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Billy DeBeck: Meetcha at the Continental Hotel

In the DBTI (Days Before the Internet), original comic and cartoon art collectors would receive paper catalogs via snail-mail, in the DBTI known simply as mail.  These catalogs might be set sales from folks like Bruce Bergstrom, Jerry Muller, or Stu Reisbord, in which you could purchase artwork directly at a set price.  Of course, the availability of items often depended upon where you lived and how early you received your catalog.  Jerry lived in California and if you were an east coast customer, the chances were better than average that you would miss out on the good stuff.  Bruce and Stu were on the east coast, so I guess things evened out. There were also early auction catalogs from some of the major auction houses dipping their toes into the fledgling market.  During the 1980s, you could still find Krazy Kat Sunday pages for several hundred dollars, Jack Kirby pages might be around $100.00, but things were starting to slowly heat up.  There were also some dealers starting to hold their own auctions, such as Russ Cochran and Howard Lowery.  Catalogs would arrive, collectors would go through them and strategize, figuring out how high they might go on certain lots.  On the day of the auction, you would call in and check on the status of lots, topping the current high bid if it was something you wanted.  Sometimes there would be many calls into the evening.  As is always the case with auctions, you won some and you lost some.

In the late 1980s or early 1990s, one got away from me.  Howard Lowery auctioned off a lot containing 18 sketch pages by the great Billy DeBeck, creator of Barney Google.  There wasn’t much background about the pieces in the description and not all of them were pictured.  The artwork pictured was printed in black and white, but still, I really liked what I saw.  The drawings looked like they could be character studies for a storyline or simply sketches that DeBeck drew for his own amusement.  They showed DeBeck’s process, which is something I always find myself drawn to.  I was smitten with the pieces, but not enough to win them, winding up as the under-bidder for the lot.  And then the drawings disappeared.  I didn’t see them for nearly 20 years, until they resurfaced in 2007.  This time they were offered to me as a direct sale, and I did not miss out on this second chance.

The sketch pages are lovely, showing DeBeck’s visual thinking out loud as he develops characters, discovering their forms and attributes.  They also convey DeBeck’s facility at capturing figural attitude in a gestural drawing with few means.  There are a couple of pieces that are reminiscent of Honoré Daumier’s work, the French printmaker, caricaturist, painter and sculptor.  Many others appear to be strongly influenced by Phil May’s work.  May was a ground-breaking 19th century British cartoonist most well known for his Gutter-Snipes cartoons featuring street waifs.  In his all-too-short life, May became a bridge between the more realistic illustrators and the less-is-more cartoonists that would follow.  He relied on a strong, gestural contour line supported by flat linear tones and shading.  These are qualities that you can often find in DeBeck’s own Barney Google.  DeBeck was a fan of May’s work, as was Harry Hershfield, who owned one of May’s original sketchbooks.  In fact, DeBeck was such an admirer of May’s work that he had his young assistant, Fred Lasswell, copy both May’s and Charles Dana Gibson’s work to better understand two vastly types of great pen work. 

Then there are those DeBeck characters, a mix of Damon Runyon-inspired lowbrow and highbrow types that you might find throughout New York City, from blind pigs to the opera.  DeBeck reveled in these types of characters, filling Barney Google with them until an Appalachian moonshiner named Snuffy Smith elbowed Barney out of the spotlight, taking advantage of the hillbilly craze in the mid-1930s.

I can only hazard educated guesses as to when these sketches were made. All the pieces were drawn on the stationary of Beau-Belle Products, Inc., a New York City cosmetics and novelties company.  The company was located at 11 West 42nd street.  Up until 1930 or so, there was a Hotel Continental in New York, located at Broadway and 41st street, about three blocks from Beau-Belle Products, on the other side of Bryant Park.  The hotel was destroyed by fire around 1930.  In the 1920s, DeBeck had an apartment in New York on Park Avenue, as well as a house in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Given that information, the mid-to-late 1920s seems to be a fair timeframe for the drawings.  It’s quite possible that DeBeck spent time in the lobby of the Hotel Continental while in the city, looking for different characters to inhabit Barney Google, or maybe he had an entirely different project in mind.  Taken in total, the characters seem like they were ripe for a Broadway production, written by Damon Runyon, right on 42nd street, around the corner from the Hotel Continental.

