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Manitoba History: Batsford Hits the Big Time

by Kevin Rollason

Number 70, Fall 2012

The Winnipeg Free Press was the first daily newspaper in Canada to have its own daily comic strip, which launched an international career for cartoonist Ben Batsford.

Unk and Billy call on the Mayor. Humour typically does not age well because it is founded in the values and experiences of a time, so what one generation finds hilarious, the next one finds bewildering. This 1921 cartoon by Free Press cartoonist Ben Batsford, however, hit on a theme that seems to resonate with successive generations: that some civil servants working for the Winnipeg city government—in this case led by mayor Edward Parnell (1859–1922)—might not be providing full value for their salaries.
Source: Manitoba Free Press, 20 June 1921, page 1.

He was the first Canadian cartoonist to have his comic strips syndicated in the United States. [1] And he drew a comic strip for Edgar Bergen, one of the most famous ventriloquists in the world. Benjamin Theodore Batsford, who was the staff editorial cartoonist for many years with the Manitoba Free Press, used his comic talents to make a name for himself in the early 1920s.

Batsford started drawing a comic strip for the Free Press in June 1921 called at times “Unk and Billy” or “Billy’s Uncle”, but the cartoon was suspended in April 1922. An article in the Free Press on 5 April 1922 stated that its readers would want to know “the why and wherefore of the disappearance of this ‘Made in Winnipeg’ pictorial strip which has won so much popularity as a member of the Free Press ‘comic’ family during the past eight months. Well, there’s a reason.” [2]

Batsford’s cartoon had been picked by a New York syndicate, which, according to the Free Press, was the first time a Canadian cartoonist had been syndicated in the US. In the spring of 1922, “Unk and Billy” was already appearing in twenty American newspapers. At that point, Batsford packed up his pens, left Winnipeg, and headed to New York. The Free Press said that because Batsford was leaving the paper, “Unk and Billy” would be suspended until Batsford got himself settled. The paper also congratulated itself for its own role in Batsford’s success.

The Free Press is the first Canadian newspaper to inaugurate a daily comic strip of its own, venturing into a branch of newspaper-making that had been confined previously to leading newspapers in five or six of the larger American cities and to large feature syndicates in New York and one or two other locations. The Free Press on this, as on many other occasions, showed its leadership in the Canadian fields. [3]

Batsford was born in Minneapolis in 1892, and, according to Free Press archives, he got his start at the newspaper in 1908. He wrote for the paper as well. In 1915, he even wrote a column called Motoring, but it was during the First World War years that he gained local fame for drawing cartoons for the paper.

Under the headline “Presentation to Free Press cartoonist”, a short story about Batsford in the Free Press in June 1917—which included a photograph of him in a military uniform—it stated he had left the paper to fight in the Great War after three years of drawing cartoons for the newspaper. The article said Batsford was presented with a gold wrist watch from his former fellow employees with the “wish expressed that Pte. Batsford would get close enough to the Kaiser to draw a cartoon of him.”

But during his time in Winnipeg, Batsford did more than draw editorial cartoons at the Free Press. He also dabbled in theatre. A Free Press article in December 1915, stated that the Walker Theatre would be presenting “The Passing Follies of 1915” presented by the Young Hebrew Dramatic Society and one of the featured skits would be “Two of a Kind,” which was “written by Benjamin T. Batsford, a promising young author of this city”. Batsford returned from the war and was reported as testifying before the preliminary hearing of the Winnipeg Strike leaders in 1919.

The popular “Little Annie Rooney” comic strip, created to compete with the hit “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip produced by a rival newspaper syndicate, began in 1927, but according to Wikipedia Batsford came on board to produce it for the year 1930. Just four years later, Batsford created Frankie Doodle for another comic strip syndicate, a comic strip again influenced by Little Orphan Annie, but this time about a curly red-haired boy. The comic strip ran until 1938.

The next year Batsford was in New York and he was tapped to draw the new comic strip authored by radio comedian and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. The strip was to be about Bergen’s famous creations Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.

A front page article in the 7 July 1939 Free Press shows a special cartoon Batsford drew just for Winnipeg readers, with McCarthy yelling at Snerd to “make a speech about how Ben Batsford used to be staff cartoonist on the Winnipeg Free Press.”

The article says, in part, that during the interview the reporter “enjoyed hearing Ben talk, not only for the interesting things he said, but because his talk sounded so homelike. “His voice sounded like Winnipeg where he grew to manhood and got his start in life as a cartoonist on the Free Press.”

Unfortunately, it appears Batsford only did the comic for a year. According to his obituary, Batsford later was a cartoonist for the New York Times. He died on 11 February 1977 in East Northport, New York.

But Batsford left his mark in Winnipeg. He was part of the rejuvenation of the Winnipeg Press Club in early 1922, and before leaving the city, he designed the Press Club’s logo. When the club opened its newly decorated clubrooms on Main Street in 1953, the logo had a place of pride … inlaid into the carpet.4 To this day, the Press Club continues to use Batsford’s logo.

Notes

1. Manitoba Free Press, 5 April 1922, page 16.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Winnipeg Press Club, Beer & Skits Program, 1953, page 10.

Mile High (Press) Club. This is an example of the over-the-top ads placed by prominent local and national companies in the annual Beer & Skits program, from the 1976 edition.
Source: Winnipeg Press Club, 1976 Beer & Skits Program, page 50.

Page revised: 27 November 2017

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