Our History: Bayside cartoonist influential in pop culture

By Joan Brown Wettingfeld

Cartoons have been a highly visible and influential part of American popular culture. From Thomas Nast’s political satirical drawings in the late l9th century to the oft-mimicked 20th century image of Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Girl” and John Held’s famous flappers, social and political statements were made that influenced our culture.

Probably the most interesting cartoonist and social commentator of his era was Thomas Aloyius Dorgan, known to all as “Tad,” a nickname he took from the first, middle and last initials of his name. A Bayside resident for many years, he was born in San Francisco in 1877 and moved to New York in 1905 to work for William Randolph Hearst at the New York Journal. Ten years later he was sharing a desk with Damon Runyon, who was to become a lifelong friend. Nearby worked another young artist, George Hermann, who was developing a cartoon called “Krazy Rat.” Ring Lardner also was a feature writer in that same office, and all appeared each Sunday in Hearst’s “City Life and Drama, Editorial Section.”

As a sports writer and newspaper columnist, Dorgan influenced the vernacular of the flapper and “hip flask” era early in the last century. His columns and cartoons helped establish a permanent place for slang expressions in the American language.

Dorgan’s skillful cartooning was recognized country-wide, a craft in which he excelled despite a handicap caused by an accident early in life which left him with only a thumb and forefinger on his right hand.

Before coming to New York he had been an established newspaper cartoonist for the San Francisco Bulletin. His boyhood friend from those San Francisco days was boxer “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, who beat John Sullivan for the title in 1892 after 21 rounds. Corbett also was to make his home in Bayside near 35th Avenue and 221st Street.

Among the expressions coined by Dorgan were: “23 skidoo,” “Yes, we have no bananas,” “dumb bell,” “Dumb Dora,” “cake-eater” and “drugstore cowboy.” When the Flatiron Building in Manhattan was built on 23rd Street, there were wind currents created that blew up the ladies’ skirts as they alighted the street cars and apparently many young men came to view the sight. The police would rout them off the streets by shouting “skidoo,” meaning, get lost, thus the expression came to be “23 skidoo.”

Tad, his friends reported, had a penchant for nicknames. He also liked to take shortcuts in his writing, often cutting out superfluous “a’s” and “the’s.” He coined the expression, “hard-boiled egg,” and it became tagged to Runyon. He also enjoyed calling his mother “Flynn,” referring to her Irish origins.

A writer and cartoonist, he often startled his readers and critics by displaying an amazing literary style, though it always was couched in a humorous vein. Many of the slang expressions Tad originated or made famous through his work became part of our language. Two song writers who picked up on “Yes, we have no bananas,” made a great deal of money from that phrase. Dorgan also is known for adding to our vocabulary “indoor sports” and “outdoor sports.”

There are conflicting stories about the origin of “hot dog,” and though Dorgan often is credited with the name, there still remains much debate. The sausage we know of today began over 900 years ago and had its origin in Frankfurt, Germany, and sometimes was known as a “frankfurter.” Because of its shape it also was known as a “dachshund sausage,” and first was served on a bun in the United States in the 1880s. Frankfurters also were called “franks,” “red hots” and “wieners.” In 1906, Dorgan was in the press box at a baseball game and heard the cry, “get your red-hot dachshund sausage.” It was then, it is claimed, that he was inspired to coin the phrase, “hot dog.”

Dorgan wrote a column about happenings in Bayside called, “Toby Types,” which will be discussed in this column at a later date. He knew the townspeople well and spoke fondly of them. His son, I believe, was a student at Bayside High School in the late 1930s.

Thomas Aloysius Dorgan died in 1929 and on May 2 of that year, Runyon wrote a tribute: “The music has stopped. Tad is dead. Ray of sunshine has been turned to shadow. A peal of joyous laughter has been suddenly hushed.” The entire piece was republished 58 years later in 1987.

Tad Dorgan is buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery around the corner from his boyhood friend, Corbett.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian, freelance writer, and a member of the Borough President’s History Advisory Committee. Web-site: member.aol.com/tmpnyc/bayside.htm E-Mail: JBBAY@aol.com