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Out of 'Toon

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 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."

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson

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