MICHAEL H. PRICE: Alley Oop’s Stagebound Texas Homecoming
And he can knuckle yo’ head before you count to four.
– Dallas Frazier
“Alley Oop” (1960)
The formidable dinosaur-replica standing guard at the entrance to the Museum of Science & History in Fort Worth, Texas is a native Southwesterner in more ways than one. The creature goes by the academic name of Acrocanthosaurus atokensis, and as such it was not discovered until around 1950.
But a Fort Worth cartoonist named Vincent T. Hamlin had in fact discovered that unknown monster in the fertile substrata of his imagination – almost a generation’s span before the first Real World unearthing of any fossil remains. Hamlin called the creature by less of a mouthful of a name, and he made Dinny the Dinosaur a prominent player in a rip-snorting comic strip called Alley Oop, about a prehistoric Everyman. Dinny’s resemblance to the Acrocanthosaurus, or high-spined lizard, is uncannily prophetic.
This tidbit of provincial history took on a manifold relevance a couple of years ago with a smart accident of timing. No sooner had the Museum of Science & History opened its epic-caliber Lone Star Dinosaurs gallery, than Fort Worth’s Hip Pocket Theatre launched a stage adaptation of Alley Oop, in August of 2005. The bold juxtaposition of provocative science-fact with adventurous science-fantasy is one of those nowhere-but-Texas coincidences that would leave Vince Hamlin beaming with pride. If he were still around to do any beaming, that is.
In the interest of B.F.D. (Belated Full Disclosure), I should mention that I hold a stake in all these developments. I composed the musical score for Hip Pocket’s Alley Oop. My own book of prehistorical lore, a restoration of the late George E. Turner’s 1950s dinosaur comic strip The Ancient Southwest (TCU Press), had its rollout at the Science & History Museum. And V.T. Hamlin (1900-1993) was my first major-league mentor in the cartooning profession. Sooner or later, everything comes full-circle.
After all, it was the West Texas landscape, with its outcroppings of prehistoric remains and its air of primeval antiquity, that had given the Iowa-born Hamlin an inspiration for Alley Oop, ’way back during the 1920s. He was working as a newsroom cartoonist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time, producing a comics-panel series called The Panther Kitten, a chronicle of the ups and downs of a tenacious baseball team called the Fort Worth Cats. And Hamlin’s nearness to the natural history of West Texas became a springboard to Alley Oop.
“Y’know, I really created the blueprint for Alley Oop there at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram,” Hamlin told me in 1990. The occasion involved Frank Stack’s and my efforts to compile and annotate a set of Alley Oop reprints at Kitchen Sink Press. Hamlin added: “Well, I suppose I had been drawing the guy who would become Oop ever since I was a kid.
“But the one I called the Panther Kitten – he was my proving ground … for the real Oop character. Y’might say I took this baseball cat and transformed him into this big caveman I called Oop. I was more interested in prehistory, anyhow, than I was in baseball – not that my tendencies to mix cavemen up with dinosaurs could be considered accurate prehistory!”
The Telegram also provided Hamlin with the forced leverage he had needed to break through to a bigger sphere of cartooning.
“Fort Worth, I recall with a certain pleasurable fondness,” Hamlin said, “even though they canned me there at the Star-Telegram. It was at the Telegram where I had the freedom to get frisky with my drawing – polish it up to the level it needed to be at – and where I had the responsibility placed on me to crank out the stuff on a routine basis…”
Hamlin also ranged Texas as a news photographer. He shot the zeppelin Shenandoah from atop Fort Worth’s 24-story F&M Bank Building – one such photo appeared in The National Geographic – and he showed up with camera in hand at a watershed moment in Texas’ oil-boom history, when the No. 2 well of Ira and Ann Yates (hence the townsite’s exotic-sounding name of Iraan) came in a gusher in 1928, signaling a land rush.
