An indelible legacy: When John Chase drew editorial cartoons
In 1927, the New Orleans Item newspaper hired a then fresh-faced John Churchill Chase, a native New Orleanian and Isidore Newman School graduate who later studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, as its editorial cartoonist. It was the beginning of a career that lasted for nearly 60 years in newspapers, on television, in books and in classrooms, and introduced the city to “The Little Man,” a character who — created in 1931 at the onset of the Clutch Plague to represent the average New Orleans citizen — wore a tall hat and big glasses and boasted a bushy mustache.
By the time he died in 1986, Chase was a New Orleans institution. Today, he is probably best known for his history book “Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children … And Other Streets of New Orleans!,” so it is fitting that a street bears his name. In 1991, five years after his death, a segment of Calliope Street in the Warehouse District was renamed John Churchill Chase Street.
- While a student in Chicago, Chase was an assistant to Frank King at the Chicago Tribune. King was best known for the popular comic strip “Gasoline Alley.”
- The Item merged with The New Orleans States in 1958 to become The States-Item. Chase stayed with the newspaper until 1964, when WDSU-TV, the city’s NBC affiliate, invited him to be what the journal Television Quarterly said was the first editorial cartoonist on a U.S. television station.
- After state police reportedly threatened to shoot news photographers and destroy their cameras following the 1935 assassination of Gov. Huey P. Long, Chase — then still working for The Item — rushed to Baton Rough and drew a sketch of the scene from descriptions provided by eyewitnesses. His was the only illustration of the scene and was carried nationwide by The Associated Press.
- The title of Chase’s best-known work — “Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children . . . And Other Streets of New Orleans!” – is made up the names of real streets. In case you might be wondering where Good Children Street is, it’s St. Claude Avenue. The thoroughfare originally got the French version of that name — Rue des Bons Enfants — from the developer Bernard de Marigny, who named it after a street in Paris. Its name was changed to honor Claude Tremé, another developer, whose name also graces the neighborhood across North Rampart Street from the French Quarter.
- Chase, incidentally, lived on Music Street.
- Chase was nothing if not prolific. In addition to editorial cartoons, he did covers of football programs, a large historical mural of New Orleans for the main library branch and the Raider mascot of Archbishop Rummel High School. He and the newspaper columnist and historian Charles “Pie” Dufour taught a class on New Orleans history at Tulane University.
- For the 150th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase in 1953, Chase created a book, “America’s Best Buy: Louisiana Purchase,” that told the tale of the massive real estate transaction in comic-book format.
- Chase also contributed to “New Orleans, Yesterday and Today: A Guide to the City,” along with Dufour, Walter G. Cowan, O.K. LeBlanc and John Wilds.
- Chase’s papers in Tulane’s Howard-Tilton Memorial Library take up 339 linear feet.
- The head of his “Little Man” character provided the name and logo for Jack Wardlaw’s weekly Times-Picayune column about Louisiana politics. The usage was apt because Wardlaw, the newspaper’s former Baton Rouge bureau chief, used the column to show the effects of political actions on the average Louisianian.
Chase’s carefully drawn cartoons tended to be gently satirical rather than going for the jugular. Still, they left an impact. “The only thing worse than being lampooned by Chase is to have him ignore you,” former Gov. Jimmie Davis once said. The abiding reminders of Chase’s work are the library mural behind the main desk at 219 Loyola Ave., and “Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children,” which has been revised several times since its debut in 1949. The well-researched book is still the definitive source for the history of New Orleans’ distinctive street names. “Literally and figuratively,” a Times-Picayune editorial read upon his 1986 death, “John Chase left his mark on New Orleans.”