Felix the Cat, created in Hudson County Otto Messmer and America's favorite feline
by : Jessica Rosero
Apr 04, 2006 | 1515 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Before Garfield, Heathcliff, and Tom (of Tom and Jerry), there was Felix the Cat.

The mischievous cartoon feline came to fame during the silent animation era of the early 1900s, and has become one of the most enduring pop-culture figures in history.

The creative genius behind Felix was Otto Messmer of West Hoboken (now Union City).

"Discovering the many and varied artists that have come out of this area is awesome and inspiring," said private historian Kathie Pontus last week. "I loved Felix the Cat when I was a kid. I never thought he was born and bred in my hometown."

Felix the Cat made his debut in 1919 for the cartoon Feline Follies under his original name, Master Tom. Shortly after, the lovable feline adopted his lasting moniker by his third animated short, Adventures of Felix.

Felix quickly became the star of silent animation for audiences in the United States and Europe, and even starred in his own successful comic strip, which began in 1923.

However, Messmer wasn't always recognized as the creator of Felix the Cat.

Up until the 1960s, credit for the animated star had been given to Pat Sullivan, but while Sullivan accepted the accolades, Messmer was found to be the true force behind the creation.

Messmer Otto Messmer was born on August 16, 1892 in West Hoboken, where he attended the Holy Family Parochial School. From an early age, Messmer's parents instilled a love for Vaudeville and show business, and his teachers encouraged his artistic abilities.

Messmer attended the Thomas School of Art in New York City and participated in a work-study program with the Acme Agency, where he did illustrations for fashion catalogues. However, his first love was cartooning.

Well, at least until he met real love Anne Mason - his wife of 49 years - in 1912.

From 1912 to 1914, inspired by Winsor McCay's live-action, animation pictures such as How a Mosquito Operates, Messmer began creating his own comics for the local papers. One entitled Fun ran as part of the Sunday comics' page for the now defunct New York World.

In 1915, Messmer signed a deal with Jack Cohn of Universal Studios to produce a test film based on a character Messner created named Motor Mat. Although the character was never released, it drew the interest of Pat Sullivan, an animator who had had little to moderate success in the animation field.

However, before jumping on the bandwagon with Sullivan, Messmer opted to work with Henry "Hy" Mayer, a well-known cartoonist, on the successful animated series The Travels of Teddy based on Teddy Roosevelt. Following the success of the project, Messmer went to work for Sullivan.

Working for Sullivan At the time, Sullivan was working at one of the earliest animation studios, Raoul Barre's Animated Cartoons, Inc. He was able to get contracts with Efanem Film Company and Edison producing advertising and split-reel entertainment shorts. By 1916, Sullivan had completely engrossed himself with business, leaving creative responsibility to Messmer.

But Sullivan landed himself in criminal trouble by 1917, and served nine months of a one to two years sentence at New York's Sing Sing prison. In the meantime, Messmer briefly returned to work with Mayer until Messmer was drafted to serve in World War I.

Birth of an icon Upon Messmer's return in 1919, business went back to normal, and soon after Earl Hurd, director of Paramount Screen Magazine, requested the studio for a cartoon short that would accompany a feature film.

Sullivan gave the project to Messmer, who quickly put together Feline Follies starring his latest creation, a black cat who brought good luck to people in trouble. "Felix the Cat" was born.

Although Sullivan took all the credit, Messmer personally directed all of the Felix episodes, and was the lead animator for all the cartoons produced by the studio.

Felix the Cat was also widely recognized for his own successful newspaper comic strip, produced under Messmer's constant inventive direction. He even did most of the pencils and inks on the strip until 1954. Felix was the first cartoon star to be created and developed for the screen, as well as the first to become a licensed, mass merchandised character.

From its original series, Felix the Cat starred in over 150 cartoons before ending its run in 1931, when animation studios began making the jump to sound, also heralding the birth of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse.

Much like his silent screen career, Felix's comic strip also began to fade in popularity during the late 1930s. However, comic books reintroduced the character in the 1940s, garnering a new fan base. Since then, Felix has starred in other TV series, and various comic book original and reprint series.

Sullivan died in 1932 after years of alcoholism.

Setting the record straight After Felix ended his run, Messmer teamed up with Douglas Leigh, the "Lamplighter of Broadway," where he was the lead animator for the large moving electronic signs that lit up Times Square.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Messmer continued to produce new Felix comic books for companies like Dell, Toby Press, and Harvey Comics, and by the 1960s Messmer was finally given the recognition he deserved as the true creator of Felix the Cat. He achieved this with the help of longtime assistant Joseph Oriolo, who took over for him in 1955 and is also credited as the creator of "Casper: The Friendly Ghost."

At that time, Felix had been reinvented for TV with a new look and a new cast of characters, and Oriolo made sure that this time Messmer was given credit.

A humble Messmer relished the newfound recognition and continued to develop his prized character until retiring in 1973.

Messmer died on October 19, 1983 leaving a lasting legacy in pop-culture history.

Today Felix the Cat is run in syndication in over 250 newspapers all over the world, and is being discovered by a new generation of fans.

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