Out of 'Toon

A muddled mission, an overbuilt home, and the indifference of Boca's blue bloods have brought the International Museum of Cartoon Art to the brink of cancellation

The museum is not without its critics. John Backderf, creator of the syndicated strip "The City," which runs in New Times and other alternative publications, calls the Boca museum "a crypt for embalmed mainstream cartoons" and a "closed shop of Walker and his buddies" that offers no contemporary underground or groundbreaking work. "It's a museum celebrating commercial success, not artistic merit. That's like opening a modern art museum with nothing but paintings of card-playing dogs and then wondering why no one is interested," Backderf says.

Unfortunately for the museum, advancing its mission has consistently taken a back seat to dealing with its financial plight. The museum has struggled to stay in the black with its $1 million annual operating expenses while at the same time dealing with lackluster attendance. Annual attendance, projected at six figures, actually hovered around 50,000. Other financial support evaporated. In December 1996, Marvel Comics, which had pledged $100,000 a year to the museum for ten years, filed for bankruptcy. The museum ultimately received only about $180,000 of the pledge, Walker says. A merchandising contract with Great American Candy, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, guaranteed the museum $500,000 a year. In September 1997, a month before marketing of the cartoon-theme candy was to begin, the company went out of business.

The museum is a catacomb of original drawings from Sunday strips, comic books, magazines, and editorial pages. Young visitors can try their 'toon talents on computers and drawing boards.
The museum is a catacomb of original drawings from Sunday strips, comic books, magazines, and editorial pages. Young visitors can try their 'toon talents on computers and drawing boards.

With industry support crumbling, the museum in June 2000 turned to a potential savior: the Florida Atlantic University Foundation, the school's development-and-fundraising branch. FAU proposed taking on the museum's $2 million of debt and its operating expenses and continuing to display cartoon art on the first floor. The university intended to convert the second and third floors into classrooms. But FAU was spooked away after some members of the Boca Raton City Council -- who also sit as members of the Community Redevelopment Agency -- fretted over the potential parking and traffic problems created by students. FAU dropped its plans.

In the meantime the museum had stopped making its quarterly mortgage payments of $20,000 to SunTrust Bank in October 1999. With the FAU deal dead, SunTrust moved to foreclose the mortgage and seize the museum's most prized possession: the first known drawings of Mickey Mouse.

Mickey's first appearance on paper is a slapdash affair, manic sketches of an adventure-mad mouse. To the uninitiated, the drawings might look like the musings of a bored art student rather than the genesis of a media empire.

But when the drawings surfaced at a high-end Manhattan gallery, Bruce Hamilton knew they were something more. A cartoon collector and appraiser from Prescott, Arizona, Hamilton had been asked to authenticate the drawings by would-be buyer Stephen Geppi, owner of Baltimore-based Diamond Comics Distributors, one of the largest distributors in the world.

"I'd seen so much storyboard art in the Disney archives that I was probably as qualified as anybody in the world to make a judgment about authenticity," says Hamilton, who has appraised the Walt Disney Company's collection. He told Geppi that the drawings looked like the sequence for the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, "Plane Crazy." If so, the drawings predated any known to exist. As for their worth, Hamilton knew that a single Mickey Mouse animation cell had recently sold for $400,000; these alpha drawings had to be worth somewhere in the millions.

Drawn in 1927 by Ub Iwerks, the six pages that make up "Plane Crazy" are a crude prototype of what became known as the animation storyboard, in which each panel is drawn on a separate sheet of paper and tacked to a four-foot-by- eight-foot board. The order is then rearranged as needed. "Plane Crazy" has six panels per page and outlines Mickey's foray into flying. Inspired by aviator Charles Lindbergh, Mickey builds a plane, takes Minnie for a hair-raising ride -- during which he attempts to kiss her and gets slapped -- and then crashes.

"Iwerks was one of the most gifted, natural, and fast artists in the history of the Disney company," Hamilton says. "He was turning out hundreds of drawings a day. He didn't spend very long on this."

Hamilton valued the drawings at $3.2 million in an appraisal he completed in late 1994. Several subsequent appraisals set the value as high as $5 million. Geppi bought the drawings, though he has not disclosed what he paid for them. When Mort and Catherine Walker visited Geppi in Baltimore to ask him to join the board of trustees of the International Museum of Cartoon Art, Geppi offered to donate the sketches. Walker refers to "Plane Crazy" as the "Mona Lisa of the museum."

Walker says Geppi donated the sketches with no strings attached. (Geppi did not return messages left at his office by New Times.) Because its initial fundraising had been less successful than anticipated, the museum in 1995 put up the drawings as collateral for a $3 million construction loan to move forward. "Plane Crazy" was displayed after the museum opened in 1996.

The museum still owed about $1 million on the loan at the time SunTrust Bank moved to foreclose on the mortgage and seize the drawings last summer. However, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Walter Colbath in August 2000 ordered that the drawings remain temporarily in the custody of the museum; a placard would be placed beside the display indicating that SunTrust owns the sketches. The museum and bank commenced private mediation, announcing in December that SunTrust would give the museum several more months to pay the debt.

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