Jimmy Hatlo—Man of Many Hats
Jimmy Hatlo was one of America’s most beloved cartoonists, taking the art of observational humor to new levels of popularity. Ed Black looks at the man who held a mirror up to his readers.
Jimmy Hatlo wore many hats during his career—appropriately for a cartoonist who tipped his hat in thanks to readers for their suggestions thousands of times. Hatlo made a splash nationally with They’ll Do It Every Time, which he drew from 1929 until his death in 1963. Hatlo produced the first six years of They’ll Do It Every Time exclusively for his employer, the San Francisco Call-Bulletin. As a Hearst paper—the evening companion to the morning San Francisco Examiner—the feature caught the eye of the papers’ owner, William Randolph Hearst, who began syndicating Hatlo through King Features Syndicate in 1936. Hearst’s instincts were good, and They’ll Do It Every Time eventually ran in nearly 700 papers (a Nov. 10, 1952, Time magazine article about Hatlo cited 637 client papers) and earned its creator a quarter-million dollars a year.
In 1943, Hatlo created another feature, a Sunday-only page, Little Iodine, a mischievous redheaded girl he introduced in the daily They’ll Do It Every Time panel. In the daily panel, Iodine’s father was the beleaguered nebbish, Henry Tremblechin, who toiled thanklessly for the pompous magnate J.P. Bigdome, who in turn oversaw the Boneless Herring Corp., Bilgewater Beverage Corp. and the Seldom Burns Oil Company. But despite the spinoff, Iodine and her parents appeared regularly in They’ll Do It Every Time.
For all its success, Hatlo created They’ll Do It Every Time largely out of expedience. In February 1929, the 32-year-old Hatlo was a sports cartoonist. One day he had finished up that day’s work and had some time on his hands. His managing editor, Edgar T. “Scoop” Gleason, was frantic: He had a hole to fill in his comics page when Hearst abruptly ordered him to pull Billy DeBeck’s Bughouse Fables so it could run in the Examiner. (The other version of the story concerns a week’s worth of TAD’s Indoor Sports getting lost in the mail from the syndicate, leaving a hole in the newspaper.) Gleason prevailed upon Hatlo to produce something, pronto. Hatlo then drew the first They’ll Do It Every Time panel, filling the hole and relieving a grateful Gleason. The first panel appeared on Feb. 5, 1929. Hatlo kept producing the panel, and before long readers were sending fan mail.
The initial theme of the panel—people’s hypocrisy—was universally relatable and led to the feature’s nearly instantaneous popularity, but Hatlo eventually found it confining. Readers began sending in suggestions about a brother-in-law, a spouse, a boss or a coworker. Hatlo had found his new font of ideas: his readers. (In this sense, Dilbert’s Scott Adams is observing a tradition.) Though he couldn’t pay them for their ideas, he compensated them with something even more valuable: their names in print. In the lower portion of the panel, a character would doff his fedora with the salutation, “Thanks and a tip of the Hatlo hat to” that day’s idea-giver. The universality of life’s maddening minutiae and daily aggravations also played a role in the panel’s success in syndication, as the theme was not circumscribed by region; annoying coworkers, loudmouthed neighbors and hectoring spouses are everywhere.
Born James Cecil Hatlow on Sept. 1, 1897, in East Providence, Rhode Island, Hatlo was the son of James M. Hatlow, who had emigrated from the Orkney Islands, off the east coast of Scotland. James was deaf and took a job that was a trade of many deaf men: printing. (The equipment’s excessive volume was no obstacle for those without hearing.) When Jimmy was one year old, the family moved to Los Angeles, where James got a job setting the type for the Los Angeles Times. (When Jimmy embarked on his career as a sports cartoonist, he drew the “H” as a football goalpost and the “o” as a football. Though he dropped the “w,” he noted the elision with the apostrophe that he included in his signature for the rest of his career.) When Jimmy began his freshman year in high school, he signed up exclusively for art courses, later saying he didn’t know why but that he liked drawing. At the end of the year, the principal reviewed the freshman class’ transcripts and saw Hatlo’s unbalanced course load. He called the young man into this office and gave him a choice: He could repeat his freshman year and take required courses such as math, English, science and history, or he could quit school. Hatlo took the latter option.
Jimmy’s choice deeply disappointed his father. To keep his son from idling his time away, James got him a job at the Times as a printer’s devil, and Hatlo was told that he’d be hired to fill the next vacancy in the art department. That opportunity didn’t arise for nearly three years, until early 1917, but young Jimmy got the job he wanted. He drew diagrams, airbrushed wire photos and accompanied detectives to crime scenes to draw them for the paper. He was earning $9 a week, down from the $22 he earned each week as a linotype apprentice. But he kept cartooning, and in early 1918 some of his cartoons about Kaiser Wilhelm made the front page as editorial cartoons.
