Dorne, Austin Briggs, Bill Sakren, Joe King, Stan Randall, Paul Fung, Milt Gross, Milt Caniff, Lou Fine, Stan Drake, Noel Sickles, Ralston Jones, Katie Osann…everybody went through there at some point. The talent level was just intimidating,” Flessel said.

Alnos Hall art for a Johnstone and Cushing promotional brochure

The company was able to hire the best talent because the advertising industy’s demand for comics-style advertising was great, and the agencies paid an art service like Johnstone and Cushing accordingly. As the company assembled a staff, they hired Jack Frost and Irving Watanabe for balloon lettering, Floyd Bonar for logo lettering and Eliot Batchelder for coloring and mechanicals production.

“They had a lot of work and they needed artists,” Flessel said, “but they felt my work was a little crude, so they recommended me to John Striebel.” Striebel needed an assistant to help produce his Dixie Dugan strip, so he hired Flessel. While there, he also assisted Streibel in drawing advertisements featuring Vic and Sade, characters from Paul Rhymer’s humorous radio show who appeared in ads as avid consumers of Farina Wheat cereal.

After a year with Streibel, Flessel again knocked on Johnstone and Cushing’s door. “They asked me what I had been doing recently, and I told them about the Vic and Sade work,” he said, so “Fless,” as he was known around the office, went to work on the Nestlé Toll House cookies and R.C. Cola accounts, beginning a long relationship with the company. During that time he created many ads that featured recurring characters, including Betty Bite-Size for General Foods, the Trailer Twins for Raisin Bran and R.C. and Quickie for R.C. Cola. “Advertisers liked characters,” he said. “One day, the Nehi Beverage Co. called up its advertising agency, BBDO, and said they wanted a character for the R.C. Cola ads, but nobody at the agency knew what kind of character they wanted,” Flessel said. “Earlier, we had put together a presentation for a cereal account that didn’t go anywhere, and we had the characters already drawn up, so they became R.C. and Quickie for R.C. Cola.”

Creig Flessel art for Johnstone and Cushing

Once an artist was selected to draw the ads for an agency, he would almost always remain on that account, because the agency and the manufacturer wanted consistency in the ad campaign. “There was a friendly competition among the artists to get an account,” Flessel said. “Getting an account meant that the agency liked your work better than anyone else’s, so that was exciting.” Flessel also said that few Johnstone and Cushing artists signed their work, concerned that being identified with certain products would limit future opportunities. “If you signed your name to a Coca-Cola job and a Pepsi job came in, you couldn’t do it.” So like many of his peers, Flessel worked simultaneously on competing accounts by altering the styles he used. “I would occasionally put an initial on something, especially the Eveready ‘True Stories’ work, but I never put my name on the R.C. Cola work.”

Noel Sickles and Milton Caniff, already collaborating on other comic-strip projects, were two of several creators—including Lou Fine and Albert Dorne—who produced the Mr. Coffee Nerves ad series for General Foods. The ads featured the wraithlike Mr. Coffee Nerves, whose attempts to use caffeine to disrupt people’s lives were always thwarted through their consumption of Postum, the caffeine-free coffee substitute. Flessel said that Sickles chafed under the restrictions of doing ad work. “He wanted to do his own thing, but the art directors insisted they were boss,” he said. “You had to bend a little.” Mr. Coffee Nerves was one of several accounts that originated outside Johnstone and Cushing but which later settled there as the company’s reputation grew.

An example of the long-running Mr. Coffee Nerves ad campaign

Like Flessel, Tom Scheuer apprenticed before he got work from Johnstone and Cushing. In 1950, Scheuer came to New York from Chicago in search of work as an artist, and he began assisting Leonard Starr on his comics work. A stint in Korea later, Scheuer came back to New York to find that Starr had begun producing advertising work at Johnstone and Cushing. “All of a sudden, instead of getting $35 a page from a comic-book house, you’re getting $300 a page from Johnstone and Cushing,” Scheuer said. Starr advised Scheuer to become skilled at drawing “pretty girls and handsome men, since that’s what advertisers wanted.” Scheuer had been working for Stan Lee at Marvel Comics, and Scheuer requested that Lee assign him to Marvel’s romance titles, since that would teach him how to draw attractive people. In 1954, he brought samples of his Marvel work to Johnstone and Cushing, and they began assigning him work.

The artists working for Johnstone and Cushing had a choice of working at the drafting tables set up in rows in the office, or they could work at home. Working in the office afforded some advantages: If they worked in the office, free art supplies were available and there was always the chance that a rush job would come in, and an artist who was present would have a better chance of getting the job than one who was working at home. “If the client agency hadn’t asked them for a specific artist, they’d assign it to whoever was around and available,” Scheuer said, adding that he visited the Johnstone and Cushing offices nearly every day, a contrast to Flessel’s routine. “I didn’t work there much,” Flessel said. “I would socialize too much.”

Gill Fox art for a Johnstone and Cushing brochure

Bob LeRose, Johnstone and Cushing’s office manager, said he often volunteered his desk when visiting artists exceeded capacity. “Sometimes six guys would be working on the drafting tables we had set up,” he said. “When the seventh artist walked in, I got up and made room so he could get to work.”

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