The Picayune frog vs. Pogo the Possum: Or, how New Orleans’ ‘weather prophet’ went national
In 1952, nearly 40 years after its once-popular frog mascot was retired, The Times-Picayune decided to resume the practice of having a cartoon character “forecast” the daily weather. Rather than revive the old weather frog, however, it opted for cartoonist Walt Kelly’s then-popular comic-strip character Pogo the Possum. Readers were hopping mad, demanding the return of the familiar old pot-bellied amphibian. That led to a weeklong period in which both Pogo and the Picayune frog predicted the weather side by side for a week on the paper’s front page, while the readers cast their votes on which should get the permanent gig. Despite the national popularity of Pogo, who was syndicated to about 300 newspapers at the time, the Picayune frog pulled out the victory, by a vote of 5,170 to 4,087.
As popular as he was, Pogo’s daily run on comics pages ended in 1974, about a year and a half after Kelly’s death. The weather frog, however, is still going strong, appearing daily on The Times-Picayune weather page.
- The contest between Pogo and the weather frog was a newspaper-seller. In addition to daily front-page updates on the vote count, it encouraged sales through its method of voting, which required readers to clip out an image of their preferred candidate from that day’s paper and mail it to newspaper offices.
- In a playful bit of return fire after losing, Kelly introduced “The Original Picayune Frog” as a temporary character in his daily syndicated comic strip. Starting on June 19, 1953, the frog hopped his way into the Okefenokee Swamp, where “Pogo” was set, for a story arc that lasted into September.
- Explaining that he formerly worked for a New Orleans newspaper, the Original Picayune Frog went on to explain to Pogo that he and “ol’ George, the head man” — an apparent reference to The Times-Picayune’s then-editor, George Healy — rigged the outcome of the 1952 contest.
- The Picayune Frog’s “Pogo” story arc largely centered on the inadvertent swallowing of the frog’s amoeba friend by “Pogo” regular Albert the Alligator. That led to, among other things, a duel between Albert and Howland Owl.
- Over the course of the multi-week story, the frog revealed he was the advance man for a pelican named Roogey Batoon, who managed the “Louisiana Perches,” a singing trio of fish named Flim, Flam and Flo. When they, too, were accidentally eaten, Roogey and the frog finally decided to head home to Louisiana.
- “Baton Rouge is a hotbed of Pogo fanatics,” Kelly said in explaining the story arc to The Times-Picayune just ahead of its premiere in 1953. “And when I was made a colonel on the governor’s staff up there some months ago, my direct assignment was to get a Louisiana pelican to work in the strip.”
- Pogo, whose weather images appeared in a number of other papers, occasionally returned to do the duties for The Times-Picayune — presumably when staff artist John Elliot Clement, who drew the frog at the time, was on vacation. Such a stretch came in fall 1952 when the weather frog was ostensibly away to compete in the Calaveras County frog-jumping competition.
- The Picayune frog wasn’t Kelly’s only locally linked work. In 1954, while vacationing in town with his wife, he drew a picture of a “Fighting Blue Jay” mascot — named Jayson in a contest won by student John Ernst III — as a gift to Jesuit High School for use in its yearbooks and school newspaper. That image is still used by the school today, including on its website.
- In addition to its cast of cute critters, the “Pogo” strip was popular for its sharp political and social satire. When Pogo was ousted as the paper’s weather prophet, it prompted outcry from some readers, including a letter to the editor on March 21, 1952, that read, “I remember very well the old green frog of by-gone days. The few readers who are asking that he be resurrected and replace Pogo and his ‘associates’ should bear in mind that they are living in another generation.”
- After getting a taste of campaigning against the Picayune weather frog, Pogo famously ran for president against Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 in a series of comic strips. Kelly participated in a tour of college campuses, to speak on behalf of Pogo’s satirical campaign, which featured the slogan “I Go Pogo” (as opposed to “I Like Ike”). The tour included a stop at Loyola and Tulane universities in New Orleans, where Kelly was enthusiastically received.
- Before he began “Pogo,” Kelly was an animator at Walt Disney Studios. Among the more notable Disney projects he worked on were the feature films “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia” and “Dumbo.”
No offense to Pogo, but some New Orleans jobs are best left to New Orleanians. That turned out to be the case when it came to The Times-Picayune’s weather prophet. Consider: On Mardi Gras 1952, at the beginning of Pogo’s short reign, his forecast featured a photo of him and buddy Albert the Alligator warming their hands over a smoldering cigar. The clear indication: It would be a chilly day. It was a serviceable image — but it was Mardi Gras, and there was nary a bead nor float in sight. A year later, after the weather frog had made his return, he was featured in full regal Carnival regalia and riding atop a float. The forecast: “To reign and not to rain.” Now, that’s a New Orleans forecast — and The Times-Picayune weather frog is New Orleans’ kind of forecaster.