When the United States entered World War I, Hatlo tried to enlist but was rejected because of poor eyesight. Eventually, he was drafted anyway and signed up for pilot training at Kelly Field in Texas. (Apparently, the military’s standard for eyesight was relaxed.) The recruits drilled in a field in Los Angeles, and Hatlo became a victim of the influenza pandemic then ravaging countries around the world. After his recuperation, the war was over, and he returned to work at the Times.
In his rented apartment not far from the paper, he evaluated his life. He was 21 years old, earning $19 a week and had no chance for career advancement. He quit the Times and got a job at the Mack Sennett movie studio—the home of the Keystone Kops and the Little Rascals among many others—as a publicist. Still restless, he saw an opportunity with the growing popularity of automobiles and took a job with an agency that represented auto dealers along the California coast. He helped publicize the dealers and earned $55 a week plus expenses. In 1923, the San Francisco Bulletin offered him a job as editor of its automobile section at $75 a week plus 10 percent of the amount of the money auto dealers spent on advertising. A year later, the San Francisco Call offered Hatlo the editorship of its auto section, with a raise to $83 a week. (The Call and the Bulletin were competing papers until they merged in August 1929, forming the Call-Bulletin.) Hatlo accepted. It seemed that Hatlo had set the course of his career in automotive editing, but a football game intervened.
During that time in California, football reigned supreme, and no team was more revered than the University of California at Berkeley. Berkeley had gone undefeated for five years running and was the pride of the Bay Area. A loss to a team composed of former college all-stars called the Olympic Club sent shock waves through the community. A football nut himself, Hatlo drew a cartoon about the loss. Reluctant to deliver the cartoon directly to the Call ’s sports editor, Pat Frayne, he waited until Frayne was out of the office and placed the cartoon on his desk. The next day, the cartoon greeted Hatlo on the front page of the paper’s sports section.
Call editor Fremont Older assigned Hatlo to draw editorial cartoons, which he did for a time. He simply did not take to the assignment very well; his wheelhouse was humor and sports. His spot illustrations were peppered throughout the paper, but he became recognized for his sports cartoons. With a half-dozen papers clamoring for area readers, it made sense to play to Hatlo’s crowd-pleasing strength, so he began focusing on sports cartooning.
Unlike the smooth trajectory his professional life was on, Hatlo’s personal life was not free of drama. While on a cruise with his first wife, she mysteriously disappeared while sailing north from South America. In 1932, his father died. Hatlo flew to the Orkney Islands, about which his father had often spoken nostalgically. Hatlo spread his father’s ashes in a churchyard there.
Back home, Hatlo was becoming accustomed to his regional celebrity. At a meeting of the San Francisco Advertising Club in the 1930s, Hatlo was guest speaker, and the original art to one of his sports cartoons, Swineskin Gulch, was a door prize. A young woman who was a secretary to an advertising executive won the art, and she asked Hatlo to autograph it. Her request led to a two-hour conversation that concluded with Hatlo inviting the woman to attend the next week’s football game with him. She obliged, and a relationship ensured, with the two marrying in 1937.
Financial security permitted Hatlo to move to the tony enclave of Carmel, Calif., Hatlo’s favorite location in the state and a community that had a small and close-knit cartoonist community. In 1948, a son, James, was born to the couple. Hatlo bought a small house in Carmel and proceeded to drive contractors mad with constant additions to the house, last-minute design changes and lectures on how to perform their jobs. His wife began to see glimpses of Hatlo’s terrible temper.
His increasing workload—at home and at the paper—led to other changes. He began hiring assistants for the labor-intensive, detail-oriented They’ll Do It Every Time. Tommy Thompson was a local, residing just north of Hatlo in Palo Alto, and he began assisting on the panel. (Thompson also produced his own feature for King in the 1940s, The Powerhouse.) Bob Dunn also came on board in 1939, although he lived a continent away in New York and worked at the King Features headquarters on East 45th Street. Dunn was one of King’s most reliable and versatile artists and made many cartoonists look good while never having the spotlight to himself. (He already had experience with the sidekick role, having assisted Milt Gross on That’s My Pop! for King in the 1930s.) A longtime King colleague, Hy Eisman, tells a typical Dunn anecdote: “Bob had an office at King. Whenever he wanted to remember a phone number, he wrote it on the wall of his office. Over time, there were dozens of phone numbers covering the walls. One morning, King hired painters to come in and paint the offices. When Bob came to work that day, he found all of those phone numbers obliterated by a new coat of paint.”
