There is something charmed about the fact that Johnny Gruelle (John Barton Gruelle, 1880-1938) was born of a Christmas Eve (in spite of his having a name that makes him sound like a spiritual kinsman of Ebenezer Scrooge). For Gruelle was the father of what was once a perennial favorite Christmas present, the Raggedy Ann Doll. And its many screen adaptations in particular attract us to the subject today.
He was the son of Richard Gruelle, one of the five so-called Hoosier Group painters. Johnny’s older sister Prudence sang in vaudeville. In the early years of the 20th century he began contributing cartoons to Indianapolis newspapers. By 1906, other cities, especially ones in the midwest, carried his work as well. By 1910 he had cracked the New York Herald, and that became his main platform. In 1914, he illustrated a popular edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
Interestingly, the physical doll pre-dated other iterations of the Raggedy Ann character. Gruelle created it in 1915, getting the inspiration for the names from two poems by John Whitcomb Riley, a family friend: “The Raggedy Man” and “Little Orphant Annie”. These poems both had a long reach. L. Frank Baum’s “Shaggy Man” character seems derived from former, and of course the comic strip Little Orphan Annie comes from the latter.
In 1918, the first book Raggedy Ann Stories, written and illustrated by Gruelle, came out. This was followed by Raggedy Andy Stories (1920), which introduced the character of Raggedy Ann’s brother. Starting in 1924 new sequels came out annually, sometimes at the rate of two a year. Gruelle passed away in 1938, but he had pre-written so many stories that annual sequels continued to come out through 1961, with illustrations by others. Another popular character Beloved Belindy was introduced in 1926. Belindy was sort of a gollywog character; she has fallen by the wayside due to appropriate concerns of racism.
And the Raggedy Ann empire continued to grow. In the ’40 Fleischer Studios released three charming animated shorts: Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy (1941), Suddenly It’s Spring (1944), and The Enchanted Square (1947). And Dell Publishing released a comic book from 1946 through 1949.
In the 1970s, the whole franchise got a new burst of life. There were nine new books released over the decade, all with writing, drawings, or both by Gruelle, material that had stayed in the vaults over the decades. This phase was when my own little sister discovered Raggedy Ann, with encouragement from my mom, who was just the right age to have had one as a child in the 1920s and ’30s. I recall my sister’s Raggedy Ann doll as being one of her favorite toys — 60s years after its creation. THAT is the hold the character has over the imaginations of children. And there was much more:
In 1977, the feature length film called Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure, with the voices of Didi Conn, Mason Adams, Sheldon Harnick, Arnold Stang, Alan Sues, Marty Brill, and Paul Dooley, among others.
In 1978, Chuck Jones made a half hour Christmas special for television: Raggedy Ann and Andy in The Great Santa Claus Caper. This featured a wolf, voiced by Les Tremayne, that was highly reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote. Raggedy Ann and Andy were played by June Foray and Daws Butler. This was followed by the 1979 Halloween special Raggedy Ann and Andy and the Pumpkin Who Wouldn’t Smile, also produced by Jones with the same cast. In honor of the 70th anniversary of the franchise, CBS had a regular Saturday morning cartoon show called The Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Andy from 1988 through 1990. In 1984, Macy’s introduced a Raggedy Ann balloon in its annual Thanksgiving parade.
The character and all its related products have continued to thrive over the decades. She has even made a cameo in the 2013 horror movie The Conjuring:
To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.