Elwood H. Smith
June 2006
Polecat Logo

One of the joys of living in a small town is unearthing local treasures. I've lived in Chicago and New York City where one expects to find an abundance of first-rate creativity. I've also lived in the Michiana Dunes area near Michigan City, Indiana and in Cold Spring and Rhinebeck, two small New York villages. It takes a little longer to find the creative nuggets in small towns--they make less noise and often maintain lower profiles. Early on in Rhinebeck I discovered incredibly talented musicians and with very little arm twisting, I formed a band to play music for the residents at a local nursing home. The original band, "The Polecats", featured Steve Bartles on vocals & bass (he also played bass on my CD, Lucky Dog), lead singer, Russ Bonk, Charles Prosser vocals & drums and Tim Hoolihan, vocals & rhythm guitar with me on lead guitar and mandolin--no vocals, thank the gods.

It is possible I started the band for the sole purpose of creating a band name and logo. I drew a skunk (sometimes referred to as a polecat in rural America) with a banjo (easier to draw than a guitar, we had no banjo in the band) and lettered the name of the band with our motto tucked below: "We Stink". Some nights we did, but mostly we were pretty damned good. Those members of our captive audience still awake, were thrilled as we tuned our instruments and waited for the custodian to find an extension cord for Steve's bass amp. They were ecstatic when we finally began pumping out old Hank Williams & Carter Family tunes, actually applauding from time to time when prompted by the helpful staff. Seriously, many residents looked forward to the Polecat's monthly arrival and I'd like to regroup the Polecats one day when my schedule allows & return to our elder hostile fans.
Rhinebeck Beagle Cover

But I digress. I'm here today to talk about a new discovery. The Rhinebeck Beagle. Furless, fearless and dog-eared, the Rhinebeck Beagle is an occasional 8 1/2 by 11 inch, 4-page newsletter (still only ONE DOLLAR) created by Pablo Rapido, a furry, fearless, dog-eared Rhinebeck resident who's real name is Paul Swift. It took me several issues to finally grasp the humor and logic of the pseudonym. Not the first time logic has eluded me.

Paul published the first Beagle in 2004 and immediately won the First Annual Jason Blair-Jack Kelley Award for Fraudulent Journalism. Really, a real award. It's named after the infamous New York Times/USA Today reporters who were both fired for breaches of journalistic ethics, including fabricated quotes and plagiarism. The judges cited The Beagle "for compelling journalism unencumbered by the facts." Jury chairman Larry Flynt of Penthouse said, "Most newspapers and magazines are still stuck in the mud of "The truth shall set thee free.' Obviously, Paul is no slouch when it comes to lying through his ink-stained teeth.

The Beagle is fiction, of course, but the articles are often based on actual events that have unfolded or are unfolding in Rhinebeck and Pablo has no qualms about using local resident's names. Those in the know anxiously await the next issue and we often wait many months. Some readers probably cringe when their names appear. They are often portrayed as scoundrels or wastrels and sometimes the cringer is, in fact, a scoundrel or wastrel. Usually it's just Paul having some fun with a local bartender or politician. He is a good man to avoid if you value your privacy or integrity.

But I didn't avoid him. We have these damnable faux carillon bells bellowing around here in Rhinebeck and they drive me crazy. Two churches have purchased tapes or DVDs of prerecorded carillon music and the pastors feel a need to broadcast very loudly from their steeples, several times daily, insipid renderings of hymns & God knows what else--including the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's mighty 9th. Lo and behold, an issue ago, the Rhinebeck Beagle railed against Jesus Christ's Elevator Music, prompting me to track down the mysterious and fellow curmudgeon, Pablo Rapido.

Paul Swift and I met in late February, 2006, at The Beekman Arms, his favorite dining establishment and watering hole. It is America's oldest, continuously running Inn. The food is excellent and the ambience is woody and dark, perfect for drinking too many pints of ale. I almost never drink at lunch, but what could I do? Paul was already at the bar slurping martinis when I arrived and, well, when in the Historic Beekman Arms Colonial Tap Room, do as the Beekman Arms Colonials do. Drink copiously. And so we did.

Anyhow, to make a short story long as I'm wont to do, I'm pasting below the lead story (almost entirely fictional but for names and places) from the Summer issue of The Rhinebeck Beagle, with Pablo having some fun with the Hudson Valley's ongoing historic Dutch roots fanfare. It also marks the first Beagle to feature spot illustrations by the brilliant local artist, E. Herbert Smith. Now there's a well disguised pseudonym!

