“If You Worry About It, It’ll Never Come”: An Interview with Jim Scancarelli

Jim Scancarelli is known to some as a musician and champion fiddle player, but he’s also been drawing Gasoline Alley for forty years this year. In the late seventies, Scancarelli began working as an assistant to Dick Moores on Gasoline Alley while also working with George Breisacher on Mutt and Jeff, and in 1986 after Moores passed away, Scancarelli took over the strip. Among his many awards include a division award from the National Cartoonists Society.

On November 24, 2018, Gasoline Alley celebrated 100 years on the comics page. Scancarelli had Walt and Skeezix attend a celebration at the Old Comics Home where they were feted by Mutt and Jeff, Barney Google, Snuffy Smith, and many other characters. Frank King’s Gasoline Alley is one of the highlights of the comics art form, and Scancarelli loves the strip and its characters, and we wanted to celebrate the two anniversaries by talking to him about the strip and his career.

You started working on Gasoline Alley as Dick Moores’ assistant in 1979.

Around that same time I was helping George Breisacher on Mutt and Jeff. He had more of a modern swing to everything he was doing and the syndicate wanted [the strip] to look more like Bud Fischer and what the readers were used to. I don’t want to say I was better, but I was better at copying and getting into the styles of certain comics than George was. He wondered if I would work on the strip with him. He would write it and letter it and I would do the drawing. That was good experience and after a couple years of doing that I loved those old characters. For the Gasoline Alley 100th anniversary story I had Mutt and Jeff being the moderators of the program and it was fun getting to draw them again.

What were you doing before you started working on the strip?

I always wanted to be a cartoonist and never knew how to do it. When I was a kid, if I went to see a cartoon, I would come back home and draw my little version of Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck. I drew a newspaper comic strip in the Junior High and High school newspapers. Talk about amateur looking. [laughs] I was in the Navy after I graduated and I ran an art department. I was on the admiral’s staff. I was a photographer and an artist. The closest I got to being in a combat situation was the Cuban Crisis. I got to develop and process aerial photographs that they were shooting in Cuba of silos in the countryside. I didn’t realize that in those silos were possible nuclear missile aimed over here. I would make slides for the briefings they would have for the brass. I don’t think President Kennedy was in any of the briefings that I did, but it’s possible. When I got out of the Navy I went to work at WBT which is the local radio and television station. I worked in the art department there. They were doing a whole series of country music shows. One of them was Johnny Cash and I so got to be Johnny Cash’s art director. It sounds really glorious but there were only four or five shows. We were still in black and white in those days. Nashville had just gone to color, so the Man in Black ended up leaving Charlotte and going to Nashville and going to color. But he sure treated me nice. In those days this is before electronic teleprompter so I would have to letter the words to songs on big cards. I would sit underneath the camera and hold these cards up and in case they forgot the lines they could look at the cards. This is pre-electronic editing, so if they made a mistake, you had to back the tape up. There was a way to physically splice the tape, but you could see the jump and the splice and that didn’t look good. So we’d back it up and start all over again. After about four or five backups on one show, the director of the show said, we’re going to fade to black after every tune. That way we could back up without a glitch. We’re talking 1964-65-66. Somewhere in that range. It was fun. These guys were the pros. I got to hobknob with Johnny Cash and June Carter. Bill Anderson – Whispering Bill, they called him. I was his art director for maybe a year or so. There was a local guy, Arthur Smith, who was a country singer. He wrote Guitar Boogie.

So as art director were you mostly working on TV shows?

My job was to do artwork for radio and television. In those days you could do just about anything creative. I learned how to run the cameras. I could set the lights. I could build sets. I could hang around in the directors booth. I acted on radio and TV. I wrote the last vestige of old time radio. This was a five minute show in the afternoon called The Yellowjacket. It was a spoof on Batman who had just come to TV. It was pretty campy. I loaded it with sound effects. Zenith was the sponsor so I would incorporate the commercial right into the middle of the plot. If they were chasing crooks down the street, they would all stop and look into the window of the Zenith store and see all the products they had for sale and then they’d start chasing again. It was crazy, but it caught on and it was fun.

Later I opened my own studio and I did slide art. It was pretty lucrative, too. I had some big name clients like NAPA, the National Automotive Parts Association. They would do sales presentations like you’d never believe. I would cartoon whatever they were talking about. Most of those sales pitches were pretty deadly so I tried to inject some humor into it and evidently I did a good job. It wasn’t too much longer after that, here comes computers, and it was faster, cheaper, and easier to make a slide on a computer than to get me to hand draw it. Then all of a sudden George Breisacher called and he wanted to know if I wanted to ride up and see Dick Moores. I went along for the ride and Dick and I hit it off. Dick was looking for somebody and I didn’t have anything else to do. The reason I think I got the job was because I knew the characters and read the strip. The other people trying out had no earthly idea who was who. Dick said he would start sending some things for me to ink on a trial basis. I must have gotten the job because he kept sending stuff until he passed away.