Hatlo worked in a second-story studio in his home, carefully penciling his panels and sending them to Thompson with numerous instructions penciled in the margins: “Show it snowing out the window,” “Put white spots in the center of the pupils of their eyes,” “Put some shading in to emphasize the guy’s pot gut,” etc. Thompson would send the panels back to Hatlo for further embellishment. He had exacting standards for the panel’s appearance, and when he felt Thompson or Dunn had not met them, he was not shy about letting them know in no uncertain terms. But Hatlo reserved his most intense ire for Dunn, who faced it on a near-constant basis. Hatlo would call Dunn to berate him about a perceived subpar job on the most recent batch of panels and fire him on the spot, only to rehire him days later while telling him what a great job he was doing and to keep up the good work.
His secretary, Joan Tait, also had her hands full, sifting through the nearly 700 reader-submitted ideas he received each week, selecting a handful for Hatlo to consider for use in the strip. Meanwhile, Dunn was ghosting Hatlo’s Little Iodine Sunday page and brought on Al Scaduto to help him, beginning with the Sept. 10, 1967, panel. Hatlo had Tait and his wife—and occasionally even himself—pose to assist him in depicting the figures he wanted to portray in his panels. He would send Thompson photographs he took to help him achieve the look he wanted.
The machine Hatlo constructed paid off handsomely. Apart from the strip’s lucrative syndication to newspapers, They’ll Do It Every Time was published in book collections, the first in 1939. More books continued in the 1940s and 1950s, with author and journalist Damon Runyon contributing the foreword to the 1943 collection. In it, Runyon called Hatlo “one of the greatest cartoonists the newspaper business has ever produced.” Runyon also revealed that he unsuccessfully attempted to persuade his employers at the New York American to lure Hatlo east.
But Hatlo was still not satisfied. He launched The Hatlo Inferno as an accompaniment to They’ll Do It Every Time in 1953. The panel, which ran until 1958, took a sadistically humorous look at the comeuppance of various malefactors (those who mow their lawns early in the morning, etc.) in a cartoonishly depicted hell, with Satan’s henchmen standing in for Hatlo’s usual Greek chorus of commentators. Meanwhile, Little Iodine was also performing well, with a long-running series of comic books (from 1949 to 1962) and a 1946 theatrical movie, now believed to be lost. (Irene Ryan, later of “Granny” fame on The Beverly Hillbillies, played Iodine’s mother, Cora.) Hatlo brought his characteristic jaundiced view to the tyke: “I tried to make her the embodiment of all the brats I knew,” he told one interviewer.
But even with support staff in place, Hatlo maintained a heavy workload and demanding schedule. A heavy smoker (and paid pitchman for Lucky Strike cigarettes, his preferred brand) not to mention copious alcohol consumption, Hatlo placed a considerable burden on his body. In late November 1963, he fell ill at home and was rushed to a local hospital where he died on Dec. 1, 1963. He was 65.
Everything was in place to continue Hatlo’s work past his death. Dunn began writing They’ll Do It Every Time, keeping Scaduto on to assist him with inking and lettering, and he also kept Thompson on as assistant until Thompson’s death in 1967. Dunn also wrote and drew the Little Iodine Sunday page, while Scaduto drew the Little Iodine spinoff comic book for Dell Comics for 14 years. In 1967, longtime King Features comics editor Sylvan Byck summoned Eisman, long renowned for his unparalleled ability to mimic other cartoonists’ styles, to his office. Byck hired Eisman to draw Little Iodine, assured he could duplicate Dunn’s style (which was, after all, a facsimile of Hatlo’s).
This division of labor among the cartoonists continued largely unchanged until Dunn’s death in January 1989, when he was 80. Scaduto assumed sole production of They’ll Do It Every Time until he died in December 2007 at 79 years of age. At that point, King chose to end the feature with the Feb. 2, 2008, panel. Eisman produced Little Iodine until King pulled the plug on it in 1985.
They’ll Do It Every Time was not only remarkable for the almost accidental circumstances under which it was created, but also for its longevity and adaptability. Few strips credited those who submitted ideas, and Hatlo supplied not only the donors’ names but also their addresses. In this way, he played on the natural human tendency to seek recognition even as he benefited from the steady stream of material. Hatlo’s success spawned imitators such as Al Fagaly and Harry Shorten’s There Oughta Be a Law. There were other cartoonists who mined the humor in everyday life—Clare Briggs, H.T. Webster and J.R. Williams, to name only a few—but none achieved the popularity that Hatlo did. Succeeding generations of cartoonists who spoke directly to readers, solicited their ideas and held a mirror up to their lives all owe a tip of the hat to Jimmy Hatlo.
(To view the images below, click on the thumbnails.)