If you are ever in the area, give Pablo a call. Offer to buy him a drink at the Colonial Tap Room and I'm sure he'll be delighted to share a little local gossip and drink you under the table. Something he can do with one Beekman Arm tied behind his back!

©Elwood H. Smith


Store-window prostitutes, tulips, village canals are on the Empire Builder’s list

The Beagle is looking forward to sniffing around the Rhinebeck Planning and Zoning Board meetings on this one.

Over the past few years, George Banta has bought up the Beekman Arms Inn, the Delamater House and Conference Center, the Village Inn, and various other Village buildings, as if he were General Sherman marching through a goose.

Mr. Banta has now announced that he’s taking Rhinebeck back to its 17th-century Dutch roots.

“I’ve had meetings with The Holland Society, the organization devoted to friendly relations between Americans with Dutch ancestry and the Low Lifes, er, the Low Countries. They like my idea,” Banta told The Beagle.

“Holland is still reeling from the tulip dot-bomb crash of 1737, so they’ll try anything.

“We are going to re-create Amsterdam’s famed red-light district in the street-level windows and doors of my new Townsend House on West Market Street. We have four rooms there, street level. Welcome!

“The women are fully compliant with all pertinent health laws and regulations, and I’m even giving them full medical and dental coverage (although most of them don’t have that many teeth).”

Is this legal?

Asked about the legality of prostitution in Rhinebeck, Banta replied that he skirted the issue (so to speak) by procuring an Economic Empire Zone grant.

 “I convinced the Empire Zone officials that many rural and small-town young women, many of them single mothers, were finding it difficult to make ends meet.

“As you know, many of these Empire Zones are exempt from most local and state laws and zoning regulations and even tax liabilities,” Banta said.

Like IBM in East Fishkill?

“Plus, I envisage getting support from the New York State Tourism Board and the small-business grants division of the Department of Homeland Security—to relocate some City prostitutes affected by 9/11.”

Holland to bloom in Rhinebeck

Burghermeister Banta also plans to foliate downtown Rhinebeck with fertile banks of tulips, certainly a plentiful spread on his Market Street sidewalk, under the ladies’ commercial windows.

“We’ll plant still more thousands of red and yellow tulips on the Delamater campus, too,” George said.

“But my favorite part of  the Amsterdam Project, as I call it, is the canal system. As you know, West Market Street was originally just that, a street wide enough to host the Saturday open-air markets.

“Well, we’re going to use that space to create a canal, like those in Amsterdam. A canal complete with locks in order to navigate the hill up to the Starr Library. A canal ride in the autumn rain should be very romantic, like in Amsterdam.”

Anne Frank House

“Finally,” George said, “We’re going to build a replica of Anne Frank’s Amsterdam house. It should off-set the cultural backlash we’ll probably get from the ladies in the windows.

“We will have live actors re-enact scenes from Anne’s famous diary—young, local Jewish girls dressed like Anne, and big, burly German farmers as the Gestapo. It should be great fun!” George said.

© 2006 The Cold Nose Press

Pablo Rapido, Editor
Elwood Elmer Smith
INDIVIDUAL autobiographical memory is unreliable. Time passes and our recollections distort and the gaps in our memory are filled with altered stories. Over the years, we tell these stories over and over and we believe them to be true. We are certain they are true. Close friends and relatives remember the same story differently and they are also certain their version is true.

Here's my version of a particular story. It is, of course, the truth.

This tale takes place around 1958. Maybe '59. I played guitar in a band I'd started with my pals, Bill Wright and Al Zdan, which had fallen apart for reasons lost to the decades. My father knew a man named Bussy who was looking for a guitarist to replace a talented, but unreliable alcoholic who'd missed too many gigs. I auditioned and was invited to join Bussy's String Band and played my first gig with them at the notorious Jack's Bar. My skills as a guitarist were very limited, but I could manage the polkas and and simple country music popular at the time. Bussy sang with a high, reedy voice in what would today be labeled "Bluegrass". As I recall, his wife and two daughters were in the band on accordion, bass and maybe fiddle.

The second gig fell on Halloween, way out in the sticks at a small bar. My parents, who loved to dance, said they'd stop by to kick up their heels. I loaded my new Supro guitar and amp into my washed-out blue '52 Ford. Look out Duane Eddy!

Midway into the first set, a burly guy walked past the stage, stopping in front of the band. He glared up at me for a moment and continued on to the restroom. On his way back, he aimed his hateful face at me again and headed out the back door. Turns out, he was the guitarist who'd been fired.

