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Hal Horne's gag file

The "snipe" on the back of this 1941 publicity photo reads as follows: "Room of a million jokes is visited by Frances Gifford, leading lady of Walt Disney's 'The Reluctant Dragon.' Librarian Lillian Grainger, right, shows how a Disney writer dips into the world's largest gag file in search of an inspiration." That gag file was Hal Horne's, until he sold it to Walt Disney in 1936 for twenty thousand dollars. And as to whether the Disney writers dipped into it very much, well...

Hal Horne's Gag File

And the Birth of the Disney Comic Book

By Michael Barrier

The periodical called the Mickey Mouse Magazine led three lives. The first two, in 1933-35, were as monthly promotional pamphlets, sixteen pages in digest size. In its third incarnation, starting in 1935, the Mickey Mouse Magazine was a full-size, monthly children’s magazine in the St. Nicholas vein. That third version was the immediate ancestor of Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, the best-selling comic book of the mid-twentieth century and the flagship for the Dell comic-book line, which dominated the market in the 1940s and 1950s.

Most important, Walt Disney’s Comics was the home base for Carl Barks, who wrote and drew a ten-page story about Donald Duck and his three nephews for almost every issue between 1943 and 1965. In the best of those stories, and in the best of his stories for other Disney comic books, Barks proved that the comic-book story was a valid artistic form, one whose demands were all too easily ignored but that could offer unique rewards, especially as a vehicle for comedy, when those demands were respected.

It was an amazing accomplishment because Barks received so little stimulation or encouragement from his readers and editors. From the beginning, the Disney comic books were conceived as narrowly commercial enterprises, much more so than the Disney animated cartoons. That they became the venue for artistry of any kind was wholly fortuitous.

Mickey Mouse Magazine No. 1The story of the Disney comic books, and thus of Carl Barks’s unlikely triumph, began with a peripatetic publicist, Hal Horne, who published the first nine issues of the third Mickey Mouse Magazine from offices on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The first issue—the first American Disney newsstand periodical—was published in May 1935 and identified as a “summer quarterly”; that's its cover at the right. It was exceptionally large for such a magazine, more than ten inches wide and thirteen inches high, and cost twenty-five cents, an imposing figure for a children’s magazine in that Depression year. The price fell to a dime with the second issue, dated October 1935, the first on a monthly schedule, and the dimensions shrank, too, by almost two inches on each side. With the March 1936 issue the page count fell from 44 to 36, including covers, and the trim size shrank a little further. Times were tough.

Horne had connected with Walt Disney as director of advertising and publicity for United Artists (UA), the movie company that began distributing the Disney animated cartoons in 1932. He was identified as “editor” of the giveaway versions of the Mickey Mouse Magazine. According to an authorized history of licensed Disney products, the first version, which lasted just nine issues in 1933, was “distributed through department stores selling Disney character merchandise and at theaters showing Disney cartoons.” The first two issues bore a five-cent price tag but probably most if not all copies were given away. The second version, given away by dairies, emphasized the virtues of milk; it lasted two years, from 1933 to 1935.

On July 24, 1935, Horne announced his resignation from UA to, as the New York Times reported, “organize and head a new advertising and publicity company in New York.” It was that company, Hal Horne, Inc., that produced and published the new Mickey Mouse Magazine, whose first issue actually appeared a couple of months before Horne resigned from UA. Its first two issues also overlapped the last few issues of the second giveaway version, so for several months there were actually two Mickey Mouse Magazines extant.

(Disney may have shopped the new version of the magazine to more established publishers before leaving it with Horne. In 1943, Ned L. Pines, who published a line of pulp magazines before becoming a leading publisher of comic books, said that “Walt Disney’s magazine was offered to us for publication” in 1934. Pines turned it down.)

Mickey Mouse Magazine January 1933Hal Horne was born in Boston in 1893. He evidently attended Harvard College briefly, and he claimed to have graduated from Tufts College, although that school could find no record of his matriculation. By the 1920s Horne was managing theaters on the West Coast. He was from all appearances an exceedingly restless and intense man, someone who, in Motion Picture Daily’s words, “burned up the track as an exploiter and theatre operator” before he joined UA in 1931 and began “attacking his new job … with characteristic vigor.” John Rose, the manager of Disney’s story department, remembered Horne’s saying, on a visit to the studio a few years after his connection with the Mickey Mouse Magazine ended, “that he resented a basketball game in Emporia, Kansas, being played on the same night we’d be playing in the local movie theater. That gives you a clue as to how thoroughly he dug into his end of it.”

That intensity did not translate into success as publisher of a Disney magazine. Horne’s print orders for the first three issues of the new Mickey Mouse Magazine turned out to be far too ambitious: he ordered 300,000 copies of each issue, but sold fewer than half. Horne scaled back subsequent print orders, but sales continued to decline. In a December 27, 1935, letter he lamented to Roy O. Disney, Walt’s brother and business manager, that the magazine “to date … has cost me a terrific amount of heartaches and exactly $50,000, all of which seems such a crime when you consider the magazine has been loved by those who have read it.” Roy was sympathetic. In February 1936 he wrote to Horne that he was “more concerned now with saving you from a loss than with trying to get any revenue from the magazine.” Accordingly, he authorized Horne to publish the magazine on “a non-royalty basis” for the rest of the year.

