On June 11, the 2010 Ypsilanti Crossroads Summer Festival featured a rousing opening set from roots and blue grass band Dragon Wagon.
Dragon Wagon was joined on...read more
Ypsilanti’s Cleary Business College prided itself on innovative teaching methods.
Instead of using textbooks, the school had students practice with such typical business forms as invoices, receipts, checkbooks, insurance policies and mortgages.
Students had a mock bank account with which to set up their own “business” within the school building.
One interior view of the school shows a long hall with booth-like cubicles lining the walls, housing student “businesses.” These are labeled “Transportation Co.,” “Post Office” and “Commission Co.—Bookkeeping—Cashier.”
As students mastered the facets of each business, they were sent to another.
Originally a school of penmanship, Cleary continued to teach this subject as well as shorthand, typewriting and business ethics, in addition to the hands-on business skills.
To this industrious hive in 1886 came the dreamy young artist Zenas Winsor McCay.
Born in Canada in 1867, Zenas was the oldest son of Robert and Jeanette. Soon after his birth, the family moved to Spring Lake village in Michigan’s Ottawa County near Muskegon.
The 1870 census lists 28-year-old Robert as a teamster, 28-year-old Jeanette as a homemaker, Zenas as 3 and younger brother Arthur as 2. The 1880 census lists Robert as a grocer with three children, 12-year-old Zenas, 10-year-old Arthur and 4-year-old Mary. Robert also worked in a lumber mill.
Zenas, who later called himself Winsor, loved to draw since childhood. His father had a more practical career in mind.
In 1886, Winsor and three friends came to Ypsilanti to attend the Cleary Business College. The friends rented a large room together. Ypsilanti was bigger and more bustling than Spring Lake.
However, according to one 1880's Cleary advertisement, “the innumerable attractions of city life which alienate the attention of students from their studies are not to be found in Ypsilanti.”
But Detroit had one such attraction—Sackett and Wiggin’s Wonderland, a dime museum.
Created by P. T. Barnum in 1841, dime museums were a sort of walk-through version of the Victorian “cabinet of curiosities.” The museum’s ostensible purpose, according to Barnum, was education and moral improvement through entertainment. Dime museums presented a heterogeneous mix of freak shows, circus performances, religious tableaux and sometimes less savory displays—for personal edification.
Winsor loved drawing the varied scenes in the dime museum and eventually became one of the attractions, working there as a caricature artist.
In 1888, Winsor displayed a drawing in downtown Ypsilanti. “The work of Art exhibited at the Post Office by Winsor McCay,” said the Feb. 10, 1888 Ypsilanti Commercial, “is a great credit to the young man’s artistic ability.”
That ability caught the eye of Normal School geography and drawing professor John Goodison.
Goodison entered the Normal School in 1856 and taught there until his death in 1892. An “In Memorium” in the 1893 Normal School yearbook singles out his patience, perseverance and intelligence—when he wanted to read a geography text written in German, he taught himself German.
When Goodison recognized the talent in McCay’s work, he met with and praised the young artist.
Goodison had worked in stained glass before teaching at the Normal and one source says McCay developed his vivid palette in part from the influence of Goodison’s stained glass. Less uncertain is that Goodison imparted a strong sense of the power of perspective in art to McCay, whose later “Little Nemo” comic strip is noted for unusual, sometimes breathtaking, perspectives.
Goodison encouraged McCay. In 1889, McCay left Cleary Business College for Chicago and found work drawing advertising posters for a circus.
He moved to Cincinnati, married and then moved to New York. In 1904 his comic strip “Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend” began in New York’s Evening Telegram.
The strip presented a series of gradually more surreal events. The last panel always shows someone waking in bed from a dream, regretful for having eaten some odd food, usually rarebit.
Despite the ever-happy ending, elements of some of the scenes recall the charged surrealism and menace or even terror in the sometimes psychedelic prints of German Symbolist artist Max Klinger. Klinger’s famous 1881 series of prints “Paraphrases about the Finding of a Glove,” based on dream images, was widely published and likely known to McCay.
McCay’s next comic strip also explored the theme of dreams.
In 1905, “Little Nemo in Slumberland” began in the New York Herald and ran until 1914, then again from 1924-1927. In 1911, McCay made an animated short based on the strip.
The strip has had lasting appeal. In 1989, a group of animators made the feature film based on the strip, “Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland.” A 1990 video game, “Little Nemo: Dream Master,” was based on the film. McCay’s strip has inspired theatrical productions and has influenced such modern work as Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” graphic novels and Maurice Sendak’s book “The Night Kitchen.”
In 1914, McCay created the silent animated short “Gertie the Dinosaur.” He and an assistant made it using thousands of drawings on sheets of rice paper.
McCay presented the cartoon in vaudeville shows and gave Gertie spoken “commands” that she magically “obeyed” on the screen. At the end, McCay walked behind the screen just as a life-size version of himself appeared on the screen in animated form and went for a ride on Gertie’s back.
For many Americans, this was the first cartoon they’d seen, and the effect was galvanic. However, “Gertie” was not the first animated movie. The inventor of the animated movie, according to John Grant’s “Masters of Animation,” is generally regarded as J. Stuart Blackton for his 1906 film “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces” or perhaps even Arthur Melbourne for his 1899 “Matches: An Appeal.”
However, McCay was one of animation’s pioneers, and his wildly phantasmagoric imagination and elegant, vivid mastery of illustration—given encouragement in Ypsilanti—secured him a lasting place in animation and comic strip history.
Author's note: This story is based on a tip by EMU Electronic Media and Film lecturer Matt Hanson.