What were you mostly doing as his assistant? Inking?

When it started out he would tightly pencil and ink the faces and I did all the other inking. He said that the faces had to be the same or the people would notice the difference. Boy was he one hundred per cent correct, because when he passed away I started inking the faces. [laughs] I was finally able to get inside of his head and see what he was doing. He wanted me to do it the old fashioned way. Back in the twenties and thirties and forties, most of the assistants either lived with the cartoonists in the house or nearby. I would go up to Dick’s house. He lived in Fairview, which is outside of Asheville, and I would stay in his guest house for about a week. Once a month I would go there for about a week and we worked long hours. I did everything from walking the dogs around the lake and taking them to the vet and a lot of other stuff in addition to. When he passed away, I took over and I’ve been going at it ever since.

Dick Moores worked on the strip for 30 years. I’ve done it for 32 on my own and I’m pushing forty total. I’ve done it longer than Dick Moores, which is hard to believe. That was a load of fun working with him. He would tell stories about working for Walt Disney and with Chester Gould and all the old cartoonists. He told some very poignant Disney stories. It turns out that the Disney guys, some of the nine old men, were working on I forget what film, one of the biggies. They went up to Walt’s office so they could describe a problem with the camera. Walt sat there and after they finished talking, he said, you guys have been making Pluto’s nose too big. He wasn’t even listening to them. [laughs] Dick did some fantastic work on the Uncle Remus stories. I had a Br’er Rabbit book from when I was a little kid. I still have it. I took it up to Dick when I first met him and he autographed it to me and drew a Br’er rabbit in it.

When Moores passed away in 1986, was it a given that you would take over the strip?

No it wasn’t. Right before he died, the syndicate worried because he was sick. They hired a team and got them to try out, but they didn’t tell me. Anyway, Dick passes away and I did get to try out. I didn’t think I really needed to, because I was doing it all the time. Fortunately the syndicate went with me. I didn’t get any criticism at all, which made me feel good. And I’ve been plodding along ever since.

When you took over the strip, you were a fan like you said, and knew the characters. What was the process of taking over the strip and figuring out what you wanted to do with the characters?

It took a while to really get comfortable with it. At that time I would have to write two or three weeks ahead. I would have to complete sketching and inking and mail them – this is the first year after Dick passed – one week every week and overnight it to the syndicate. Talk about expensive! Finally the syndicate slacked off and I didn’t have those strict reins on me. I was able to relax more with it. Then I’d get an idea and throw the characters in the arena and they’d run around doing what they’re supposed to do and I enjoyed that. I didn’t have to send a synopsis in ahead of time. They were pretty strict about that in the beginning because they wanted to know exactly what was going to happen, but no writer does that. A professional novelist rewrites the rewrite of the rewrite. When that stopped I had the freedom to do anything. I had good editors. Stacy Diebler just retired and we got along great. I’ve got a great one now, Carrie Williams, and it’s been a delight to work with them. In the old days an editor would be like, change this!, but Stacy and Carrie just call up and say, what if we changed this? And I go along with it. If you don’t have fun with the strip, the readers are going to know right away. I sure have fun. I’m just thankful, honored, beyond all imagination that I got to be part of this long ride. Frank King at one point said that he pitied the guy who would take it into its 100th year, if it ever got that far. Well, I’m that guy and I’m just honored. There’s no other word.

And in 100 years, there have been four main artists on the strip, which is pretty rare. And you’re all good, although Frank King is of course a master.

He was a master storyteller. His take on it was probably more everyday life. When Dick Moores took over, he had more slapstick humor in it. That infected me so I’ve got a little bit of that. The syndicate wanted me to keep it in Dick Moores’ style but they also wanted more humor in it. It never was a ha ha ha humor strip. It was just having your fingers on the pulse of life. Skeezix went to war, he had kids, and it was just a mirror of what goes on in smalltown America. When Dick took over he had a different approach. It’s not unlike King, but it’s not like it. If that makes any sense. When I came along I put my own personality into it. The art is a little different. Dick had a certain way of doing the expressions and I’ve kept the characters in character but put my own swing to them. Now it’s more fun because I don’t have to sit there and emulate him as much as I did in the beginning.

All four of you have had your own take on the strip and put your own sensibilities in it.

