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Bird is the word: Dan Martin celebrates 30 years of Weatherbirds

Bird is the word: Dan Martin celebrates 30 years of Weatherbirds


What are you usually doing at 6 p.m.? Fighting traffic? Eating dinner? Changing clothes for an evening out?

Dan Martin is digging into an hour’s hard work. As a rule, it’s just about 6 when he starts to draw the Weatherbird, the cartoon that appears each day on Page One of the Post-Dispatch.

To the admiration and astonishment of his newsroom colleagues, he’s generally finished by 7.

In 20 to 40 minutes, he will make a pencil sketch, ink it, scan it and color it.

And he’ll do just the same thing, but differently, the next day. And the next. And ...

“I plan to draw this for as long as I can,” the artist says.

Wednesday is Martin’s 30th anniversary as the paper’s Bird-man. Last month, the St. Louis Press Club honored his years of winged wit with its Media Person of the Year award.

Of course, he’s just a baby compared to his creation. Standing in a snowstorm in a hat, coat and muffler, the Weatherbird debuted on Feb. 11, 1901, and hasn’t missed a day since. That makes it the oldest continuously running daily cartoon in American journalism.

The Weatherbird is not Martin’s entire job. He creates Saturday’s weekly commentary cartoon, “Postcards From Mound City,” which appears on the Opinion page. He also designs the editorial pages and creates illustrations for Post-Dispatch features sections.

He’s a popular speaker, too, for groups all around town.

“Everybody likes cartoons,” he explains with a deferential shrug.

And in St. Louis, everybody likes the Weatherbird.

Martin, 58, liked it himself when he was growing up near Grant’s Farm. As a child, he once waited almost an hour just to get an original Weatherbird drawing from its longtime artist, Amadee Wohlschlaeger.

Martin still lives near there, in Crestwood, with his family. His wife, Kris, is a former Post-Dispatch artist (they met in the newsroom), and their 18-year-old son, Ben, is a student at his father’s alma mater, Lindbergh High.

When he went on to study art at the University of Kansas, Martin of course learned to draw another bird, the Jayhawk. It’s a fine symbol. But the Weatherbird, he observes, is much more versatile.

That wasn’t always so, explains Martin, a walking encyclopedia of Bird trivia. When Post-Dispatch artist Harry B. Martin created the character, it was only supposed to summarize the weather report. Harry Martin made a few appropriate drawings — the Bird in the snow, the Bird in the rain, the Bird in sunshine, etc. — that were intended to alternate according to the forecast.

But the cartoon’s fans weren’t satisfied with that. They wanted a new Weatherbird every day. Some people, especially children, were already cutting the little cartoons from the paper to keep in scrapbooks.

Harry Martin obliged them. Expanding the character’s wardrobe, he also expanded its interests to include topics in the news. Today that pithy comment accompanying the drawing, known as the “Bird line,” poses a daily challenge to the copy desk.

Bird watchers

In 115 years, there have been only six Weatherbird artists (three of them named Martin; they aren’t related). Harry Martin left the Post-Dispatch for a New York newspaper in 1903. Oscar Chopin, the son of famed novelist Kate Chopin, stepped in until 1910, when S. Carlisle Martin took over.

Carlisle Martin — “the lion of the Post-Dispatch art department,” Dan Martin says — continued drawing the Weatherbird in its daily Page One box. But for one year, 1912, it grew into a full-page Sunday comic strip. Typical of its era, the strip also featured Mrs. Weatherbird, a harridan who plagued our hero with her rolling pin.

In 1926 — when the Cardinals made their first World Series appearance, beating the Yankees — Carlisle Martin turned the Weatherbird into an actual cartoon cardinal. In the future, it’s often worn a Cards uniform instead. Over the years, the Weatherbird has donned everything from judges’ robes to space suits, from golfing attire to the Veiled Prophet’s headgear. One remarkable day in 1989, the Bird showed up in a cocktail dress and jewels; Zsa Zsa Gabor had been arrested.

Although he didn’t start working at the Post-Dispatch until 1980, Dan Martin was a colleague of the next two Weatherbird artists. That’s because Amadee, as he was always known, kept the job for nearly 50 years, beginning in 1932.

On Dec. 8, 1941, he put a smartly saluting Weatherbird in uniform. His silent Birds, holding their hats, mourned for FDR in 1945 and for Jack Kennedy in 1963. “Amadee lived to 102,” Martin says, “and in the months before he died, he could still scratch out a Weatherbird.”

Al Schweitzer followed in 1981. Now 95, the Clayton artist has always favored bowties himself and often bestowed this sartorial touch on his Birds. Schweitzer was the first artist to draw the cartoon in color.

When he retired, Dan Martin took over the aviary. In keeping with modern sensibilities, he stubbed out the Bird’s cigar once and for all. He also was the first to draw a “floating Weatherbird” outside the usual box and to complete the cartoon on a Macintosh.

Taking wing

Over time, the Weatherbird became such a popular symbol of the Post-Dispatch and of St. Louis that it hatched a clutch of collectibles: soft dolls and colorful erasers, postcards and clothes brushes.

In the early 20th century, the Peters Shoe Co. of St. Louis produced a line of Weatherbird shoes for children. Louis Armstrong honored the cartoon with his “Weatherbird Rag,” and bluegrass artist John Hartford, who came from St. Louis, composed “The Weatherbird Reel.”

Nor is the Bird a stranger to high places. Editor and publisher Joseph Pulitzer Jr., son of the newspaper’s founder, kept a Weatherbird figurine on his desk. When the company owned a series of private airplanes, they were all called the Weatherbird. Because each one featured the character on its tails, the Bird did, indeed, get to fly.

But that raises a touchy subject: Is the Weatherbird in fact a bird at all?

Harry Martin supposedly was inspired by a picture of baby blackbirds. On the other hand, the big, round, forward-facing eyes hint at an owl. And some people insist it really looks like a frog. Besides, if it’s a bird, how do you explain all those Thanksgiving cartoons with a turkey on a platter? Cannibalism?

Martin doesn’t let it worry him. “The Weatherbird can fly by flapping its arms,” he says. “And it can talk because there’s a mouth inside its beak. The Weatherbird can do anything I want it to do.

“I see a parallel with another comic with St. Louis roots, ‘Blondie,’” Martin explains, pointing out that Blondie’s creator, Chic Young, grew up in south St. Louis. “Dagwood looks the same, but now he works on a computer.

“And Blondie, who started as a flapper, has her own catering business.

“I try to do something like that. The Bird always has to relate to something on the front page. It can be happy, or silly, or solemn, but I don’t shy away from anything. Whenever something big happens, it happens to the Bird.”

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Judith Newmark is the theater critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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