My parents arrived and, during the first break, I joined them at their table. Someone slammed into my chair and there he was again, the angry mug of the former Bussy String Band guitarist. He moved along drunkenly to the bathroom. When the band reached our final set, my parents waved goodbye and my heart sank. As I was unplugging my amp, one of the band members told me to be careful; the bully guitarist and a gang of his friends were gathered in the parking lot with trouble on their mind. Not knowing what else to do, I headed toward the back door, hoping for the best. Halfway from the stage to the door, my father appeared at my side. Came back to carry my amp he said. I nearly wept. Together we exited the bar.

Gathered there in the parking lot, off to our right, were several parked cars with teenagers clustered around them. The roughneck guitarist, walked up to me as my father continued on to my car with my amp. He jammed his face close to mine, looming over me like Bluto in a Popeye cartoon. Bluto, flush with booze.

"So, you think you play guitar better than me, huh?"

Me, weakly: "No, I never said that. I haven't even heard you play."

"Uh, well, okay, then."

He turned and found he had nowhere to go. His pals had moved in closer to watch the beating. He slammed his finger into my chest and called me a lying little prick. The skinny replacement guitar player had to go down.

"Get him out of here or I'll break his Goddamned skull!"

My father was slightly to my left, crouched over and pulling something out of his back pocket.

"Stay out of this, mister! That a knife?"

"It's a blackjack and I swear to God, I'll break his Goddamned skull!"

Dad had been brawler in his youth, hanging out with some rough customers at the local bars. He was not bullshitting these kids. One of the bigger boys grabbed the drunken guitarist, pinning his arms to his sides and yelled for us to go. Oh, yeah.

My father told me later that he'd heard the bar was a hangout for tough customers. Reason enough, he figured, in addition to it being Halloween, to bring his blackjack. Many years earlier, he built the blackjack from a lead weight, a leather strap and electrician's tape. A coworker had been beaten by strikers at the plant where my father worked, so dad began carrying a little protection with him as he crossed the picket line. 

My father was a terribly flawed man, but that night he was a perfect hero. Happy Father's Day.
Dad's Blackjack
My brother, Rich, who's a police chief, said in a recent letter that it might be that an incident that involved me and my dad in the late 50s, might have influenced his decision to become a police officer. In 2006, I wrote an article for my Drawger Blog, describing my memory of that powerful moment in my life as a young man and budding musician. That prompted me to add this photo instead of the scan I'd placed here 6 years ago. The quarter gives a sense of scale. The electrician's tape must have been really good shit back then, because it hasn't budged from the lead weight and leather strap it's covering.
Cartoon Rube at the Reubens!
Happy Hog in Chicago

Cartoon Rube at the Reubens!

I'm finally recovering from my gig with the wild and wooly "National Cartoonists Society Reuben Awards Weekend", which took place in Chicago this past Memorial Weekend. I've long been an admirer of "real" cartoonists--that is, those illustrators who write and draw self-contained comic strips, single panels, political cartoons & gag cartoons. I started out wanting to be a cartoonist, but life has a life of its own. Once out of art school, I needed a salary job to replace my grocery store stock boy status, so I landed a job as an assistant to the assistant art director for Irving-Cloud, a small publishing house an hour north of Chicago in Lincolnwood, Illinois. There, I had an opportunity to draw regular spot cartoons for "Jobber Topics" magazine, but I soon became enamored with typography and design. I worked as an art director for about 8 years in publishing and advertising before I finally plunged headlong into illustration full time.

Although my style comes directly out of the Cartoonist Hatbox, I've never thought of myself as the genuine article. The Reuben Weekend, however, followed by an event this past weekend in Chatham, Connecticut has given me the courage to rethink my self image.

Maggie and I flew to Chicago on my birthday, May 23rd and we ended up in a ritzy hotel right next to the river on Wacker Drive. I stood looking out the window from the 26th floor of the Renaissance Chicago remembering myself as a 19-year old greenhorn, suitcase in hand, getting off the bus at Chicago's Greyhound Station in the Autumn of 1960, ready to attend the Chicago Academy of Fine Art. I lived and worked in Chicago until I moved to the Michiana Shores area in 1973 and to NYC in 1976. It felt good to be back. The Reuben Award thing didn't begin until the 26th, so Maggie and I had some time to spend with her daughter, Annie, who moved there recently, having fled New Orleans just before Katrina hit. We also had dinner with my ex-wife & her spouse and that, too, was a pleasure. One of those rare divorces that didn't turn ugly. Maybe there were fewer lawyers back in '71. We also saw some wonderful art at the Art Institute and caught a slew of mind-boggling original Chris Ware pages at the Museum of Contemporary Art where we ran into DRAWN! creator and all-around-nice-guy, John Martz who I'd just met a day earlier at the Reuben event. We all stood in awe of Chris Ware's lonely, beautifully drawn world.

