Eldon Reed Frye (1909-1990) was a nationally known artist whose oil portraits of aviation pioneers hang in San Diego’s Aerospace Hall of Fame. His helpful-hint “Putterin’ Pete” cartoon series was syndicated around the world. His large “multigiggle” cartoons appeared in national magazines and trade publications, and reproductions were sold individually to collectors. For 30 years Eldon was the unofficial town artist of Del Mar, California, lovingly drawing, painting and cartooning the village and its citizens.
Eldon Frye’s Background
Eldon Reed Frye was born on December 15, 1909, in Coffeyville, Kansas. His father, Reed, was a mailman, and his mother, Gertie, a teacher. He grew up in Coffeyville, where the bank-robbing Dalton Gang were famously painted on the sidewalk “where they fell” in 1892, after trying to rob two banks in fake beards. The town in southeastern Kansas is on the banks of the Verdigris River, one of the streams where Eldon developed his lifelong love of fishing.
He went to elementary and high school in Coffeyville and as the Depression took hold in the ‘30s, he enrolled in the University of Oklahoma, Norman, where he studied both writing and art. He took both talents to Phillips 66 in Bartlesville, where he founded Philnews, the company magazine, and roamed oil country with a camera scooping news.
It was in Bartlesville that Eldon met his future wife, the lovely Margaret Logue, in a community theater, where the two performed in “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Holiday.” They married in 1939. Daughter Linda was born in Bartlesville in 1940. The three moved to Kansas City where Eldon started with Trans World Airlines in advertising and public relations.
At TWA, in 1942, Eldon created “The Gremlins,” his first well-known cartoon characters, invented to cheer up overburdened aircraft workers during WWII. Gremlins were the cause of all the “accidents” that “gummed up the works” on the job. TWA issued a pamphlet about them, on the theory that “if you recognize a gremlin, he (or she) can’t hurt you.”
The gremlins, were described by Eldon as beings who:
reputedly got loose in 1940 when the British built a military airport in the middle of one of their haunts and drove them out. They’ve been mad at aviation ever since. There is, for instance, the globb, a gremlin that encourages people to be untidy. A jerp talks only about himself. A gabbitt gives out false information. A twarp breathes wisecracks that never quite come off. Gremmies (female gremlins) includes the glammie-pie, who looks beautiful but thinks beauty covers everything; buchesses, who are a combination of loft lady and mud-gutter speech; and bijits, long-eared and snouted, who poke into other people’s business. The bloogie never smiles. The grimglum sharpens tempers. And the gomlette overdoes everything.
Eldon enlisted in the Navy in 1943, serving in the Pacific as a lieutenant. He was in charge of landing marines at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. “I went to the beach five times at Iwo,” he wrote in a letter. He came near death when his landing craft was hanging 60 feet above the water and its supporting sling broke, spilling the crew into the sea. He watched the famous raising of the flag on Iwo Jima through binoculars and his ship was in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered in 1945. Daughter Janet was born in 1945 while he was at sea.
Bruce was born in Kansas City in 1946, and the family moved to California in 1948 when TWA’s president asked Eldon to come work with him at Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corp. (Convair) in San Diego. There Eldon oversaw employee activities. Eldon, Margaret, Linda, Jan and Bruce moved up the coast to the scenic beach town of Del Mar, also famous for its racetrack. Son Christopher came along in 1950. Eldon and Margaret were active in the incorporation of Del Mar as its own city in 1959 and Eldon’s cartoon of Del Mar’s main street included more than 100 local characters. Eldon illustrated and painted Del Mar so often he became the virtual town artist.
Anxious to get into to artwork full-time, Eldon resigned from Convair in 1960 to open his own private studio and public-relations firm in Del Mar. He became well known for his oil portraits, and five of his portraits of aviation pioneers hang in the Aerospace Hall of Fame in San Diego’s Balboa Park. His portrait of Don Diego, the official greeter and host of the San Diego County Fair was used in all the Fair’s p.r.; the smiling caballero became recognizable throughout the southland. During the ‘60s, Eldon’s helpful-hint “Putterin’ Pete” cartoons were syndicated in newspapers nationwide.
Eldon initiated his “multigiggle” cartoons – large comical drawings with a central image surrounded by humorous writing – in the ’50s while he was still working at Convair. Surrounded and often frustrated by the trappings of business, of buying and selling, he vented his spleen and exercised his humor by creating the “Salesman on Safari” (1953), a traveling salesman on the road, loaded for bear and ready for anything with his feet securely strapped to “first base” and “second base.” Eldon wanted to share the artwork with as many suffering salesmen as possible, so he found ways to get it published in trade magazines, with a footnote that offered copies – suitable for framing – direct from the artist.
He followed the “Salesman” with “So You Want a Job Like Mine?” (1954), a tribute to the overworked, long-suffering key man in any office, the guy who knows where the bodies are buried and how to fix everything. Pouting with head in hands in a closet-sized office, surrounded by filing cabinets, bookshelves, plaques and a “barrel for putting people over,” the abused go-to guy sits below a “ten-foot-pole for not touching things with” and there’s a bear trap on the floor marked “Welcome.” Then came a portrait of the bane of any salesman’s existence, the purchasing agent. In “Purchasing Done Here” (1954), a smarmy purchasing agent beckons his victims with crooked finger, surrounded by the trappings of his trade (with caustic captions) and a sign reading “No jokes older than five days listened to.”
Looking to his own hobbies for inspiration, he turned to golf. “The Compleat Golfer” (1955) portrays an avid, affluent man who has all the golf toys he wants: an atomic-powered CaddyLack with a horn that hollers “fore,” a telescopic range-finder and babe-watcher, and a rose-colored windshield. In 1960 he came up with “It’s Only a Game?” The artwork is a tour-de-force containing 27 golfing figures, each drawn with only one line. The accompanying text explores golf as “the keeper of sanity, the cooler of brows, the builder of health and the maker of friends.” He returned again to golf with “The Ultimate Golfer” (1965) and “Queen of the Green” (1966), expanding to boating with “The Yachtsmen” (1965) and “Landlubber’s Guide to Sailing” (1968).
Eldon was an inveterate car traveler and loved just “going for a drive.” He’d pile everybody into the car and they’d be “off like a herd of turtles.” During many a summer, the whole family struggled across the desert to Oklahoma and Kansas to visit the relatives, cramming the family car with kids, a dog and many pounds of luggage. Eldon commemorated these trips with a set of color postcard called “Travel Humor,” classic ’50s cartoons memorializing the pain of camping out to save money, the stops at every gas station bathroom and fishing hole, the car windows covered with stickers, and the dad who won’t ask directions or obey signs.
Always Be Making Art
Eldon really never stopped creating. He discovered faces in the rocks he found while surf-fishing on the beach, or in the satellite pictures of clouds in the newspaper, and drew them in for safe keeping. He made toys for his children, built them cardboard houses in the fireplace and created special “feasts” out of edible scraps he found in the refrigerator. Every walk or car trip was an adventure. He has been mightily missed since he passed in 1990, six months after a stroke. He is buried in Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, next to his wife. His ashes were distributed in the ocean and all the places he loved best.
(Many thanks to Bruce Frye for preserving and uploading so many of these pictures.)