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Cigars and the Comics

Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

(continued from page 2)

The sports pages of the San Francisco papers were also the professional spawning ground of two cigar-smoking cartoonists whose impact on our language was more far-reaching and profound than Fisher's: Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, who signed his drawings "Tad," and Rube Goldberg.

Dorgan was born in San Francisco in 1877 and joined the art staff of the old San Francisco Bulletin at 14. By 1902 he was the top sports cartoonist for the New York Journal, as well as an incisive reporter and sportswriter--"the greatest authority on boxing," in the opinion of Jack Dempsey, no less. Dorgan also was an immensely prolific coiner of slang expressions. "More than any other newspaper man..., he influenced the speech of millions of Americans," the New York Herald Tribune said shortly after Dorgan's death in 1929.

Among the words and expressions Dorgan is generally credited with either creating or popularizing are "dumbbell" (a stupid person); "for crying out loud" (an exclamation of astonishment); "cat's meow" and "cat's pajamas" (as superlatives); "applesauce" (nonsense); "cheaters" (eyeglasses); "skimmer" (a hat); "hard-boiled" (a tough person); "drugstore cowboy" (loafers or ladies' men); "nickel-nurser" (a miser); "as busy as a one-armed paperhanger" (overworked); and "Yes, we have no bananas," which was turned into a popular song. In 1933, W.J. Funk of the Funk and Wagnalls dictionary company placed Dorgan at the top of the list of the 10 "most fecund makers of American slang"; Mencken credited Dorgan with designating a sausage in a bun as a "hot dog."

Dorgan was in the Polo Grounds press box one chilly spring day in the early 1900s while hawkers from the Harry M. Stevens Company peddled steaming sausages to baseball fans by calling out, "Get your red hots here! Get 'em while they're hot!" New Yorkers back then frequently called such sausages "dachshunds," perhaps because they resembled those little German canines--or to suggest slyly that this inexpensive comestible contained dog meat. Dorgan wanted to draw a cartoon about the snack, but didn't know how to spell "dachshund." So he depicted little four-legged sausages running around and labeled them "hot dogs."

Goldberg, also a native San Franciscan, was born in 1883 and added not only expressions to the language but his own name as a synonym for an extraordinarily complicated contraption devised to perform an extremely simple task.

Although he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1904 with a degree as a mining engineer, Goldberg never really wanted to do anything but draw cartoons while smoking cigars. "He smoked Cuban cigars, mostly Partagas," recalls Goldberg's son, George W. George, 75, a movie and theatrical producer whose credits include the film My Dinner with Andre and Dylan, a Broadway play about Dylan Thomas that starred Sir Alec Guinness.

"He loved cigars, and he knew a great deal about them. I took up cigar-smoking myself simply because my father smoked them. I love cigars, too, but only smoke about two a month--when I'm feeling expansive, usually after dinner. I like Partagas or Macanudo. I don't think Cuban cigars are as good as they used to be--but nothing is as good as it used to be, which is a common observation of anyone over 65," George says with a chuckle.

Rube Goldberg joined the San Francisco Chronicle's art department in 1904 as an $8-a-week office boy. Soon he was contributing cartoons to the sports page. He became Tad Dorgan's successor at the rival Bulletin and soon thereafter followed Dorgan to New York and got a job on the Evening Mail.

Goldberg branched out from the sports department, producing an immensely popular, long-running series called "Foolish Questions." (A battered man stands beside a demolished car. "Have an accident?" he is asked. "No thanks; just had one," he replies.) Goldberg also began to put his engineering education to work, creating the first of the extravagant, nonsensical "inventions" that would make his name a byword for technology run amuck. By 1918 he was earning $1,000 a week and had begun syndicating his most famous comic strip, "Boob McNutt," starring a gentle, unassuming figure in polka-dotted pants who was constantly embroiled in exotic adventures.

Many of Goldberg's comic strips were polished off with a small box containing an unrelated wisecrack--the cartoonists' equivalent of a stand-up comic's snare-drum rimshot. It was for these little kickers that Goldberg popularized the slang word "boloney" (now more commonly spelled "baloney") to punctuate the punchline. Goldberg recalled that the first time he heard the expression was during the 1920 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Brooklyn Dodgers. An acquaintance scoffed at a theatrical extravaganza they had just seen by dismissing it as "just a lot of boloney."


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