Charles Addams: Humorist of the Macabre
As a child, my favorite day of the week was Tuesday. I just couldn't wait to get home from school and snag my dad's latest issue of The New Yorker. I would thumb through it in search of cartoon treasures. Most would go over my head, but then there was the wickedly dark humor of Chas Addams.
Charles Samuel Addams, the cartoonist responsible for the creation of the Addams Family, was born in Westfield, NJ on January 7, 1912 to Grace M. Spear and Charles Huey Addams.
As a boy, his friends called him "Chill" and remembered him as a curious rascal who enjoyed drawing coffins, tombstones, and skeletons. He was caught breaking into an old house on Dudley Avenue in his neighborhood of Westfield. On the 2nd floor of the garage behind the main house is a skeleton sketched in chalk. It is believed to be the work of Addams, and the home is thought to be the inspiration for his Addams family mansion.
His father, who studied architecture, encouraged young Charles to draw. At Westfield High, he drew cartoons for the school's literary magazine, Weathervane. In 1929 Addams attended Colgate University and became a member of Theta Chi fraternity, but after only a year, he transferred to U Penn and eventually enrolled at the Grand Central School of Art in New York City which he attended in 1931 and 1932. The School of Art at U Penn is named in Addams' honor and is fronted by a sculpture of his famous Addams Family.
Inspiration for the Addams Family home:
Addams was hired to work in the layout department for True Detective Magazine as a retouch artist where it was his job to clean up the blood and gore from photographs of corpses. Of course, he probably thought the blood told a better story! His experience at the magazine took him closer to his dream of working for The New Yorker.
In 1935 his first drawing was published in New Yorker magazine, and Addams began submitting them on a regular basis. His cartoon of a downhill skier finally impressed them enough that he was brought aboard as a full-time contributor in 1940. During World War II, he was able to stay in New York where he was involved in the making of animated military training films at Signal Corp Photographic Center. In 1942, Charles married Barbara Jean Day, his model and the inspiration for the character of Morticia, the matriarch of the Addams Family. He had begun development of its characters as early as 1938 but didn't fully introduce them until years later. In the meantime, he continued to draw for New Yorker, Collier's, and TV Guide where he showcased his great gift of storytelling with a single graphic image. In 1961 he was given an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America for his impressive output of work.
Introduction of the Addams Family
As a master of morbid humor in allowing people to laugh at subjects like death, murder and the bizarre, Charles Addams was the recipient of the Yale Humor Award in 1954. In 1956, he drew for his syndicated cartoon strip "Out of This World" which was an early Addams Family serial. It wasn't until 1964, however, that his characters were named and given distinct personalities for the development of a new television series entitled The Addams Family. John Astin and Carolyn Jones portrayed the amorous Gomez and Morticia in a well-chosen cast which included Pugsley, Wednesday, Uncle Fester, Grandmama, and Lurch, the butler. It also introduced Thing, the disembodied hand, and Cousin Itt, a walking, squeaky long-haired little person. Neither of the two was ever featured in his drawings.
William Shawn, editor of New Yorker, was so irritated by the tacky quality of the TV series that he refused to continue publishing Addams' work in his magazine. Fortunately, his successor had a different mindset and lifted the ban. Addams' cartoons continued to appear until 1988. Through the popular TV show, he introduced "goth" to the general public long before it became mainstream.
The TV show which producer David Levy got off the ground was a huge hit and really launched Addams' characters into everyday life. It eventually spurred a feature-length movie in 1991. The Addams Family Movie and its 1994 sequel starred Raul Julia as Gomez and Anjelica Houston as Morticia. The concept was responsible for similar shows like the Munsters, and Morticia inspired characters such as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
Although the Addams Family was unconventional in appearance and bizarre in its personal tastes for morbid things, it still came across as a tight-knit and very protective family. Gomez and Morticia were devoted to each other, their children, and extended family. Sibling play and rough-housing often involved trying to maim or kill each other, but it never ended up that way.
"The Addams Family Theme" was written by composer Vic Mizzy (1916- 2009)
They're creepy and they're kooky,
Mysterious and spooky,
They're all together ooky,
The Addams Family.
Their house is a museum
Where people come to see 'em
They really are a scream
The Addams Family.
So get a witches' shawl on
A broomstick you can crawl on
We're gonna pay a call on
The Addams Family.
Charles and his 3rd wife, Marilyn Miller aka "Tee" were married in 1980 at her Water Mill Pet Cemetery and moved to a home in Sagaponack, New York which they lovingly referred to as "the Swamp." In macabre style, he wore a black robe and she a black dress with a black feather fan. Behind the man with a taste for the dark and bizarre was a very normal, kind, and well-liked gentleman. Although rumors may indicate that he had psychological issues, this is not true.
"Tee" started the Charles and Tee Addams Foundation in 2000 which oversees the use of his creative genius. Charles Addams died of a heart attack in his car on September 29,1988. He is buried in the pet cemetery on his NY estate. The Foundation has made a museum of his studio and home. Much of Addam's artwork has been donated to both the Museum of the City of New York and the New York Public Library which has the 3rd floor dedicated to him. Other pieces travel around the world in various exhibits.
Charles Addams has left us a legacy of over 1300 drawings. The ever- popular Broadway stage production The Addams Family Musical continues to tour throughout the world.
His work inspired another dark American writer and illustrator, Edward Gorey who was 12 years younger. In turn, Gorey's work is closely tied to that of contemporary screenwriter, director, and illustrator, Tim Burton. There is no denying the profound influence of Charles Addams. As for me, I am a life-long "morbiddy" with a wicked sense of humor, and I owe that in part to my Tuesdays with Chas Addams and The New Yorker.
Books & Anthologies
- 1942 - Drawn & Quartered - re-released in 1962
- 1947 - Addams and Evil
- 1950 - Monster Rally- re-released in1965
- 1954 - Homebodies
- 1957 - Nightcrawlers
- 1959 - Dear Dead Days, a compilation
- 1960 - Black Marla
- 1964 - The Groaning Board
- 1967 - The Chas Addams Mother Goose- re-released in 2002
- 1970 - Favorite Haunts
- 1970 - My Crowd-re-released in 1991
- 1981 - Creature Comforts
- 1991 - The World of Charles Addams
- 2005 - Chas Addams Half-Baked Cookbook: Culinary Cartoons for the Humorously Famished
- 2006 - Chas Addams Happily Ever After: A Collection of Cartoons to Chill the Heart of Your Loved One
- 2010 - The Addams Family: An Evilution
A Sampling of Addams' Drawings
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Catherine Tally