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

From its exterior the International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton betrays little of the playfulness of the animated characters or daring of the sinewy superheroes found inside. The 52,000-square-foot building's clock tower over its entrance is bereft of Mickey Mouse hands. The front colonnade screams for a row of load-bearing Hulks, Thors, Supermen, and Silver Surfers, yet instead features a modest series of smooth pillars. With its tiled roof and Spanish-style architecture, the building suggests a Mexican mission.

Walk through the turnstile, though, and it's a different story. Pandemonium reigns on a recent weekday afternoon at the museum, as dozens of children from a Bible-school summer camp scurry around the labyrinth of comic book pages, Sunday strips, and editorial cartoons. Their tomfoolery is wholly consistent with the milieu: The centerpiece exhibit celebrates the escapades of Dennis the Menace. Indeed a rotund Dennis menaces from above. Hanging upside down from the ceiling on a trapeze, the mischievous Mitchell boy circles the exhibit on a track, exclaiming (via word balloon), "Look, mom!"

"Don't worry -- the noise will go soon," says a cheerful yet concerned attendant as she takes an admission ticket from an adult patron. Several camp counselors futilely attempt to line up the eight- and nine-year-olds for departure. Intending to help, the attendant tantalizes the writhing mob about the Kid's Cartoon Art Contest for 2002. "We'll be sending out information in January," she says. The boys whoop a collective "All right!" and begin vaulting about. A boy with a blond flattop, droopy shorts, and a baggy T-shirt shoots his fist triumphantly into the air.

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.
photos/Preston
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.
Will Eisner has spent his career trying to elevate the standing of cartoon art in America
Preston
Will Eisner has spent his career trying to elevate the standing of cartoon art in America
As head of a fundraising drive for the Boca Raton Museum of Art, Henry Deppe found a way into the hearts and pocketbooks of wealthy Boca Ratonians. The cartoon museum has not been as successful.
Preston
As head of a fundraising drive for the Boca Raton Museum of Art, Henry Deppe found a way into the hearts and pocketbooks of wealthy Boca Ratonians. The cartoon museum has not been as successful.
For more than a quarter-century, Mort Walker, creator of "Beetle Bailey," has been the driving force behind the International Museum of Cartoon Art
Mark Conrad
For more than a quarter-century, Mort Walker, creator of "Beetle Bailey," has been the driving force behind the International Museum of Cartoon Art

The cartoon museum anchors the south end of Mizner Park, a tony amalgam of shops and restaurants located near the intersection of Federal Highway and Palmetto Park Road. Like a bookend the new Boca Raton Museum of Art, another structure of external modesty, stands at the north end of the sprawling retail park. As one might expect, the atmosphere inside the latter is more sedate. A more telling difference, however, is one most patrons wouldn't notice: The list of big-bucks contributors inscribed on the walls of each museum's lobby. While the dozens of names at the art museum are a Who's Who of Boca-based philanthropy, the cartoon museum's biggest backers largely come from the cartoon industry itself.

That difference is at the core of why the International Museum of Cartoon Art is foundering and why its operators are attempting to peddle its most prized possession in a desperate attempt to stave off extinction. The museum has failed to capture the imagination and dollars of local philanthropists in its five years in Boca Raton. During the same time, the museum lost some of its chief corporate sponsors, leaving it now drowning in $2 million of debt with no charitable Prince Valiant in sight.


The story of the birth and struggles of the museum is in large part the story of its founder, Mort Walker. The creator of the comic strip "Beetle Bailey," the 77-year-old Walker epitomizes the energy and amity of cartoon art. He's disarmingly frank about the museum's tribulations. Walker's deep, Southern-tinged voice is reassuring even as it delivers grim news. But then, his is the perspective of a man whose career spans more than half the history of American cartooning.

Walker was raised in Kansas City, Missouri, where his early interest in drawing blossomed into his own strip, called "Lime Juicers," in the local newspaper. "I always wanted to be an artist, and when I was ten years old, I started writing cartoonists and asking them for originals," Walker remembers. "I had my wall plastered with them." Both Walker's parents were artists, and after guests finished admiring Mom's and Dad's works, they'd inevitably wander into young Mort's room and take a gander at his collection. "They'd say, "Wow, you've got Mickey Mouse,'" he recalls. I began to realize that people were interested in this kind of artwork, but nobody was collecting it. As a matter of fact, they were burning it up, destroying it, using it to cover up dirty floors, and so forth."

