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In the Catbird Seat/Joe Kirkish

Archy and Mehitabel: A great couple

January 26, 2012
The Daily Mining Gazette

Great couples in history: Romeo and Juliet, Scarlet and Rhett, Tristan and Isolde - but the greatest of all in recent history is Archy and Mehitabel.

Who? Remember a N.Y. cockroach named Archy, who invaded the Don Marquis' office at the Evening Sun back in 1916? Archy came to munch on bread crumbs left on the columnist's desk, saw the typewriter, and having a lot to say about life and his alley cat friend Mehitabel, climbed up and dove headlong onto the keys, leaving behind something for Marquis to read the next morning and, eventually, to get published in his daily column. When Marquis left the Sun, he took Archy with him, to Collier's magazine and other publications.

By the 1930s, he featured Archy, Mehitabel, Pete the pup, Freddy the rat and assorted fleas, spiders, ghosts and even a few Martians in more than 500 sketches. Though the items were written under daily deadline pressure, it was the honest simplicity of the cockroach and cat that gave them timeless appeal, with drawings by "Krazy Kat" cartoonist George Herriman's drawings.

Starting with that 1916 column, Archy's comments became popular fare - reproduced exactly as typed in all lower-case letters and without the use of any symbols that required use of all keys (Marquis used capital letters when writing about his tiny friends because, as he once explained, "After all, Archy would write correctly if he could").

For subject matter, Archy would pour out anything that came to mind in a mix of news commentaries, doggerel poetry and short sketches that included items of interest about fairies, spiritualists, politics and social mors. He commented on the fights for labor rights and women's suffrage, the excesses of the Roaring Twenties and the crushing poverty of the Great Depression. But most lasting was the introduction in his first column of Mehitabel, the alley cat of questionable character.

Don Marquis wrote his last Archy and Mehitabel tale more than 65 years ago, but the story continues. Theatre groups still stage musical productions based on their antics, and new generations have been introduced to the duo through videotape copies of the 1971 animated film "Shinbone Alley." A musical "Archy and Mehitabel" opened in New York in 1954 as a "back-alley opera," featuring the voices of Carol Channing as Mehitabel and Eddie Bracken as Archy, with additional narrative by David Wayne. It was called "echoes of archy," recorded on the Columbia label (A-1107).

Two years later, a reworked full-scale Broadway musical version under the name of "Shinbone Alley" was introduced with the aid of a young humor writer who also would eventually achieve fame - Mel Brooks - with Bracken as Archy again and Eartha Kitt as a raucous Mehitabel. Brooks Atkinson wrote a praising review in the N.Y. Times, but decried the fact that it had erred by "taking the line of least resistance" by portraying Archy as being in love with Mehitabel. "A cat and a cockroach do not make attractive lovers," he wrote.

Still, the warm relationship between cockroach and feline remains, and one day even popped up in this column when, some months ago, Archy surprised us with a morning's greeting - now found more appropriately, and with a more mature sage view of modern life - printed from a computer keyboard.

Following in the footsteps of Don Marquis, the originator of this column picked up the cockroach's cudgels and has, from time to time, forwarded the morning postings to Gazette readers.

According to their tale, Archy had accompanied Mehitabel to the Copper Country after reading something intriguing in an abandoned travel magazine, hitched a ride from the Big Apple, to enjoy a summer here. Archy opted to stay on, while Mehitabel, missing her wild life in New York, returned. They still communicate irregularly via various electronic devices, and their comments are frequently recorded here. You might even find them here in a week or so

Rotten Tomato average: "Underworld Awakening," D-

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