I was sad to hear cartoonist Mort Walker, who brought the world “Beetle Bailey,” which at one time ran in 1,800 newspapers worldwide, died Saturday, January 27, at the age of 94. I interviewed him a few times in the early 2000s while working as a Miami-based reporter for CBS News Radio and the program America in the Morning, hosted by Jim Bohannon.
It was a difficult period for Walker as the International Museum of Cartoon Art, which he founded in 1974, was struggling to survive. By then it was located in Boca Raton, Florida, but failed to attract enough donations, while a couple of corporate sponsors had gone bankrupt. A plan to affiliate with Florida Atlantic University also fell through.
The museum had an extensive collection of items, most of which had been donated by other cartoonists. In 2002 he spoke with me about a last ditch effort to raise money to pay the building’s mortgage by auctioning off the museum’s most prized possession, the original hand-drawn pencil sketches for a silent film called Plane Crazy.
Hear my report for Westwood One’s America in the Morning on the planned auction in 2002 of Plane Crazy.
“It’s what we call our Mona Lisa. It’s Walt Disney’s very first drawings of Mickey Mouse back in 1928 right after Lindbergh made his flight and this was sort of spoofing his flight in a way,” Walker told me. The 36 sketches on six panels had been appraised at more than $3 million, but when bids came in well below that at an auction on May 19, 2002, it was taken off the market.
It was eventually announced that the museum would be closing its doors, and there were a lot of fingers being pointed about who was to blame in the failed venture. I called Walker, but when I reached him he didn’t want to record an interview. I pressed him a little, arguing that I had given the museum positive coverage over the years by reporting on exhibits, and he relented, giving me some very honest comments. I always respected him for that.
Hear my 2002 report for America in the Morning on the museum then closing its doors.
“Oh, it’s terrible, I feel like crying because we love this building. I helped design it, and we just thought we were going to be the mecca for cartoons all over the world. And we didn’t get the financial or emotional support in the city that we needed,” Walker said.
At that point there was discussion about what would become of the collection. A key goal, he told me, was that it remain open and available to the public. One idea was to move the museum to the New York City area, which he noted was more of a tourist destination than Boca Raton, but an effort to house it in the Empire State Building didn’t work out. In 2008, Wikipedia reports, Walker accepted an offer to merge his collection with that of Ohio State University.
In my interview six years earlier in 2002, Walker told me, “We’re very, very sad to leave Boca, and it’s a dream that I’ve been working on for 27 years and it just didn’t seem to work out here.”