After graduating in 1948 from the University of Missouri with a bachelor's degree in humanities, Walker moved to New York City to become a cartoonist. His first 200 submissions were rejected. He got a break in 1950 when King Features Syndicate bought a series of strips titled "Spider," which quickly morphed into "Beetle Bailey." The title character joined the U.S. Army with the outbreak of the Korean War, and he's been in the service ever since.

Because Walker had always regarded cartoons as part of the American spectrum of art, he was determined to turn his childhood collection into a serious archive. Around 1960 he began gathering original drawings for preservation. "I rescued a lot of it from trash bins at syndicates in various offices," he says. With a mounting pile of original cartoon art, Walker hit up the William Randolph Hearst Foundation for a $100,000 start-up grant and opened the Museum of Cartoon Art in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1974. "We were the first museum in the world with cartoons," Walker boasts. "When we opened the museum, the syndicates said, "Great, now we can clear out our storage rooms.' They'd back up the trucks to the museum, and we'd end up with 10,000 pieces here, 10,000 there. Now we have over 200,000 drawings."

Some of the museum's holdings are modern icons, strips such as "Garfield" and "Peanuts." Others are just vague memories to the Greatest Generation: "Terry and the Pirates" by Roy Crane, "Mutt and Jeff" by Bud Fisher, "Little Nemo in Slumberland" by Winsor McCay, and "Little Jimmy" by Jimmy Swinnerton. The museum's possessions also include the estates of Chester Gould, creator of "Dick Tracy"; Dik Browne, originator of "Hagar the Horrible"; and Alfred Andriola, father of the "Kerry Drake" strip. The collection includes 200 years of political works, including originals by Thomas Nast, a pioneer in American editorial cartooning.

After the museum lost its lease in Greenwich in 1977, the collection was moved to spacier digs in Rye Brook, New York, where the museum's support and attendance grew steadily. The New York metropolitan area has been the historic home of cartoon syndicates and comic book publishers, most notably DC and Marvel, which dominated the trade for more than three decades. Throughout his career Walker had rubbed shoulders with the industry's movers and shakers, and those associations proved a catalyst for donations.

By 1990 space considerations forced the museum's board of trustees to seek a larger venue. Locations were scouted as far south as Washington, D.C., and north to Boston. The museum struck a deal for space next to the Maritime Museum in Norwalk, Connecticut, but after a year of wrangling, the city council decided not to allow another not-for-profit in that district.

Soon after that deal died, New York City- based publicist Ted Levine sent a fax to Will Ray, president of the Palm Beach County Cultural Council, enticing him with the idea of making the county the museum's next home. The request struck the right chord with the council, the mission of which is in part to promote general culture. Ray wrote a letter to Walker expressing interest. He heard nothing for a year, then Walker suddenly telephoned and proposed meeting during the National Cartoonists Society conference in Miami in 1991. "I fell in love with the Walkers," Ray says of the meeting with Mort and his wife, Catherine. "Most people feel the same way."

Ray recognized that landing a museum of international scope in the county would be a cultural coup, and he set about hunting for a location. He originally envisioned the museum in Palm Beach Gardens, believing it would appeal to families in that fast-growing community. The city council expressed interest in the museum during a January 1991 meeting, but several council members expressed reservations about using a parcel of land near the Gardens Mall that was earmarked for cultural development, Ray says.

While Palm Beach Gardens dawdled over the proposed museum, the Boca Raton Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) embraced the idea, because the agency was desperately seeking to bring civic or cultural attractions to Mizner Park. The CRA had been under fire for subsidizing developers with city land and taxpayer dollars. Bowing to pressure that local folk get something more from such deals, the city council designated cultural set-asides at Mizner Park. The Caldwell Theatre Company had flirted with relocating to the park in 1989 but then passed on the deal. The CRA in January 1993 unanimously approved construction of the cartoon museum. The city leased the land to the museum at the rate of $1 per year for 100 years.

Walker had good reason to feel confident of success in Boca Raton. Before settling on the Mizner Park site, the museum had initiated two feasibility studies, one assessing the location, the other gauging expected local contributions. The former study concluded the museum "has a tiger by the tail" given the 5000 people a day who were visiting Mizner Park, Walker says. The financial study concluded the museum could raise money locally, though not without difficulties -- partly from competing fundraisers. Other arts and cultural organizations were gearing up to raise major bucks in the early 1990s, including the Boca Raton Museum of Art, the Caldwell, and the Norton Gallery of Art. An informal survey conducted around that time by the Palm Beach County Cultural Council found that 36 organizations were set on raising a combined $80 million.