Trying to get into the mindset and the design of the creators is probably the most difficult thing. You almost have to begin by tracing or copying almost line for line to see what’s what. How they did what they did. Like doing Mutt and Jeff, Bud Fischer thought there wasn’t any reason you couldn’t have a long arm that was extended and much bigger than what it normally be. They would transcend a normal human body’s proportions just to accent emotion or action. Dick Moores was more human with his drawings. Sometimes we would slip and put three fingers. [laughs] Dick would say, they’re not cartoon characters, they’re real people. And by golly, he was right. They were real. At least to me.

You have all the characters that King created, many of whom are still alive, Dick Moores created more characters, you’ve created new characters. You have this massive cast of characters.

That’s the thing. There’s such a huge family from when King started it and then Dick took over and added to it and then I’ve added to it. The readers have not seen some of the characters in thirty or forty years. You just let them go by the board.

You have a lot of characters and you have a lot of older characters.

Walt’s 118 or 119 years old, if not more, and Skeezix is getting ready to be 97. Skeezix is hard to work with because he’s too straight. It’s easier doing something with Slim or Rufus and Joel. They’re easy to write for. My humor style was spawned by listening to the radio in the old days. It doesn’t get any better than Jack Benny. Today his stuff is just as fresh as it was seventy-eighty years ago. That style of humor is what I’m injecting into the strip. I’ve had a couple of deaths in the strip. I had Walt’s wife Phyllis pass away.

When Skeezix was born, Walt was a bachelor and he had to have somebody look after Skeezix so after trial and error of all these women coming in to look after him, they hired this black lady Rachel. She fit right in, but she was stereotyped. A mammy. When I had to redraw her I had to make her look not as stereotyped, if you know what I mean. When I had Phyllis die, I didn’t know what to do with Walt. He couldn’t stay by himself. So they tried out to different people to watch him – like what had been done with Skeezix – and here comes Gertie. She’s a real person, a nurse who looked after my mama after she had a stroke. She was one of the most loving, wonderful people. She’s a little older than I am and retired now and she gave me permission to use her in the strip. She’s the housekeeper-nurse and keeps things going.

I interviewed Nicole Hollander recently, and I think you’re both about the same age, but she said that she learned all she knew about timing from Jack Benny.

I love that!

There was a character named Frank Nelson. He was one of those actors who went form radio to TV. He was the one where Jack Benny would go into the railroad station and the clerk had his back to him and Jack would say, “mister!” Nelson would turn around and say, “Yeeeeesssss?” You know who I’m talking about.

I do. I can picture who you’re talking about.

He was always a wise guy. I picked that up and have a character who looks like Frank Nelson and he does the same thing to Skeezix. He just doesn’t like Skeezix and Skeezix doesn’t like him, but everywhere they go, there’s Frank Nelson. In the 100th Anniversary story he was running the tuxedo shop. That’s a holdover from the radio days. With radio, you used your imagination. They called it the theater of the mind. I think it was better than TV. Jack Benny would go down into the vault and it was hilarious on radio. He would cross the alligator pit and you’d hear the alligators chomping and the sirens going off and he would have to give the password and finally open up the vault door with all of these sirens and horns. When he went to TV and went to the vault, the set didn’t look real. It looked real in my mind when it was on radio, but on TV it looked like cardboard. I try to put in detail and make it look realistic. One time I fooled all of the cartoonists and I got the story strip award and that was an honor to get that.

Around that same time in ’88 the Smithsonian had Masters of the Cartoon Art and I put together an 11 minute slide show on the history of Gasoline Alley. I showed that a couple of weeks ago at the 100th anniversary. We have a little group down here of people who work in art and broadcasting and TV and radio. It used to be twenty-five or thirty people but now it’s eight to ten. Hy Eisman says, they’ve disappeared. I’m not the oldest one in the club, but I’m kind of running it. I showed a Gasoline Alley movie from 1951. Columbia Pictures did two of them and they’re good. It’s a good representation of the characters. Then I showed my presentation.

I have heard this story about how back in the 1980s, before the internet made this information easy to find, you put in the strip, write in and I’ll mail you a Wallet family tree. Which did not work out the way you expected.

