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.

A self-portrait by Hatlo. (Throughout the article, click the illustrations to see enlargements.)

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.

A Lucky Strike ad featuring Jimmy Hatlo

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 hypocrisywas 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.

A sports cartoon by Hatlo

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.

The first “They’ll Do It Every Time” panel

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.

A strip featuring Little Iodine

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 studiothe home of the Keystone Kops and the Little Rascals among many othersas 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.

The “Little Iodine” page from Feb. 6, 1949.

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