Old Felix the Cat creator 60 going on 8 (1977)
By Rita Shade, Freeport Journal-Standard (Illinois) September 14, 1977
Fort Lee, New Jersey — Otto Messmer has played second-fiddle to a cat most of his life. But now, at age 84, he’s relishing his newfound fame as the original creator of the silent movie cartoon delight, Felix the Cat.
“That’s not Fritz, the X-Rated Cat,” he says sternly. “I set people straight real quick about that.”
In 1919, when artists were experimenting with animation, Messmer was asked by Paramount Studios, then based in Fort Lee, to create a new character for the cartoon series, Feline Follies. This was at a time when storyboards were drawn with a pen and pencil, blackened and photographed one at a time.
“I went home and drew this angular, black cat with big wide eyes to fill the white screen. I patterned him after Charlie Chaplin, using his facial expressions and funny movements. The audience loved him. And so did Chaplin. Felix did things on the screen that Chaplin couldn’t do on film. He had personality,” he said.
Felix was plainly drawn. He used an invisible bag of tricks to get himself out of trouble, walked back and forth with his hands behind his back, and talked to the audience through large question and exclamation marks on the screen. In later days, words were flashed on the screen.
But like Chaplin in front of the camera, Felix was the center of attention on the storyboard. “The other cartoon characters in those days were limited in what they could do. A great friend of mine, Walt Disney, also had a cat. But he had it dressed up with shoes and gloves and other clothes, like Mickey Mouse. Them characters were limited in their fantasy worlds,” he mused.
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“But Felix. Ahh. Felix. He could be an alley cat one time, save the day for the losing Yankee baseball club the next, and then be the pet of a rich princess,” he said. Messmer declined to join Disney’s avant-garde studio, being too attached to Felix.
“I tried to make Felix the way a little eight-year-old boy would think, wondering what’s up there under the stars, where the wind comes from, how it’s like in South Africa. He would go to Arabia, to Mars — not just to the barnyard. That’s what made him famous.”
Messmer signed his 350 cartoons “Pat Sullivan,” the name of the studio for which he was working. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when a Canadian research team was preparing an animation exhibit for the World’s Fair, that Messmer was discovered as the ghost artist.
Messmer drew Felix storyboards until 1940, when heirs to the Sullivan estate took over the business, and turned Felix into a color cartoon with sound, which Messmer described as “not quite so cute.”
The remaining 50 original Felix cartoons strips are now featured at nostalgic movie screenings, and Messmer is deluged with requests for personally signed drawings. He recently appeared on the TV show “To Tell The Truth” and was asked to judge an international film festival.
Messmer would like to see a television studio do a cartoon special on Felix, and he already has a plot idea.
“You see,” he says in his excited, but shaky voice. “Felix could visit the land of the Zodiac. Nothing has ever been done on that. You see, maybe he could meet up with the Queen of Hearts and she could try to scare him away — that’s always popular with audiences.”
Felix and Messmer have seen another “first” in their days. Felix doll, placed on a rotating wheel, was the first moving object to be transmitted to a screen several miles away. The event took place in the basement workshop of one of Messmer’s friends, owner of Jenkins Television Co.
Messmer also created the first animated commercial, using a cuddly lamb to advertise ties for Botany Woolen Mills.
During his Felix days, Messmer worked on other animation projects and penned cartoons for national magazines. He worked on Popeye, Little Lulu and Casper the Ghost.
In later years, Messmer joined Douglas Leigh, and together they created the first advertisements projected on huge electrical signs on New York’s Times Square. He retired in 1974.
Messmer is sour on today’s cartoons. “Too much talking. Chatter all the time. With Felix, you got to use your imagination. They’re also a little bit too violent for kiddies,” he said. “If I did a new cartoon, of course there would have to be talking, but certainly not much of it.”
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From LIFE – September 10, 1971
The image is blurry and flawed but identifiable: Felix the Cat, hero of a thousand comic strips and a hundred animated cartoons, America’s first authentic television star.
Long before Ed Sullivan, long before even Milton Berle, Felix’s was a name to conjure with on the two-inch tube.
Beginning in the late 1920s, RCA engineers in a mid-Manhattan studio trained their arc light on a papier-mache statue of Felix, picked up the reflections on a battery of photoelectric cells (above) and sent his likeness whizzing all the way to Kansas.
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There, and at points in between, it was picked up by fellow video buffs on their primitive 60-line receivers and analyzed for quality.
Later, with the switch to 120-line transmission, Felix’s picture improved. But despite frequent patching and repainting, by that time, Felix had fallen off his turn table once too often and had to be retired in favor of a statue of Mickey Mouse.
Hail and farewell, Felix.