The museum received large donations for construction, but most were from the cartoon industry. Charles Schulz contributed $1 million, and Marvel Entertainment Group pledged the same. The Hearst Foundation donated $500,000. Other large gifts came from "Garfield" cartoonist Jim Davis, the Knight Foundation, Hallmark Cards, the Sun-Sentinel and The Palm Beach Post. But overall the fundraising proved to be difficult, taking four years to raise the $6.3 million needed to begin the first phase of construction. No money was available to complete the second and third floors, which remain unfinished and inaccessible by stairs or elevator to this day.

Renamed the International Museum of Cartoon Art in 1993, it opened in Mizner Park on March 10, 1996. Walker considers the opening the most exciting event of the museum's 27-year history. "We had a big tent there, and Disney sent down all their characters, and Universal sent down their cartoon characters," Walker says dreamily. "Then we opened up the doors, and everyone came in. I got ticket number one. My wife started crying; she was so happy. God, what a glorious moment that was. I was so proud of the museum and what we'd done. I really thought we were on our way."


Walker's background as a strip artist shaped his conception of the museum, but others have wanted to push those limits. If Mort Walker's work exemplifies cartooning for the hoi polloi, then Will Eisner's achievements in the field seem downright highbrow. Now 84 years old, Eisner has arguably done more than anyone to legitimize his chosen field.

Will Eisner Studios is in a characterless professional building on McNab Road in Tamarac, far enough west that the rising smoke from Everglades wildfires looms threateningly near. On this day in late June, Eisner labors over his latest project, a 162-page graphic novel tentatively titled Name of the Game, the saga of a Jewish family attempting to elevate its standing through marriage into the upper class. He averages a page a day, working from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. His drawing tools have changed little from the late 1930s in New York City, where he headed one of the first comic book studios: a slanted drafting board and anachronistic India ink. (He has always eschewed the use of color.)

Eisner's long face peers down through expansive, brown plastic-rimmed glasses. His long sleeves are rolled to midforearm as he hunches over the page, daubing in the lines of a brick building with his right hand. "As long as my hand is quick and my eye reliable, why retire?" he offers. Classical music drifts quietly from a nearby speaker. Framed on the wall behind him are four original pages from Eisner's 1974 Contract with God, a novel-length tale of a Bronx neighborhood that marked an evolutionary leap forward for the medium. The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., framed them several years ago for an exhibition on cartoon art. A nearby desk is surrounded by a couple dozen award placards and statuettes.

"I personally built my career on a basic belief that this medium was capable of far more than just jokes and slam-bang humor," says Eisner, who joined the cartoon museum's board of trustees soon after it moved to Florida. Eisner has continued to produce so-called graphic novels since 1974; other artists have since joined him in creating what he describes as "something more substantial than two mutants thrashing each other." Art Spiegelman's Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. "[Comic art] has been a growing force, accumulating recognition slowly but surely," Eisner says. "Unfortunately slowly."

Eisner considers the word comics a misnomer, coining instead the name sequentialart; in 1980 he wrote a textbook titled Comics and Sequential Art. "That was the first serious attempt to define the medium as a literary art form, although there had been books on cartooning for years before that," Eisner explains. The cartoon (the term is derived from the French word carton, meaning drawing) has a lengthy history in fine arts. He points out that artists such as Leonardo da Vinci routinely sketched cartoons in preparation for painting.

Given Eisner's trajectory in the business, it's not surprising he views the cartoon museum as an important venue for validating the art form. "It's been a very, very important part of what I call popular literature," he says in the breathy voice of an octogenarian. "Therefore I believe it deserves far more attention and support. We've been led to believe that there's a "fine' art and that we're not fine art. It's kind of a brutal snobbery." Eisner stops speaking, suddenly wondering how he's being perceived. "If you detect a rage, you're right," he concludes with a chuckle. He'd like to see the museum renamed, perhaps as the Museum of Popular Art.

"The function of any museum is to set or raise standards, elevating the perception of the art form. [The Boca cartoon museum] is the largest collection of cartoon art in the United States -- and probably the most important because we have very rare art from the early days of comics."

The museum, however, hasn't yet found a suitable recipe for presenting its wealth of drawings. At present its displays merely dip a toe into the stream of 100 years of cartooning worldwide. Separate exhibits include gag cartoons, comic book art, Sunday funnies, and editorial cartoons -- all displayed at a height and with a sobriety that make it clear they are intended for adults. (A separate display room called the "Create-a-Toon Center" targets the young and provides a chance to sketch a strip.) One small alcove offers early Disney and Warner Bros. illustrations to explain how animated cartoons are made. The Hearst Hall of Fame holds examples of work from 14 cartoonists inducted since 1975, virtually all of whom are Sunday strip artists. The museum, however, offers scant interpretation; it's hard to tell just how these cartoon forms relate to one another or to ascertain the role they've played in American society. A small placard quoting Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Mike Peters comes closest to providing this kind of context: "Editorial cartooning has always been viewed as the "ungentlemanly' art. When "Boss Tweed' was run out of Tammany Hall, he said, "My voters can't read but they can understand those damn cartoons.'"

