Artist talks about Cliffside’s connection to Gasoline Alley
Gasoline Alley is the oldest daily and Sunday newspaper comic strip in existence. The man who draws the comic has strong ties with Cliffside and has featured the town in some of the strips.
Jim Scancarelli, who lives in Charlotte, has been drawing and writing the comic strips since 1986, and if is all goes as the artist hopes, he will be writing for its 100th anniversary.
On November 24, Gasoline Alley will be 94 years old, “a minor milestone,” Scancarelli said from the living area of his home in Charlotte where he draws the popular comic strip. Frank King was the original creator and artist of the strip, which began in 1918.
Like so many, Scancarelli grew up with Gasoline Alley and remembers his mother reading the comics to him before he was able to. His says his dad had an amazing perspective on the comic strip.
“Dad would point out the details in the comics,” he said. “He would say, ‘look at this’ and that made me aware of design and composition and things that showed up later.”
Scancarelli got his big break in drawing the comics as an assistant with artist Dick Moores — the second artist to draw Gasoline Alley — who lived in Fairview, just across the county line.
“He had a 75-acre farm and a guest house and once a month I’d go up there and spend a week,” he continued. “That was really neat. He was a talented artist and he’d show me how to do the strip and what he wanted. This was kind of the way the old timers used to do the comics. Most assistants would live with them all the time. All the greats had assistants. I only had a week at a time in the mountains,” he said, but he treasured every minute of his work with Moores.
Scancarelli said Moores had the opportunity to work on Dick Tracy and with Walt Disney, so when Scancarelli took over with the comic strip after Moores’ death in 1986, he felt extremely proud. He had begun the work with Moores in 1979.
“If you add it all up from the time until now, I’d done it longer than anyone,” he said. “He had a succession of assistants and Dick came to work in 1956. Frank King died in 1969.”
But Scancarelli says that just because he has drawn the strip longer than the others, does not mean it’s better and that he doesn’t have an assistant.
“At this state in the game, I don’t know if they’ll renew my contract,” he said, of Tribune Media Services in Chicago,who holds the contract.
As the newspaper industry has decreased during the years, Scancarelli’s appearance in newspapers has also diminished. He is in 67 newspapers today, but when Moores died, he was in 230 papers.
In spite of a public outcry, the artist said, to give him reinstated, the Charlotte Observer dropped the strip in 1990 and the Washington Post dropped him later in the 1990s.
“Every cartoonists wants to draw as long as he can. I hope they will renew the contract. I’d like to take it up to its 100th,” he said.
As for the characters in Gasoline Alley, Scancarelli said it’s impossible to have a favorite.
“That is like asking if you have a favorite son or daughter, but some are easier to work with,” Scancarelli said. “I am the characters, if that makes any sense whatsoever.”
He formed his sense of humor early-on in life listening the the radio programs of “Amos and Andy”, “Jack Benny” and “Fred Allen.”
“They were hilarious and that formed who I am and what I’m all about,” Scancarelli said.
He says that his comic sense transferred to the comics, “whether anyone appreciates that kind of humor or not.”
He talked about Uncle Walt and Skeezix’s arrival, who was left on a door stop in 1921.
“He’s actually harder to work with, he’s so bland. His son-in-law, Slim, who’s actually obese, is easier to work with and Rufus and Joel, the unhandy men, are the most fun to work with,” Scancarelli said.
Scancarelli works drawing the strip about three weeks out and when completed he sends the strips to the Chicago Tribune, via U.S. Postal Service.
He draws in the late afternoon or late into the nights. He does not get up early.
“Some days like today,” he said, “I do not get anything done. Other days, I’m up until 3 a.m.”
Scancarelli creates the art for Gasoline Alley using traditional techniques and materials. He works at a paper size of 15 inches by 5 inches to insure that he has enough room to add the details needed in the artwork.
Artist connection to Cliffside
Scancarelli’s connection to Cliffside began when he a 15-year-old boy, loving train engines.
“My dad instilled in me the love of railways and the love of steam engines,” he said. “There was a short line going from the mill and we’d go see it. I got to know about the people in Cliffside.”
After he came back from the military, Scancarelli started freelancing with the Charlotte Observer where he became friends with columnist Dot Jackson. He said after they shared their stories, he told her about the old well in Cliffside.
“The water was as cool and clean as a gambler’s mind,’ Scancarelli said. “Dot could make a story into something great that really wasn’t. So we went to Cliffside and did the well story and that’s when I met Phillip White.”
White recalled the trip when Jackson traveled to Cliffside accompanied by Scancarelli in the early 1980’s.
“Cone Mill officials told them to come see me at Cliffside School because I was the ‘unofficial historian’ of Cliffside,”White began. “They visited for a couple of hours that day and Dot wrote a column about me and Cliffside. Jim was a steam train enthusiast as was I, and
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was enamored with the Cliffside Railroad. We became friends, sharing CRR pictures and history, as well as phoning and visiting periodically. He’s been so generous about sending me pictures.”
Scancarelli also became acquainted with Clifside’s Reno Bailey, when Bailey worked at WBTV in Charlotte.
Reno, the author of RememberCliffside.com talked about the friendship that began in 1962, when Scancarelli was an artist in WBTV’s graphics department and Bailey was a production assistant at WBT-FM.
“Our paths didn’t cross very often until we began collaborating in writing and acting in episodes of The Yellowjacket, our 5-minute just-for-the-fun-of-it Batman knockoff that aired every Tuesday and Thursday on WBT’s afternoon drive time (and was influenced heavily by Bob & Ray and Stan Freberg).”
“We kept the friendship growing,” Scancarelli said. “I can’t believe any one person has the talent. RememberCliffside.com website is probably one of the best ever. He has the color, the design, the writing, everything.”
Bailey said as time passed and he moved to WBTV’s Creative Services Department, where he produced shows and commercials, and consulted often with Scancarelli and his colleagues in designing logos, art cards and credit rolls.
Scancarelli left the station in the 1970s and Bailey left in 1984 to pursue a career in computer work.
Bailey said in 2002 after he and his wife Betty retired, he began research and created Remember Cliffside.
“I happened to look up Jim to ask for his help in something or other, and stumbled upon an amazing coincidence: That he, since the 1950’s, had been a “fan” of Cliffside,” Bailey said. “Until then I was never aware that he’d even heard of the town, much less visited it, built a model of it, had a large collection of photos of the Cliffside Railroad, and had known Phillip White for years.”
Since then the two men have been fast friends, sharing memorabilia, photos and stories for the websites RememberCliffside.com and BTMemories.com (a site devoted to WBT and WBTV).
Their latest collaboration is on a book titled “Diary of Squandered Valor: Convoy to Murmansk,” written by Albert Munn, another former WBTV alumnus. Scancerlli is creating the graphics and Bailey is designing the layout.