I’ve been a member of the National Cartoonists Society (NCS) for nearly 40 years. I was president of the NCS from June, 1999 to May, 2001, and I ran two “Reuben Awards” conventions. The first was held at the World Trade Center in Manhattan the year before the towers were destroyed, and the second in Florida at the Boca Raton Resort and Club. Much of the work of the NCS president is like being a wedding planner, with all the joys, stresses and horrors that implies, which left me with an odd perspective on our colorful profession. Here are my recollections …
Twenty years ago the membership of the NCS included nearly twice as many professional cartoonist members as it does now, and popular newspaper comic strips were the NCS’s strength. The group was rancorous and my years in the hot seat were toasty. We had a crisis at the start when our management company demanded that we triple their fees; they were doing a terrible job so I fired them and I went about finding a new firm, arguing with our board members who wanted to stay with the old management company and pay the higher fees. Finding a new management company for our unusual group was a big chore, because of the unusual nature of our group compared to more conventional professional organizations.
When the new company eventually took over, the old firm transferred our records and I was told that our files looked like someone climbed to the top of a nine foot ladder and randomly dropped the papers into the boxes. It turns out that we didn’t have records of past members’ dues payments – we didn’t know who was paid up and who wasn’t. It became clear why the old management company was doing a lousy job. It was a big mess to clean up the records and to make sense of the membership dues collections; I faced a challenging learning curve of getting myself and the new management company up to speed.
I had a “wedding” to deal with right away. In those days, the NCS had a big, annual Christmas party in Manhattan, often at the Century Club. We planned our biggest Christmas party ever, with the theme being that we would award a “Golden T-Square” to Mort Walker, who drew the Beetle Bailey comic strip. Mort was delighted. We had a nice sponsor in an internet company that was courting us at the time. The 1999 New York Christmas party would be even bigger than the previous year’s Reuben Awards convention in San Antonio.
THE 1999 CHRISTMAS PARTY
The NCS had long depended on support from the syndicates, especially King Features. When I first started as NCS president, King’s comics editor told me that King was finished with their support for the NCS; he said King didn’t like that the NCS included non-newspaper cartoonist members and he didn’t see what King got out of their longtime support of the NCS. Later I got an angry call from King Features’ chairman who was furiously ranting that he wanted us to cancel the award for Mort because we were stepping on King’s toes; Mort was their guy. I don’t recall saying anything in that crazy phone call; I just listened.
On the other hand, Mort was flattered and pleased with the award/party idea, and it was Mort who carried the day. King Features changed their tone after some conversations with Mort and ended up as a second full sponsor for the Christmas party. The double sponsorship let us double the budget and made for quite an opulent evening. I remember that we had a raw bar with all the oysters we could eat, which was fun, and the open bar was freely flowing. Wedding planner glee.
King asked to give their “Segar Award” at the Christmas party, an award that King management chooses to give to a King cartoonist; there was a tradition of giving the Segar Award at the King-sponsored-Christmas party, so I said “yes” to King and there were two awards that night. That was my second big issue as president, because many NCSers objected to King giving their own award at the NCS’s party and they aimed their ire at me, complaining that King had “bought” me. Somebody at the party punched somebody else and most people were talking about the punch. And the huge bill for the big party went entirely on Arnold Roth‘s personal tab at the Century Club, which made Arnie nervous when the NCS took too long to reimburse him. (Sorry about that, Arnie.)
But Mort was happy, and it was a great party.
PLANNING MY FIRST CONVENTION
The first Reuben Awards convention that I ran as NCS president was in 2000, at the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel in lower Manhattan, but it was originally intended to take place in Santa Rosa, California. The convention was to be a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the comic strip, Peanuts. My predecessor as NCS president, George Breisacher, had been talking to Peanuts creator, Charles M. “Sparky” Schulz and the city of Santa Rosa about having the 2000 Reuben Awards banquet at Sparky’s ice skating rink. Sparky and Santa Rosa were both very generous in their offer to host the convention. George and I flew to Santa Rosa to have dinner with Sparky and his wife, Jeannie, to tour the ice rink and visit the proposed hotel. The hotel was a few miles from the rink, but the city of Santa Rosa offered to cover the cost of busses, and they even offered to have a parade. The ice rink was great fun, and Sparky told us how he had a wood floor that would be installed on top of the ice for the Reubens banquet. We had lovely meetings; Sparky was charming and more than generous, but the problem was the hotel, which would be under construction at that time. With no local hotel alternative that could fit the NCS, and difficult logistics, Santa Rosa didn’t happen. We figured the NCS would do Santa Rosa another year, when the construction at the hotel was completed. I was left scrambling to find a new venue for the 2000 convention. This was actually quite typical for new NCS presidents – planning ahead was not part of the culture for the NCS.
Instead of Santa Rosa, I decided to take the Reubens back to New York, and after a search and competitive bid process, I signed a big contract with the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel, still with the theme of celebrating the 50th anniversary of Peanuts.
Sponsorship for the 2000 Reuben Awards weekend was promised, including a big commitment from United Media, the syndicate that owned Peanuts. Sparky, was going to receive the NCS’s lifetime achievement award on Reuben night and political cartoonist Mike Luckovich had organized most of the newspaper comic strip cartoonists to draw a Peanuts 50th anniversary themed strip on the Saturday of our banquet – then in mid-February, three months before the convention in May, we got the news that Sparky had died.
Arrgh! So sad! And what was I going to do!?
Read more old stuff about my career as a cartoonist on DarylCagle.com