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 Walter Berndt  (1899 - 1979)

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: illustrator-cartoonist

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Ad Code: 4
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
Smitty Original Comic Strip Art
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Cartoonist Walter Berndt was the creator of the long-running strip, Smitty.

His newspaper and cartooning career began as an office boy at the New York Journal, "sweeping floors, running errands, drawing strips, sports cartoons, and what have you." In 1916, as a 16-year-old Brooklyn boy, with only six months of high school, and two nights at Pratt Institute ("They had me drawing girls dresses," he recalled. "I said, this is not cartooning, this isnt for me!"), Berndt managed to get his first job in journalism for $5 a week, "but a million dollars worth of experience".

Working around such notables as Thomas A.."Tad" Dorgan, Harry Hershfield, Milt Gross, E.C. Segar, and Winsor McCay, the ambitious young Berndt quickly began to involve himself in production, lettering, and reworking their old strips with new gags when any of them didnt come in to work. Dorgan was so impressed with his energy and talent that he began to teach him some of the tricks of the trade. Berndt copied the initial "T" in Tads signature as the last letter in his own, by way of acknowledgment, and in time Tad Dorgan let Berndt do his Monday sports panels for an extra $10.

When Milt Gross was promoted, Berndt took over his humor panel, Then the Fun Began, which was published six times a week, and his salary rose to $10 a week. Berndt quit the Journal in 1920 to do his own strip, Thats Different, for the Bell Syndicate, but was so dissatisfied with his work that he abandoned it. "I couldnt draw it and the syndicate couldnt sell it," he explained, "so after a year we tore up the contract."

His experiences at the Journal provided material for another feature. He originated a gag strip called Bill the Office Boy and sold it to the New York World in 1922. That affiliation lasted an even shorter time; in two weeks Berndt was fired "because of the way I addressed my boss," he recalled. At the suggestion of Segar, the undismayed young cartoonist offered the strip to the Chicago Tribune, where publisher Joseph M. Patterson accepted it for his New York Daily News, after changing the name to Smitty.

Berndt became a close friend and confidant of Patterson, and was responsible over the long course of their association for the recruitment to the News of many important cartoonists. Among them were Bill Holman, Zack Mosley, Gus Edson, and Al Posen. The Tribune-News Syndicate distributed his own creation, Smitty, to a wide reading public for over half a century, earning him many honors. In 1969, the National Cartoonists Society selected him to represent American cartoonists at the Worlds Fair in Montreal, and awarded him its Reuben as the Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year.

Drawn with a pleasantly loose, sketchy line, Smitty retained the affection if its large public more for the warmth of its characterization and the geniality of its humor, than for any graphic distinction. In 1930, Smittys kid brother, Herby, became the titular hero of his own, shorter strip. This was a four-panel topper appearing on Sundays. Berndt employed an assistant, Charles Mueller, for the first 30 years of Smitty, but took over the full work of the strip when Mueller became eligible for Social Security and retired in 1952. He wrote and drew every panel of Smitty and Herby until he retired them both, as well as himself, in 1973.


(Information on the biography above is based on writings from the book, "The Encyclopedia of American Comics," edited by Ron Goulart.)


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