Melba Urbanek became a member of the museum board after Will Ray introduced her to Walker. She recalls spending a considerable amount of time with other trustees before the museum opened discussing the museum's identity -- which, she admits, has still not been firmly established. "It's set up now to look at art, but it's not quite as participatory as we had originally thought it would be. Everyone relates to cartoons differently, and it's hard to know where that is. Are you just doing cartoons? Should you have live characters there? Or are you looking at the art, such as "Prince Valiant'? Or should we look at the remarkable area of human rights issues in editorial cartoons? We had to make do with the money we had." (The museum's "theater" remains a wide-screen TV and folding chairs in rows.)

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.

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.

In the meantime that late summer and fall, more bail-out schemes were incubated, but none hatched. A proposal in August to move the Boca Raton Public Library into the museum went nowhere. Then, in November, the owners of the Museum of Miniatures in Los Angeles put the kibosh on speculation that it would merge with the cartoon museum. The owners, Carole and Barry Kaye of Boca Raton, chose instead to retire and sell the miniature reproductions of buildings and landmarks, valued at $25 million. Jim and Marta Batmasian, Boca real-estate investors, broached the idea of opening a human rights museum beside the cartoon display. Nothing has come of that idea.

Walker, who says he's sunk about $2 million of his own money into the museum, had long fought the notion of selling the "Plane Crazy" storyboards. But when no large donor stepped forward by this winter, the museum announced it would auction off the Mickey Mouse art in May, along with original art from the "Dick Tracy," "Beetle Bailey," and "Prince Valiant" Sunday strips.

But with a catastrophic consistency rivaling the Biblical tale of Job, the museum came up empty-handed. Simultaneous auctions were held by Manhattan-based Guernsey's and Leftbid.com on May 19, but the sale was plagued with confusion over who was bidding on what, lousy online connections, and low bids. When the e-smoke cleared, the highest authenticated bid was $700,000; the minimum bid required for sale of the "Plane Crazy" art was $800,000.

With expectations dropping, a second auction, scheduled for June 8, set a minimum bid of $650,000. The highest bid received was $525,000.

"What has happened at these auctions is a travesty," Hamilton says. "It's been a joke from beginning to end. Right now this stuff has got a terrible reputation; [it's] what we call "burnt goods,' because it's been mishandled from one end to the other." He still believes "Plane Crazy" is worth millions of dollars but that the museum failed to undertake the lengthy publicity campaign required for a sale.

"When it comes to the value of really rare items, you can't just suddenly pop out something and say, "This is worth a lot of money, who'll give it to me?'" Hamilton explains. "Nobody's going to buy that way. But if a collector gets hold of it, he tours it, exhibits it, gets quoted in the press." The collector lets it be known that he'd sell the piece only for millions more than what he paid. "But somewhere down the line -- four, five years -- a really wealthy person comes along and asks him, "What do you really want for it?' Unavailability is desirability."


Critics may debate the wisdom of key decisions made by the museum during the past decade -- moving to Boca, building big, trying to dump Mickey at a fire sale -- but most everyone will agree the museum hasn't received the hefty local contributions it needs to thrive.

Why not? Eisner pulls no punches in his assessment: "You're dealing with a situation here where a very wealthy person in Boca Raton who wants to give something to the culture of a community can't go to the country club on Saturday and boast about the fact they just gave $100,000 to the cartoon museum. They'd much rather say they gave it to the ballet or the fine arts museum. What I've just articulated is the blunt reality of the situation. My attitude is: Shame on them because this art form is a very important cultural medium in our society."

Christopher Larmoyeux, the new chairman of the Palm Beach County Cultural Council, disagrees. "I don't think you can sit here and blame the public because they didn't view [the museum] as an upscale organization," he says. Comparing the local support the Boca art museum has gotten with the cartoon collection, Larmoyeux continues: "We're blessed in Palm Beach County with a great number of philanthropic individuals, but each person who gives money gives it for his or her own particular purpose -- [potential donors might not give if] they didn't like the concept or weren't drawn to it or the marketing was insufficient.

"Will the cartoon museum survive? It's pretty doubtful. The survivability of cultural organizations in South Florida, the entire state, is entirely dependent on private givers."