Oh, right, the Rueben Award event!

Rick Stromoski, who is the new Cartoonists Society president, invited me to speak at the 2006 Reuben Awards weekend and, since it was going to be held in Chicago (Maggie was born there) and Ralph Steadman & Everett Peck were going to be there, I really had to say yes. Also, I couldn't resist being a featured speaker at a genuine CARTOONIST award ceremony. Well, I'm here to tell you, it was great! Steve McGarry (the former president of the Society) and Jeff Keane were generous with their time and expertise, helping me set up my (first) PowerPoint presentation. Stromoski was a gem, making me feel right at home. I figured I'd be a bit of the "odd man out" at this all-cartoonist gig, but as it turned out, cartoonists follow illustration nearly as closely as we illustrators follow the cartoonists.

One very talented guy I hadn't heard of, who was the Master of Ceremonies at the Rueben Awards evening, did a hilarious standup comedy routine. His name is Dan Piraro and he's been the MC now for several years and obviously knows all the prominent member's foibles. His strip is "Bizarro" and he was honored with the Reuben Award for Best Newspaper Panel Cartoon by the NCS three years in a row. In addition to a book of his work & life's story entitled "Bizarro and Other Strange Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro" Dan has created a wonderfully weird-sounding comedy routine called "The Bizarro Baloney Show", which I have to catch somewhere ASAP. It's gotta be a 5-Star event.

Click for Bizarro

Ralph Steadman offered a rambling slide presentation which, for some in the audience, went on too long by half, but I enjoyed every minute of it. He's an eccentric--kind of like Anthony Hopkins in "The World's Fastest Indian", but much more acerbic. A very funny guy, although like his art, he's ready and willing to wield sharp objects--spatter some acid-laced India ink around the room. I talked with him for a while at a party and found him to be charming. However, when he accepted his Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award, he used the opportunity to lambast America (mostly) and England (somewhat) and then go on to berate cartoonists in general for lacking any real political courage. Many at the event were offended and decided Steadman was out of line to use the Reuben Weekend to vent his spleen. Others (I was among them) figured if you ask Ralph Steadman to your party, you should anticipate the unexpected. In fact, Jeff Keane, who currently draws his dad's creation, "Family Circus", talked about it at a party later, saying that he didn't necessarily approve of Ralph's behavior or agree with his views, but was not surprised nor particularly dismayed by the rant. It seemed to me to add another wonderful texture to a widely varied and entertaining weekend.

Click for Steadman

So, that's Part 1 on "How I Became a Cartoonist". I'll make Part 2 short and sweet.

Maggie and I spent all day Saturday, June 3rd at the CartoonFest, a fundraiser for a small library in Cornwall, CT. We were there most of the day. The gig included several talks, a silent auction and a free dinner for participants, followed by a great one-woman show by New Yorker cartoonist, Victoria Roberts. I thought the event was to be held last weekend while we were in Chicago, but once I realized that Maggie and I were able to attend, Liza Donnelly, who'd invited me to participate, asked me to be on a panel with R.O. Blechman, Danny Shanahan, Jack Ziegler, Bill Lee & Peter Steiner. All participants had original art for sale in the library. The artists are splitting all sales with the Cornwall Free Library, so the whole event was for an excellent cause. Liza is married to Michael Maslin, another great New Yorker cartoonist who was involved in the event. They, along with Shanahan, live here in Rhinebeck. Good company!

After we were given a simple, but tasty meal, New Yorker cartoonist Victoria Roberts appeared onstage as one of her cartoon characters, Nona. She is simply amazing! Catch her if you can. It's a one-woman show (with piano backup) and she fully inhabits the character. Vivacious Victoria transforms herself into an elderly, doddering, extremely odd woman with bright orange hair & chattering teeth. She danced. She sang. She told wonderfully weird short stories, wearing a Japanese kimono & ballet slippers, Victoria, wearing a cordless microphone, regularly wobbled over to a box of props, sometimes seeming unable to recall where she was going or what she set out to do. She ended the show with a kabuki dance. Try to imagine Blossom Dearie as a kabuki dancer. Another 5-Star review!
Victoria Roberts as Nona

So, Drawgerites, that's how, in just two (2) consecutive weekends, I became a full-fledged cartoonist. And proud of it.

CF Payne & EH Smith making a toast.
Dang, I forgot to mention that the great Chris Payne was at the Cartoonist Society gig. Now there's one hell of a powerhouse. Energy & talent to burn.
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