In the event, Horne published the Mickey Mouse Magazine for only a few more months, through the June1936 issue, with sales declining almost every month. In early June, as the July 1936 issue went to press, Horne surrendered the magazine to a new publisher. Horne then became a producer for RKO Radio Pictures, which Walt and Roy Disney had chosen as their cartoons’ new distributor three months earlier.

Over the years, Horne had accumulated a huge file of around six million jokes on 3-by-5-inch cards (along with magazine cartoons on larger cards), housed, according to a 1935 newspaper article, in several rooms in a New York office building. Horne rented selections from his gag file to a range of clients identified as “comic strip artists, stage, screen, and radio comedians, playwrights, columnists, governors, senators, house organs and advertising agencies.”

As to the nature of the gags in the file, there's a clue in Hap Lee's Radio Joke Book: Famous Gags of Radio Stars (1935), since "Hap Lee" was evidently a Hal Horne pseudonym. A sample (setting aside the all too abundant racist and misogynist material):

Professor's Wife: A truck just ran over your best straw hat, dear!

Absent-minded Professor: Good heavens, was I wearing it at the time?

And another:

"Young man, take your hands off my daughter's knee!"

"Excuse me, sir, I was just going to say what a nice joint you have here!"

Everything in the book is generally similar.

In August 1936 Horne sold his gag file to Walt Disney for twenty thousand dollars, for use by the writers of the Disney animated cartoons and comic strips. Buying the gag file may have been, at least in part, Disney’s way of compensating Horne for his losses on the Mickey Mouse Magazine.  Dorothy Ann Blank, who had been working for Horne, moved over to the Disney studio to help the Disney writers use the gag file. The gags, in dozens of categories bearing such titles as “Absent Minded,” “Dumb Dames,” and “Laziness,” seem to have been received by the Disney writers with a predictable lack of enthusiasm, even after Horne gave them a pep talk in November 1936.

Mickey Mouse Magazine November 1933Blank stayed on the Disney staff as a writer for the cartoons—one of the few women in such a job—and Horne himself remained in Walt Disney’s good graces: he resumed his Disney employment in 1937, becoming the chief publicist in the studio’s New York office. He held that job for four years before going into business for himself again.

Herman “Kay” Kamen, a former Kansas City, Missouri, advertising man, succeeded Horne as the publisher of the Mickey Mouse Magazine. Kamen had been in charge of Disney’s licensing efforts since June 1932. His Kansas City advertising agency, Kamen-Blair, published the first three issues of the first Mickey Mouse Magazine in early 1933. After Kamen left the agency and went into business on his own, he published the Mickey Mouse Magazine giveaways as Kay Kamen, Inc. When Horne became the publisher of the third Mickey Mouse Magazine in 1935, Kamen was listed as chairman of his “advisory board.”

Kamen was an extraordinarily energetic and resourceful businessman who had talked himself into a deal in which he and Disney split the proceeds from licensing the Disney cartoon characters. Kamen had delivered on that deal, spectacularly, by traveling incessantly and licensing Mickey Mouse and other characters to hundreds of manufacturers (the official total, when the Mickey Mouse Magazine began publication in May 1935, was 230).

By mid-1936 Kamen had been based in New York for more than three years, so there were no geographic obstacles to his taking charge of the Mickey Mouse Magazine. Moreover, by 1935 there were in Kamen’s offices, as the New York Times reported, “workrooms where Disney artists, trained in the technique of the Hollywood studio, draw the countless pictures used in Mickey’s commercial undertakings.” Whatever that meant, exactly—there is scant evidence in the Mickey Mouse Magazine of 1936-37 of successful training in how to draw the Disney characters—Kamen at least had plenty of people available to fill the magazine’s pages. But despite his success in licensing the Disney characters, Kamen was no more successful as a magazine publisher than Horne had been.

Although the Mickey Mouse Magazine, first under Horne and then under Kamen, generally resembled an established children’s magazine like St. Nicholas, with a mixture of short stories, poems, puzzles, and drawings, the level of inspiration was low. The drawings, including those of the Disney characters, were often weak and even amateurish, the jokes lame, the stories pedestrian.

Irving Brecher, later a screenwriter, was in 1935 a young gag man for “the cheapest form of human life, small-time vaudevillians.” He then became one of Horne’s two “associate editors” for the Mickey Mouse Magazine. Brecher wrote for the magazine what he described many years later as “stories with wit in them that were amusing only to grown-ups.” He invoked college humor magazines in describing his work, presumably having in mind stories like “Frank Verywell in College by Horatio Algebra” in the May 1936 issue, but the strongest echoes throughout the magazine were of Horne’s gag file.

Comics of a sort—self-contained gag pages with dialogue balloons, using the Disney characters—appeared sporadically, starting with the Mickey Mouse Magazine’s first issue, but when reprinted Disney newspaper comic strips began appearing in the July 1937 issue, they stood out by virtue of their crisp professionalism. A little over three years later, such comic strips would finally fill most of a monthly Disney magazine—not the Mickey Mouse Magazine, but its new and vastly more successful replacement, Walt Disney's Comics & Stories.

To close, here's a page from the February 1936 issue of the Mickey Mouse Magazine, a little better looking, actually, than many such pages but typically lame in its gag-file tone:

Mickey Mouse Magazine page

[Posted March 10, 2012; corrected March 11 and 12, 2012]

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