Is There a Tomorrow for Little Orphan Annie?

Little Orphan Annie
Tribune Media Services

Today marks the end of the line for the once wildly-popular comic strip featuring Little Orphan Annie. Richard Schlesinger has her story:

A little orphan and her dog getting into scrapes, suffering setbacks, but always triumphing.

The saltiest phrase she ever uttered was "Leapin' Lizards," or maybe "Gee Whiskers."

But the themes are so universal she's made it to the movies, been on radio, even on Broadway.

In the first strip, published August 5th, 1924, Annie is still in the orphanage. But soon she was adopted by the Warbucks family - and a large part of the nation.

"Little Orphan Annie" was part soap opera, part soap box. Conservative cartoonist Harold Gray used his characters in thinly-veiled attacks on FDR, big government and labor unions.

"In some ways Little Orphan Annie was the original Tea Party activist," says Jeet Heer, who has chronicled her story. "She believed that the government was bad, the government was trying to take over things, and that you really had to work hard by yourself."

While he was still a broadcaster, late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms wrote an editorial praising Annie who, he said "never succumbed to the philosophy of turning to the government for security."

But Heer said you didn't have to be a political or right-wing to like Little Orphan Annie: "Oh, no, no. There were, like, all sorts of people reading Annie. It was one of the most popular comic strips of the time."

And I'll bet you didn't know that Little Orphan Annie was originally Little Orphan Otto - a boy! So the story goes. The sex change reportedly came after the publisher of the newspaper syndicate thought he looked more like a she, so Harold Gray drew a dress on his character, and a legend was born.

Those empty eyes became a trademark of sorts. On the few occasions cartoonist Gray gave Annie pupils, the fans didn't like it.

"He liked his characters to look like they're wearing masks, because he said the emptier the characters, the more people could put their emotions in," said Heer.

In today's final strip, Annie is once again in peril, facing the Butcher of the Balkans. Is it Annie's end? Probably not. Just recently, plans were announced to revive the Broadway musical.

Even after 85 years, Little Orphan Annie is a little girl with a lot of life left in her.