That wild and desolate landscape, Hamlin recalled, “got me to thinking about the dinosaurs that must’ve been all over the place back in prehistory … I had a dinosaur cartoon in mind before I got up the sense to throw in a caveman and call him Oop.” He christened Alley Oop after the French expression allez-oop – a sporting exclamation, betokening strenuous activity.
But how about that sacking from the Telegram?
“Like I said: They canned me,” Hamlin explained, describing a freelance venture that he and an engraving-department colleague conducted, using the newspaper’s equipment.
“No big deal to the brass,” Hamlin continued, “’cause we made no secret of it, and they had more or less given us a nod and a wink to do so. But what soured the deal was the nature of some of the work we were getting on the side. This was during Prohibition, remember, and one of [our] lines was making these counterfeit labels for – well, for bootleg whiskey bottles.
“Well, the boss … called me on the carpet, in a friendly but stern way … I was kind of lippy as a youngster … So ’stead of going, ‘Yes, sir, I was wrong, sir. I won’t do it again, sir,’ like I was s’posed to do, I just went mouthy. And he fired me … So here I was, scrambling again. New wife, baby on the way, and we ended up having to pawn [her] wedding ring to make ends meet…”
After a few years’ frustrations and false starts, Hamlin moved to Florida, put Alley Oop into production, and landed a newspaper-syndication deal. After his first syndicate went bust, Newspaper Enterprise Association stepped in to rescue Oop and had made the feature a popular success by the end of 1933. The strip remains in production all these years later, now in the hands of the Tulsa-based artist-writer team of Jack and Carole Bender. (The Benders attended Oop’s opening weekend in 2005 at Fort Worth and pronounced the time well-spent.)
Hamlin again, from 1990: “I came back to visit Fort Worth after Oop got to going pretty good,” Hamlin told me. “Looked up the Star-Telegram people for old times’ sake…” Hamlin said the editor who had sacked him offered this greeting: “Well, I sure as hell kicked [you] upstairs, didn’t I?” To which Hamlin replied: “Well, it sure was a roundabout way of gettin’ upstairs!”
Although Hamlin never presented himself as an authority on prehistory, he weaved something near a purer-science background into Oop’s Sunday-funnies installments, with sidebar-features called “Dinny’s Family Album” and “Fragments of Man’s Early History.” Dinny was strictly a concoction of the artist’s imagination – or so even Hamlin himself believed until the discovery of Acrocanthosaurus remains in Oklahoma and Texas proved him predictive as well as productive.
Upon announcing his retirement during the early 1970s, Hamlin had complained among friends: “Nobody’s interested in dinosaurs or prehistory anymore.” This sad insight may have seemed accurate enough to an artist who had weathered the pop-cultural trends of more than two generations and by now found his eyesight failing.
But Hamlin also maintained ties to Oop and lived long enough to take part in the preparation of that ambitious series of books, reprinting many of the series’ transitional episodes of the 1940s. (The Kitchen Sink Press editions yielded the “Black Dinosaur” continuity that became the basis of the Hip Pocket Theatre play.) Hamlin also lived long enough to witness practically everybody become interested all over again in that area of his greatest fascination: Hamlin died not long after Steven Spielberg’s movie version of Jurassic Park (1993) had re-awakened that interest in a big way.
And as to whether anybody’s “interested in dinosaurs and prehistory” all these years beyond that surge – well, the Fort Worth Museum of Science & History has made a sustained success of its Lone Star Dinosaurs exhibit, with plans for an expansion of that gallery as part of a new building in the works. There’s even a hint of a V.T. Hamlin exhibit, remarking the predictive power of the artist’s imagination. The cumulative effect suggests something of a posthumous homecoming.
Writer of The Prowler and the forthcoming Fishhead, Michael H. Price claims a movies-and-comics pedigree via such second- and/or third- cousin kinships as Vincent Price (1911–93) and Mad magazine’s Roger Price (1918–90). MHP’s movie commentaries can be found at The Fort Worth Business Press and at SciFi And Horror.com. Contact Price at email@example.com.
(Artwork copyright N.E.A. All Rights Reserved.)