Last Thursday America was fascinated to see President Trump pushing one of his medical experts to conduct research on crazy and harmful proposed cures for COVID-19, including drinking or injecting toxic disinfectants and shining light inside the body. I got emails from quacks pushing bleach pills soon after Trumps spectacle. This scary nonsense led to lots of cartoons –see the best of the batch below, with a second installment tomorrow as these cartoons are still coming in.
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We wanted to do a 50th anniversary of Peanuts celebration, but hotel construction put the plans for a Santa Rosa convention on hold. United Media, the syndicate that owned Peanuts, was located in Manhattan, and NCS conventions draw the biggest crowds when they are in New York City, so I decided to do the 2000 convention in New York. My wife, Peg and I flew to New York twice and visited a half dozen prospective hotels. We got competing bids from three hotels and spent a month haggling prices with all three before deciding on the World Trade Center Marriott in lower Manhattan, which gave us a great deal on Memorial Day weekend, when lower Manhattan is traditionally deserted. Before that, the NCS usually had their Reuben Awards on Mothers Day weekend. I got some angry blasts of criticism from old NCSers in New York who thought it was outrageous to have the convention in lower Manhattan because it should have been in Midtown, where it always used to be. “Nobody wants to go downtown!” they told me.
The convention was extra difficult because our previous management company had crashed and burned soon after I became president. I had just hired a new management company, but they didn’t want to run the convention because they hadn’t gotten to know the NCS yet; they wanted to come to their first NCS Reubens event just to observe. My wife Peg ended up doing nearly all of the organizing work that we would usually expect a management company to do: starting with handling registrations and tracking all the payments, making seating charts and dealing with menus, responding to the many special requests, arguing about hotel bills and comps, manning the convention registration desk throughout the weekend, and serving as the bouncer for those who overstayed their welcome in the Presidential Suite. I couldn’t have done it without Peg. (And the new management company folks were good sports; they ended up pitching in on site –more than they first planned.)
The convention would be a celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Peanuts. Charles M. Schulz (“Sparky”) was on board with it; United Media was delighted and generously offered to cover the cost of a big Sunday brunch for everyone at the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the North Tower. Political cartoonist, Mike Luckovich stepped up and was a tremendous help; he did all the organizational work of getting the newspaper comic strip artists to draw 50th anniversary of Peanuts strips on the same Saturday that our banquet was held, when we planned to give our lifetime achievement award to Sparky.
All seemed to be going well when we received the terribly sad news that Sparky had died in February. With all the Peanuts celebration stuff planned for May, 2000, and with the commitments I had already made in the hotel contract, I thought we might be in trouble. We ended up having the biggest NCS convention ever, kicking off with a grand opening cocktail reception on the 2nd floor promenade of the North Tower lobby.
Mike Luckovich contacted all the newspaper comic strip cartoonists and got them to draw Peanuts “tribute cartoons” for that Saturday, rather than the Peanuts anniversary cartoons we had planned earlier. The tributes in the “funny pages” were great, and I was walking around the convention the whole time, with my cell phone on my ear, giving interviews to journalists who were writing about the big newspaper comics tribute. We gave the lifetime achievement award to Sparky posthumously.
Steve McGarry and Jeff Keane both have previous show business experience and ran the shows for the first time, raising our production quality to levels the NCS hadn’t seen before. Bil Keane, Jeff’s dad who drew The Family Circus comic, was a very funny guy; he had been the emcee of the Reubens for many years, but at his insistence, this was going to be his last year as Reuben emcee. Steve had the idea to do a Bil Keane Roast on the Sunday night, which led to a repeat of the King Features/Mort Walker kerfuffle, this time with King objecting to the Bil Keane Roast –Bil liking the Roast idea, and King adopting a positive tone again, becoming a second big sponsor, and paying for dinner before the Roast. Steve’s Roast of Bil involved lots of cartoonists doing skits and was great fun.