Henry Deppe, an executive vice president at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, headed that museum's fundraising drive, which garnered $13.3 million in three years -- the lion's share from local sources. He says the effort was meticulously orchestrated using a 65-page outline of philosophy, goals, plans, and budget. "Our number one modus operandi was having dinner parties at which we invited people and told them the story of the museum, what it means to the community, and why a 50-year-old institution like ours needs a larger home to display our 3000 pieces of art," Deppe explains.

But Deppe says the art museum was looking for dollars in a different "marketplace" than was the cartoon museum. "A cartoon museum is certainly a wonderful institution to have available to the community, but it appeals to a specific group of people -- not necessarily the same group [that prefers] the so-called classic or fine art," Deppe says. "We have a broader audience, we believe, than the cartoon museum. Everybody has fine art in their homes, particularly more affluent people. But how many people have cartoons in their home?"

Norman and Charlotte Codo of Boca Raton donated $125,000 to the art museum, putting them among the 50 or so people who contributed more than $100,000. So why not the cartoon museum? "It's based on my wife, really, who's an artist and has been involved with the museum of art -- not the cartoon museum -- over a period of about 14 years," Codo says. "Over that period of time, we've built a lot of friendships and have a lot of fond memories of the art museum."

Cultural council director Ray doesn't believe that potential donors have held back contributions because cartoon art is regarded as lowbrow. So why has there been a dearth of local benefactors? "Ummm, how to put this diplomatically," Ray begins. "A lack of identification of the Walkers, their board, and their project, with "Old Boca.' The complaints I heard shortly after opening were that "the right people weren't being invited to their leadership'; they weren't bringing in the "right moves' to win over "Old Boca'; "they didn't have the right message for Boca.' And the comments weren't about the quality of the collection. That's incontrovertible -- it's American art, world art. I never heard that used. I heard instead, social discontent and... snobbery -- I'll use the word. There's a cadre of Boca Raton that's very closed, self-contained, and I think the cartoon museum failed to penetrate that shell. And by failing there it didn't have time to win support from new Boca Ratonian wealth that the Boca art museum has been built with."

Ray doesn't consider the situation hopeless though. "In a community of our wealth, gifts of $100,000, $500,000, $1 million occur every day -- for the right institution or cause," he says. "This is the richest community in America; the cartoon collection is one of the finest of its kind in America, if not the finest. The Walkers are two of the most wonderful people you'll ever meet. You've got the tools to fix the engine as far as I'm concerned. But it may have become too tiring for [the Walkers]. I appreciate that, and I sense that when I talk to them. It's their call."

Walker described the museum's saga as "frightening and depressing" shortly before the failed auction in June. "It's tough to go out and raise money when people know you're in financial trouble," he laments. "It's pouring good money after bad." In fact three donors recently withdrew pledges that amounted to about $500,000 over the next two years. (Walker declines to name the contributors.)

Yes, Walker admits, things should have been done differently.

"When I think about it now, I was much too enthusiastic," he confesses, remembering the words of one Boca Ratonian who told him early on why the museum wouldn't get much support: ""You're not saving a child's life. You're not feeding the hungry. There's no heart in what you're doing.'"

Walker says he isn't averse to moving the museum back to the New York area. "A lot of people say that's where we should have stayed in the first place. Six months out of the year it's kind of dead down [in Boca]." But now, after years of fretting, Walker's tone is weary as he drifts into nostalgia about the museum's early days in New York: "I'd lend whatever name and prestige I had to raise money. I'd drop in once or twice a week and see how the staff was doing. But I always thought I'd turn it over to someone else someday and let them do all that."

The cartoonist looks fatigued sitting in the museum's business office June 29, but he's not ready to let go just yet. Walker's doughy face is red, more the flush of stress than sunburn. He's wearing a tan sport coat, white shirt, and gray slacks. On the wide tie hanging from his neck, Snoopy waves his fist defiantly at the Red Baron. Walker's flat voice reveals no such bravado this day. In a final bid to keep the museum from folding, he has paid SunTrust $200,000 from his own pocket; in a press release, he added that "the Walker well has now run dry. Unless we are able to secure more financial support on an ongoing basis, the museum's future in Boca Raton remains iffy at best."

Walker says he's buoyed by negotiations with a national health club chain interested in buying the building for $3 million. The health club would then occupy the second floor and lease space to the cartoon museum. Still, if no solution presents itself within two months, museum staff will have to pack up the collection and store it, he says.

"I'm generally an optimist," Walker concludes, "You know... the glass is half full?" He looks at the glass of water on the table before him. It's clearly below the half mark. He looks at it and laughs softly. "That's half," he declares.

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