Hotel Continental postcard, 1920s
Newspaper ad for the Hotel Continental
Beau-Belle Products, Inc. stationary header
DeBeck’s drawing of the Continental Hotel, which has a more European flavor it it than the one located in New York City. You’ll note that DeBeck’s depiction of the flags is similar to the postcard image of the hotel
The lobby of the Continental Hotel, featuring Scrub the bellboy and Cap’n Bull Idaho, the head bellman
Meetcha at the Continental pictures a group of men in the bar, with a wonderful foreground character anchoring the entire image. This drawing pays some homage to Phil May’s work, with the wonderful figures in the background and their flat shapes of linear tone.
DeBeck sketches of an assortment of wonderful characters. Such lovely gestural line work that captures so much information with limited means. The small figure sweeping the floor and the guy with his hat in his hand convey a strong figural attitude and movement. Some of these, if not all, surely appear to have been drawn from life.
“Crocker Yates — Hasn’t been out of the hotel in seventeen years.” Strong pencil lines by DeBeck, supported by brief hits of shadow and color, help to convey a solid mass in this figure. Mr. Yates appears to have sunken into the chair.
Two wonderful characters here: Hoot Morgan, who hails from Texas, and Gunboat Jones, who looks like a tough guy if ever you saw one. These are terrific studies in character development, especially related to the shapes and postures of the characters. Their body shapes are near inversions of each other.
Another page of figural studies, likely from life. Maybe DeBeck was eating in the hotel restaurant when he captured the waiters. The small sandwich-board guy is brief but wonderful, right down to the pissed-off expression on his face.
An ink doodle on the back of the sketch page above. It does not seem very DeBeck-like, but it’s also just a quickie.
More wonderful character development by our man DeBeck. This page features Rose Yeast (Prima Dona), the Four Hortons (acrobats from Czechoslovakia), and Madame Maltese (“Accused of murdering four husbands, each time declared innocent”). It was a wildly interesting group of folks at the Continental!
Another page of sketches, mostly likely drawn from life. You can see that DeBeck had some trouble with the figure on the right. C’est la vie!
DeBeck tackles the Mezzanine Boys, Coleen O’Dear, and the “Millionaire rug merchant and frying pan king” who is stuck on Coleen. O’Dear has the look of so many of the women in Barney Google that Barney would fall head over heels for.
This page is not captioned, but has always felt like a life study to me. It is also somewhat reminiscent of Honoré Daumier’s more gestural sketch work. Simply lovely, fluid pencil line work.
Speak of the devil, a Daumier sketch page. There is a similar fluidity to the line work, though Daumier’s is a bit more organic.
This is one of my favorite sketch pages in the group. A lovely character study of Annie Potts, with the following dialogue: “Shure… the ol’ gintlemon arsked me ter merry ‘im. He’s that lonesome.” This has a definite feel of one of Phil May’s cartoons, right now to the odd mix of English, Irish and Scottish. The drawing is simply beautiful, with just enough of a contour line to convey the weight of the forms.
Phil May. You can see some similarities with the piece above. Circa 1900.
Because there’s no such thing as too much Phil May. Just look at that easy separation of tones via shapes, and that wonderful contour line work. No wonder DeBeck so admired May’s work.
Harrington, the “Poor Little Rich Boy”. There always seems to be one of these types of characters in stories of the period. It looks as if DeBeck got a little bored with trying to do something with poor Harrington.
Here we have J. Pomroy Snodgrass, the resident Manager, as well as a character identified simply as “The Guest in Room 1900”. DeBeck added: “Man up in room 1900 looks suspicious. He wont (sic) talk”. A mysterious character is he!
This sketch is another one that appears to have been drawn from life. The characters are handled in a breezy manner, with so few lines, yet just enough substance. The chair is a lovely little touch to help set the space. Reportage Artist DeBeck reporting for service!
Now we’re cookin’ wid characters! On the left we have a “Film Exec” and an “Ex Con”, followed by Prince Hopperoff (Mike) just left-of-center. Up top is the head of a G-Man, followed by “Show Biro” and a bookie at the far right. Except for the G-Man figure, who’s rather generic, the characters are beautifully developed.
But wait! There’s more great characters! Cissy Cortez, the “Cigar Miss”, a “hot Spanish doll” with a “sweet accent” starts things off. Up top is Nix Flannigan, maybe the hotel’s doorman. Then with have Snif McHolmes, who, as you’ve guessed is the “House Bloodhound”, AKA hotel detective, and Owens the room clerk, “A petty grafter….”. All four of these characters are nicely developed in sketch form, though Nix and Snif have the strongest body language and figural attitude.
Last but not least is Ivan the cook. There’s not much to be said about Ivan, except that DeBeck handled him with a lot of care. The brief but descriptive contour lines are supported by light shadows, giving Ivan some good weight. And there is just enough of a setting to crate a wonderful sense of space.

Let me close with a couple of miscellaneous DeBeck drawings, unrelated to the sketch pages above:

A DeBeck check made out to the movie critic Rose Pelswick, adorned with a lovely sketch and some witty dialogue.
Finally, a sketch of Barney Google that my friend Sy Schechter received from DeBeck at his studio in Florida in 1935. Sy liked to recount the story of meeting DeBeck, and how his mother served him fish and onions before the visit. As Sy was leaving DeBeck’s house, he told Sy that he shouldn’t eat fish and onions before the next visit! What a memory. Sy’s widow Sandy gave me this drawing after Sy passed away. I apologize for the bad quality of the photo of this treasure, but the piece is framed and on my wall.

Many thanks for tuning into another blog post. I hope you enjoyed it!

Rob Stolzer has been collecting original comic strip and cartoon artwork for over 40 years. He has written numerous articles for Hogan's Alley, the CFA-APA and other journals. Stolzer taught art at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point for 33 years, where he taught Art Seminar, Drawing, Figure Drawing, Graphic Narration, Illustration, and Painting courses.

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