There were other fun things that happened. I’m a big David Levine fan, and he was a speaker, so I got to meet him. We had a panel of features editors from top newspapers across America talking about the comics (that’s something that would never happen today). There was an odd debate in the NCS at that time about seminars at the conventions, which were still a new part of the Reubens weekend; some old-timers thought the conventions should only consist of parties and objected to seminars. I was “pro-seminar” and pushed lots of seminars into the schedule. RJ Matson managed the many seminars and did a great job.
What is most fun about being the NCS president is that the president gets to “commission” the Reuben weekend artwork; I called my first choice, who graciously agreed, which gave me the delightful opportunity to serve as art director to the legendary Jack Davis. I love Jack’s work and I grew up looking forward to his art in each new issue of Mad Magazine; it was great fun to work with him on this. He was such a Southern gentleman. Jack Davis was, and always will be, my cartoonist hero.
My kids, Susie and Michael, were 16 and 10 years old at the time, and starting with the site visit, they had gotten to know the World Trade Center well, hanging around the shopping mall and becoming well acquainted with every nook and cranny of the entire complex. Susie danced with Jack Davis on Reubens night, and both kids went to most of the seminars.
There were also plenty of nervous moments. There were over 630 people at the banquet (a typical Reuben banquet size is half that size). Several local cartoonists waited until the last minute, that Saturday, to decide they wanted to come, and showed up at the hotel to register on site for the dinner. No one was turned away, though it meant continually juggling seating and adding extra chairs to numerous tables. The ballroom was filled beyond capacity and the new management company people got nudged out of the banquet, so more NCSers and guests could have their seats. We were lucky the fire marshal didn’t make a visit.
We always had a live band in those days, so I hired a band that the old-timers liked; one that had played for the NCS years ago when the Reuben Awards dinner was a single night at the Plaza Hotel on Central Park South. The band didn’t show up until the exact minute that the show was set to begin. I learned that if you want the band to be in place before the show starts, you have to pay them more for those few extra minutes.
The Sunday brunch at Windows on the World ran well over budget, with open bars and cartoonists who will drink everything they see. United Media contracted for the brunch directly, so the bill of well over $100,000.00 went directly to United Media (thank goodness). It was a great, boozy brunch, but chilling in retrospect. All of the staff at the Windows on the World restaurant were trapped above where the airliner hit the building on 9/11/2001, and the employees who served us brunch did not survive the attack.
When the Twin Towers fell, the entire 22-story Marriott was also destroyed. Most of the hotel staff got out safely, but forty people reportedly died there, primarily firemen who were using the hotel as a staging area. While it was a shock to the entire world to see the towers and hotel fall, the fact that this had recently been home to our convention and a playground for my kids made it feel personal. Marriott chose not to rebuild the hotel and the site is now a part of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.
I look back on our convention at the World Trade Center with both warmth and chills.
I’ve been a member of the National Cartoonists Society (NCS) for nearly 40 years. I was president of the NCS from June, 1999 to May, 2001, and I ran two “Reuben Awards” conventions. The first was held at the World Trade Center in Manhattan the year before the towers were destroyed, and the second in Florida at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. Much of the work of the NCS president is like being a wedding planner, with all the joys, stresses and horrors that implies, which left me with an odd perspective on our colorful profession. Here are my recollections …
Twenty years ago the membership of the NCS included nearly twice as many professional cartoonist members as it does now, and popular newspaper comic strips were the NCS’s strength. The group was rancorous and my years in the hot seat were toasty. We had a crisis at the start when our management company demanded that we triple their fees; they were doing a terrible job so I fired them and I went about finding a new firm, arguing with our board members who wanted to stay with the old management company and pay the higher fees. Finding a new management company for our unusual group was a big chore, because of the unusual nature of our group compared to more conventional professional organizations.
When the new company eventually took over, the old firm transferred our records and I was told that our files looked like someone climbed to the top of a nine foot ladder and randomly dropped the papers into the boxes. It turns out that we didn’t have records of past members’ dues payments – we didn’t know who was paid up and who wasn’t. It became clear why the old management company was doing a lousy job. It was a big mess to clean up the records and to make sense of the membership dues collections; I faced a challenging learning curve of getting myself and the new management company up to speed.
