by Ronald L. Smith
Here's more than you'll ever want to know about the origin of Buster Brown shoes and the creation of the Buster Brown comic strip....
In 1878, George Warren Brown and Alvin Bryan started the Bryan, Brown and Company manufacturing plant in St. Louis. Their big product was Brown Shoes, and in 1893 that became the company name. That's about as dull and plain as a brown shoe gets.
Meanwhile, in 1902, a fellow named Richard F. Outcault was launching a new comic strip in New York. (That's Outcault at the top of this page). The hero would be a sort of sissified kid named Buster Brown. Why? Because the successful OLD comic strip had come under fire for being too nasty. The lead character was a kind of Bart Simpson brat known as The Yellow Kid.
But back around the turn of the century, The Yellow Kid had run afoul of bluenoses, and that was interfering with Outcault earning his green. Some wordsmiths insist that the term "yellow journalism" came from "the yellow papers," the newspapers sleazy enough to carry the appalling antics of The Yellow Kid.
The Yellow Kid, like subsequent blond brats Dennis the Menace and Bart Simpson, had become a great marketing item. Only instead of t-shirts, The Yellow Kid turned up hawking such adult products as beer and alcohol!
Outcault finally gave in and decided to create a new kid hero, an upscale boy with a milder streak of mischief. Think: The Yellow Kid is to the Three Stooges what Buster Brown is to The Cosby Show.
The fair, which had its own theme song in "Meet Me in St. Louis" was a rousing success and amid the greed and merriment Richard Outcault, Buster Brown hawker, met up with George Warren Brown, Brown Shoe maker. It was a perfect fit.
Of all the licenses Outcault sold, the one to the Brown Shoe company proved the most lucrative. The Brown Shoe Company took an aggressive marketing approach for their new Buster Brown line. They hired short people (at the time, the term was "midgets") to impersonate Buster Brown at stores and theaters. Sometimes Buster Brown brought along his doge Tige and an entire cast for shows. That type of thing definitely brought the rubes 'a running. The idea was so successful that the idea of a grown-up Buster was continued throughout the run of Smilin' Ed and Andy's Gang on TV, Buster Brown was played not by a child, but by an adult, Jerry Narron.
For many, Jerry's squealing commercial that begins "I'm Buster Brown, I live in a shoe..." still resonates....
And many can probably sing that gently lilting Buster Brown shoe song....
DOES YOUR SHOE HAVE A DOG INSIDE??
WHAT A FUNNY PLACE FOR A DOG TO HIDE
DOES YOUR SHOE HAVE A BOY THERE TOO
A BOY AND A DOG AND A FOOT IN A SHOE
WELL THE BOY IS BUSTER BROWN
AND THE DOG IS TIGE HIS FRIEND.
AND ITS REALLY JUST A PICTURE
BUT ITS FUN TO PLAY PRETEND!
SO LOOK, LOOK, LOOK
IN YOUR TELEPHONE BOOK
FOR THE STORE THAT SELLS THE SHOE
WITH THE PICTURE OF THE BOY AND THE DOG INSIDE
THAT YOU CAN PUT YOUR FOOT INTO
In 2002 NPR radio's Morning Edition celebrated the 100 year anniversary of the Outcault strip. Reporter Elizabeth Blair described the series this way: "In almost every strip, Buster Brown wore short pants, a little jacket, and dainty Victorian shoes and sometimes a wide, saucer-rimmed hat. His family was rich, which appealed to upper class New Yorkers."
At the end of his adventures, Buster Brown would often insist: 'I'm sorry I was bad, I promise never to do that again, I'll be a good boy from now on.'
Yes, Froggy the Gremlin's "I'll be good, I will, I will," came directly from Buster Brown.
Thanks for taking the detour through the world of Outcault and Brown shoes. Hope you learned a few things and are now a better person for it.
"Buster Brown Comics" may be a thing of the past, but Froggy in a comic book is MUCH more lively. There are many many issues of the underground Zero Zero comic book featuring bizarre adventures involving Smilin' Ed and Froggy, courtesy of Kim Deitch.
Here's a photo of Kim posing with Froggy, September of 2002
Kim emerged along with R. Crumb, Spain, Bill Griffith and others when he was part of the underground comic scene circa 1970. His wonderfully pornographic work appeared in such classics as "Insect Fear" and "Clean Wholesome Tales of Sex and Death."
And many years later, 1997 to be precise, he decided to create a series about Smilin' Ed and Froggy. (Although he had used "Smilin' Ed" as the name for a freak show back in a comic strip in 1970).
Here, from Zero-Zero (a Fantagraphics publication) is a scene where the artist fantasizes about Ed McConnell and Froggy. VERY strange!
Hopefully one day all the Zero-Zero episodes involving Froggy will be anthologized. There IS a tremendous demand from millions of people!
Well, from thousands of people.
OK, from me.