[laughs] I printed one thousand of them thinking that was going to be overkill. I put it in the paper and said, all you had to do was mail your name, address, and a self addressed stamped envelope and I would send it for free. It didn’t cost much to run a thousand off, but the first day the mail truck came and dropped off a few mail bags, each one with hundreds of letters. My Uncle Bob ran a pretty large commercial art studio here in town and I didn’t have any place to put bags of mail and try to go through them. I was working on the strip at the same time. So he hired some church ladies and some retired folk that came over to his studio to go through them. Every day the mail truck came with four or five bags and that went on and on. Over 100,000 requests. We mailed every one of them off. Things quieted down and then the next year there were all these requests from the Philippines. It turned out they were running Gasoline Alley in the Manilla Bulletin a year late. I had a picture taken of me in the middle of a pile of these things.

November was the 100th anniversary and you spent a few months on this big anniversary storyline.

I tried to gradually get out of one story and then gradually get into another. I’m not sure where it is right this second, but there was a pie throwing episode at the party. So to get out of one story and make it seamless, Skeezix has to take the tuxedos back and they have custard all over them and Nelson goes crazy and it’s costing Skeezix more because of the fine print in the contract. Then he finds he got a parking ticket while he’s in the tuxedo place and he has to pay the fine – and while doing that he got a ticket. The stories dovetail. I don’t have a computer to see what people are saying, but the from the few I’ve seen, people have enjoyed going down memory lane. Which was the point. I’m sure the readers don’t know who all the old characters are, but anybody that’s my age or a little older should know.

I have to ask, are Walt and Skeezix ever going to die?

I’ve been asked that. In the back of my head, I have a scenario that would work. I have told Bob Harvey, but I swore him to secrecy. I don’t know. Uncle Walt is too good a character. You can kill off Phyllis and nobody is going to miss her much, but you don’t kill your main character. I’m having too good a time with him. Skeezix? I think he should stay around. All of Uncle Walt’s cronies that he used to work on cars with have all passed away. That was the realistic part of what I was doing. Uncle Walt has good genes. You just don’t kill off your main character because you don’t have a strip anymore. You have other players, but people seem to like Walt and Skeezix.

You have the three ring circus and all these people and stories but Walt is the ringmaster. And you and Moores have kept these themes of extended families and adoption.

The whole theme of adoption wasn’t anything that King did on his own. Patterson, the publisher, said, get a baby in the strip. That was how Skeezix came about. King didn’t want to have Walt get in a relationship because that would take time, he had to do it now. Patterson was a comic fan and would tell cartoonists what to do and how to do it. A lot of times he was on target. He knew what readers would want. The idea was to make an entertaining thing and sell tomorrow’s papers. So Skeezix gets born and he gets adopted. Dick Moores had a couple characters get adopted. I had Lulu get adopted. Skeezix’s sister Judy was left on the running board of the car.

In the old days I used to get mail. I got this one beautiful letter from an older lady and she sent me one of the Gasoline Alley oil cloth dolls. There was a whole series they made. When the lady was in the second grade her mother died and her teacher felt sorry for her and bought her the Jean doll. It was the only toy she had. This is back during the Depression where nobody had anything and if you did have something, it was really something. The lady was getting ready to go into a nursing facility and she couldn’t take very much and she said, I’m sending you the Jean doll because it should be in the Gasoline Alley family. She said, please keep Jean wrapped up in the baby blanket because she gets cold. I’m getting choked up just thinking about it. I don’t have a complete set of the dolls, but I have some, and I have Jean wrapped in the blanket upstairs.

Do you know about Skeezix being the spokesman for the World War II memorial? In the strip they gave permission to not ask for money but if you want to make a donation, send it to this address. It was okay to do it that way. They made thousands of dollars. I did a story where Skeezix went to Washington. Soon after that I got a call from the army history museum. It turned out that the army didn’t have a museum of any sort but every other branch of the service did. They asked if Skeezix would be their spokesperson and boy was I honored to do that. I did a story where he was writing a speech and would try it out on the other characters. Everybody he would go to would try to avoid it. That drummed up a lot of proceeds for the museum. I got a personal letter from Bob Dole that was real nice. I went to the groundbreaking ceremony when Clinton was President and they gave me a seat in the gold section which was not too far from the podium.

Has your thinking about the characters aging changed over time?

Well I haven’t aged at all. [laughs] The 100th Anniversary story went on for close to six months. That’s supposed to be one day. If you boil it down, six months worth of time has not gone by. In my twisted mind, it’s viable that they’re younger than they really are. In comic strip time he may be over 100 but in real time he may be my age. Does that make sense? I’m using a slower clock.

So you’ve been doing this for almost forty years now. And you haven’t stopped having ideas and enjoying it?

The other day I ran into the proverbial brick wall – or the white paper that doesn’t have anything on it. But then right before supper one of the characters said something and I knew exactly where it was going and I wrote three weeks. Then I had a wonderful dinner. [laughs] If you worry about it, it’ll never come.