I had a “wedding” to deal with right away. In those days, the NCS had a big, annual Christmas party in Manhattan, often at the Century Club. We planned our biggest Christmas party ever, with the theme being that we would award a “Golden T-Square” to Mort Walker, who drew the Beetle Bailey comic strip. Mort was delighted. We had a nice sponsor in an internet company that was courting us at the time. The 1999 New York Christmas party would be even bigger than the previous year’s Reuben Awards convention in San Antonio.
THE 1999 CHRISTMAS PARTY
The NCS had long depended on support from the syndicates, especially King Features. When I first started as NCS president, King’s comics editor told me that King was finished with their support for the NCS; he said King didn’t like that the NCS included non-newspaper cartoonist members and he didn’t see what King got out of their longtime support of the NCS. Later I got an angry call from King Features’ chairman who was furiously ranting that he wanted us to cancel the award for Mort because we were stepping on King’s toes; Mort was their guy. I don’t recall saying anything in that crazy phone call; I just listened.
On the other hand, Mort was flattered and pleased with the award/party idea, and it was Mort who carried the day. King Features changed their tone after some conversations with Mort and ended up as a second full sponsor for the Christmas party. The double sponsorship let us double the budget and made for quite an opulent evening. I remember that we had a raw bar with all the oysters we could eat, which was fun, and the open bar was freely flowing. Wedding planner glee.
King asked to give their “Segar Award” at the Christmas party, an award that King management chooses to give to a King cartoonist; there was a tradition of giving the Segar Award at the King-sponsored-Christmas party, so I said “yes” to King and there were two awards that night. That was my second big issue as president, because many NCSers objected to King giving their own award at the NCS’s party and they aimed their ire at me, complaining that King had “bought” me. Somebody at the party punched somebody else and most people were talking about the punch. And the huge bill for the big party went entirely on Arnold Roth‘s personal tab at the Century Club, which made Arnie nervous when the NCS took too long to reimburse him. (Sorry about that, Arnie.)
But Mort was happy, and it was a great party.
PLANNING MY FIRST CONVENTION
The first Reuben Awards convention that I ran as NCS president was in 2000, at the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel in lower Manhattan, but it was originally intended to take place in Santa Rosa, California. The convention was to be a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the comic strip, Peanuts. My predecessor as NCS president, George Breisacher, had been talking to Peanuts creator, Charles M. “Sparky” Schulz and the city of Santa Rosa about having the 2000 Reuben Awards banquet at Sparky’s ice skating rink. Sparky and Santa Rosa were both very generous in their offer to host the convention. George and I flew to Santa Rosa to have dinner with Sparky and his wife, Jeannie, to tour the ice rink and visit the proposed hotel. The hotel was a few miles from the rink, but the city of Santa Rosa offered to cover the cost of busses, and they even offered to have a parade. The ice rink was great fun, and Sparky told us how he had a wood floor that would be installed on top of the ice for the Reubens banquet. We had lovely meetings; Sparky was charming and more than generous, but the problem was the hotel, which would be under construction at that time. With no local hotel alternative that could fit the NCS, and difficult logistics, Santa Rosa didn’t happen. We figured the NCS would do Santa Rosa another year, when the construction at the hotel was completed. I was left scrambling to find a new venue for the 2000 convention. This was actually quite typical for new NCS presidents – planning ahead was not part of the culture for the NCS.
Instead of Santa Rosa, I decided to take the Reubens back to New York, and after a search and competitive bid process, I signed a big contract with the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel, still with the theme of celebrating the 50th anniversary of Peanuts.
Sponsorship for the 2000 Reuben Awards weekend was promised, including a big commitment from United Media, the syndicate that owned Peanuts. Sparky, was going to receive the NCS’s lifetime achievement award on Reuben night and political cartoonist Mike Luckovich had organized most of the newspaper comic strip cartoonists to draw a Peanuts 50th anniversary themed strip on the Saturday of our banquet – then in mid-February, three months before the convention in May, we got the news that Sparky had died.