A very good friend presented me with a Christmas gift this holiday season, in what to me was an incredibly heartfelt and exceedingly generous gesture. For a period in the late 1930s, relatives of my friend collected celebrity autographs. They did this by mailing blank business cards, commonly called fan cards, to the various Hollywood studios, whose publicity departments would acquire the requested signatures, then return them, usually in a SASE.
As close as my friend can estimate, sometime in 1938 her aunt and uncle mailed a request for Walt Disney’s autograph to 2719 Hyperion Avenue. Not long after, the previously blank card came back to them. Here’s what they received:
And it is this wonderful piece of Disneyana that she passed on to me.
What made this gift especially great was that I immediately knew there had to be a story behind it. Why? Because even though it was quite possible that Mickey and Donald both signed the card, it was fairly clear that Walt didn’t pen his name. Walt’s signature, while evolving somewhat over the years, was always very distinct and elaborate. This particular printed version had some of that flair, but most definitely came from another’s hand. My curiosity was immediately aroused; how did the studio handle these requests back then, and would it be possible to determine just who put ink (and marker) to the card?
To help answer these questions, I enlisted the aid of Jeff Kurtti who was quickly able to provide some answers. Jeff gave me the following information from Phil Sears Collectibles web site:
At least a dozen Disney Studio staff members signed Walt Disney's name to comics, fan items, promotional material, etc., over the years. The most common proxy signatures are by Hank Porter in the 1930's & 1940's, and Bob Moore beginning in the 1950's. Keep in mind that Walt NEVER drew a single Walt Disney newspaper comic or comic book, but every one of those was "signed" with a Walt Disney signature- by the artist, of course. Fortunately, Walt's own writing has distinct characteristics that distinguish it from these copies. Even so, autograph "experts" have written books in which they mis-identify Walt's autograph and those of his artists.
Jeff then gave me his assessment:
My guess is that your fan card is a Hank Porter, from the late 1930s.
Both David Lesjak and Didier Ghez have profiled Porter on their blogs, providing the following information:
Porter was a really interesting guy, and a wonderful artist. Porter was a staff artist of the Publicity Art Department from 1936 to 1950. He is the artist of the Sunday pages with the movie characters 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' and 'Pinocchio'. 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' appeared in the Sunday pages of the American newspapers from 12 December 1937 to 24 April 1938. Note that the actual movie wasn't released until 27 December, so the comic began its run prior to the film's release. His 'Pinocchio' Sunday ran from December 1939 to April 1940. The adaptations were written by Merrill De Maris and inked by Bob Grant. Porter also did several covers and illustrations for Mickey Mouse Magazine and Dell's Walt Disney's Comics and Stories. Walt also had Porter head up the World War II insignia unit, where in addition to supervising (and in many cases drawing) the more that a thousand insignia created by Disney, he also did a ton of other specialty drawing focused on the war effort.
Porter loved to play the piano and being left-handed, was quite an accomplished player. His favorite piano arrangement was Rhapsody in Blue. At one point in time Porter was invited to become a member of The Firehouse Five Plus Two, a Dixieland jazz band, which consisted of fellow Disney artists Danny Alguire, Harper Goff, Ward Kimball, Clarke Mallery, Monte Mountjoy, Ed Penner and Frank Thomas. Other Disney artists who also played with the band included George Probert, George Bruns, Ralph Ball and Dick Roberts. The band recorded some 13 albums beginning in 1955 and ending in 1970. For some unknown reason, Porter declined the offer to join the band.
I had previously read about Porter in the book Disney Dons Dogtags, that spoke to his work on the studio’s insignia unit, but was not familiar with the other information about him that Jeff provided. It was a real delight to learn about one of the studio’s very talented, but largely uncelebrated artists. I did some additional digging and found that Porter was, along with Tom Wood, responsible for the artwork from the Walt Disney pages featured in Good Housekeeping from 1934-1944. Their work there has recently been collected in a wonderful book, Walt Disney’s Mickey and the Gang, published by Gemstone Publishing.
Thanks to Jeff Kurtti for taking time to help with this.
And very special thanks to my friend Betsy for her generous gift. She gave me something that came directly from 2719 Hyperion Avenue, and that means a lot to me for very obvious reasons.