This week I’m going to remember a strip that will have its 55th anniversary of a start date and 40th anniversary of its ending.
MRS. FITZ’S FLATS was another creation from the fertile mind of Mort Walker, who had already came up with the smash hits, BEETLE BAILEY and HI & LOIS, the biggest strips of the 1950’s. The setting for BEETLE BAILEY was first college, then Army life. HI & LOIS were the ideal suburban family. However, Mort had an idea for an urban series, focusing on a number of different types all living in one rooming house.
Much like he had done with Dik Browne on HI & LOIS, Mort would write the gags and another cartoonist, this time Frank Robergé, would draw. Robergé had previously worked on other strips, including BRENDA STARR and WASH TUBBS, before he joined Mort’s team working on Beetle. Then, he stepped up to his own strip and was well up to the task. His style was sharp, clean lined and modern. He would be in demand for comic book work (“The Jetsons,” “Pebbles and Bam Bam,” “Grape Ape” and“The Bugaloos,” to name a few) for the rest of his life.
The strip was daily only, and launched January 7, 1957. The characters included: Lord and Lady Balderdash, an older, once upper-crust British couple who had hit on hard times. (Often, they are seen trying to trap birds and squirrels for nourishment.); Sireen, a comely young model/chorus girl/actress aspirant; Turf, a gambling addict; Danube and Ludvig, a brawny, fat couple constantly battling, though Lud always gets the worst of it; Professor Neutron, a crackpot inventor, complete with a standard Einstein-like head of wild hair; Umber, a classic beret-and-smock cartoon artist who can’t sell his works; Linseed, a lazy and incompetent janitor; and of course, Mrs. (Sophie) Fitz herself, a sweet old widow who owns said flats.
The scene is very nostalgic. The world of the inner-city boarding house with such varying occupations, hopes and desires harkens back to before World War Two, to the Depression and the wave of immigration. By the 1950’s, such boarding houses were on their way out. The world of the Bowery boys, Damon Runyon, and the Brooklyn Dodgers were all giving way to the prosperous post-War transition to the suburbs and the Sun Belt, especially for older people who had worked hard all their lives and wanted to retire away from the big city’s noise, heat and grime.
The strip had been unable to really take off, which was unusual for a Walker creation. Perhaps it was seen as too old fashioned. BEETLE BAILEY was once in trouble, but Mort turned it around by changing its’ locale. Maybe that could help MRS. FITZ? So on February 22, 1961, she leaves for ”her farm” in her funny old car with Linseed and “Nitro,” a punchy boxer who Turf had high hopes for. The stay at the farm was a bunch of hick jokes and transient characters, but apparently this change was not good enough to do anything for the strip, and an even more drastic change came not even two months later.
On April 10, the strip became MRS. FITZ. The next day, out of the blue, she marries Linseed. Her name and the strip, should have technically become “Mrs. Linseed,” but finer details are just cast aside as quick as possible because she’s now sold her farm and leaves for “down South,” leaving Nitro with the forgettable farmyard folks.
“South” proves to be a retirement community named “Ecstasy Acres,” and it strongly resembles Florida. There she takes up ladies’ softball and bingo, while Linseed does lots of fishing. New neighbors included a retired ferry captain and his wife, a little girl and boy named Trinket and Albert, a philosophizing cat named Mercedes, and a teen-aged hired boy with the charming moniker of “Barf.” It was common then for retirees to find sunny Florida a happy place to relax out their final years. Robergé himself looked forward to someday doing just that. Trouble is, it’s not interesting. An endless vacation is dull. Florida newspaper editors didn’t like the idea that their state was the place to go to die, so strip sales started to decline, instead of improve.
Yet another change had to be made. This time, remembering when they had a high point of 80 clients, they did the unthinkable and went back to the original locale: the apartment house in the city! In December 1965, Mrs. Fitz returns saying, “Some of our old friends back home need our help.” What specifically that help might be is not addressed, and we go right back to how things were, with the same characters as if the whole retirement was a dream. Only now, Barf has come back with them as Linseed’s assistant janitor/bungler.
The remaining years of the strip were only marked by a certain loss of morale. Sloppy details can be spotted here and there, like forgetting to draw Ludvig’s moustache in odd panels, or calling one character by another’s name. The gag file ran thin also, and dependency on repeats became everyday. Sometimes the same ones are seen only months later, and the art is less detailed. He either was off-and-on experimenting with a new style, or using a ghostwriter who didn’t care about accuracy. In the last few years, the characters sometimes often have big heads and small bodies, like they were little kids in costumes.
Robergé died in 1972. He was playing golf, and suddenly fell over on the second hole, dying a little while later. His strip ended soon thereafter, with his last episode dated October 28, 1972.
The last word in the strip (so far), is that Mrs. Fitz made appearances in “GAMIN AND PATCHES,” Walker’s 1987/8 United Features series.
Big thanks to Mort Walker, Brian Walker and Bill Janocha for their assistance on this blog post.