Felix: A Collectible Cat

People all over the world know and love that famous cartoon mouse, Mickey, but did you know that there was a cartoon cat that led this famous mouse on a real chase, at least from a marketing standpoint? Antique enthusiasts are well acquainted with Felix the Cat.

Born in 1919, Felix is loved by countless collectors even today who recognize his classic comic character and enjoy his simple antics. Mickey Mouse was created about eight years after Felix.

Dreamed up by Otto Messmer, Felix became popular about the same time as Charlie Chaplin, the Zeigfeld Follies and Prohibition. People turned to Felix for light-hearted fun, and he appeared on greeting cards, games and housewares.

The story goes that Messmer, a New Jersey art student who became an early cartoonist, went on to partner with Pat Sullivan, another commercial artist-cartoonist. Together they developed the Felix comic strip and films that turned the cat into a household word.

Felix is easy to like, with his distinctive black and white design, his huge grin and his wide eyes. Sullivan licensed the use of the Felix image on tons of products from cigars to baby oil. Products that featured Felix climbed in sales – Felix was that popular.

Today, there is a Felix website (felixthecat.com) that offers many perks to serious collectors with shopping, history and YouTube videos.

There have been many Felix the Cat dolls over the years. The first one came out in 1926 and was sold at Rexall Drug Stores and Hearst United Cigar chain, according to Collectors’ Showcase magazine writer Carol Turpen (May, 1991 issue). She also reports that even Queen Mary owned a private collection of Felix dolls.

Walt Disney himself tried to entice Messmer to work for him, but Otto turned him down. Several sources report that Messmer was shy and retiring and happy to spend his days at his drawing board. Messmer is also quoted as saying, “To me, a mouse is a repulsive thing.” Too bad for Disney!

Felix’s first appearance was in a short film in the early 1900s called “Feline Follies.” Just after this, King Features syndicated Felix in more than 250 newspapers in a multitude of languages, around the globe. He was the first balloon to appear in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 1927. He’s now published through Felix Comics Inc., in various magazines and publications.

Besides his creator, Felix was drawn by Messmer’s protege, Joe Oriolo, and his son, cartoonist Don Oriolo, who is still at it today and will soon release signed and numbered art prints (Soho Prints) for his avid Felix fans, according to a June 23 press release. In fact, Felix seems to growing again in popularity and is a hit in the fashion world. He appears on many pop culture novelties.

Comic book characters, such as Felix, are always hot with collectors; and, besides the dolls and advertising art, collectors love the old comic books printed during the first three or four decades of the 20th century. Getting your hands on a good copy of the original Felix might prove tough, but I did locate funny books from the 1940s and later easily online.

Little Orphan Annie, Mutt & Jeff, Popeye and Tarzan are just a few of the big name comic strip characters beside Felix. A variety of toys, pins, records and novelties were made showcasing these characters. Today all are desirable.

And if you can get your hands on the 1991 Schiffer collectors’ book written by Carol Turpen and called “Boomer Toys and Collectibles,” the photos and information will delight you as you discover some of the happiest playthings (like Felix dolls) ever made. Felix really is a wonderful cat!

For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at: zambitomaureen @hotmail.com or by writing in care of this newspaper.