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New Raggedy Ann Causing a Stir : It's an Open-and-Shut Case for the Creators' Family

November 26, 1987|MICHAEL KERNAN | The Washington Post

It was one thing when Raggedy Ann was chewed by a dog, when she fell into a bucket of paint, when she was attacked by a rooster or put through a wringer or hung on a clothesline. All in a day's work.

But when they tried to get her to open her mouth . . . that was too much. That was when the Gruelle family started sending out the petitions.

"Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy need your help," they began. "Mr. Richard Eiger of Macmillan Publishers says they are old-fashioned and Johnny Gruelle's beautiful illustrations are passe. . . ."

In recent weeks, the Gruelles have sent out thousands of form letters from their farm at Cashiers, N.C. The letters go to three generations of Raggedy Ann fans, some of them customers of the Cashiers doll store run by Kim Gruelle, the artist's grandson, some of them, people who wrote letters as children many years ago.

(For some, it was the flowers that said "Johnny Gruelle" even more than Ann and Andy--those Art Deco blossoms stuck into the picture corners, like pastel cookies.)

'Uncle Johnny'

"When my father would answer them," Worth Gruelle said, "he always signed himself Uncle Johnny because John sounded so formal. That's why he was known as Johnny Gruelle."

One of the letters went to Douglass Cater, president of Washington College in Chestertown, Md. Cater responded with indignation. It turns out the college has scholarships named for Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy, "and I've done a lot of artwork for that," Worth Gruelle said.

Johnny Gruelle died in 1938 at age 57, but his brother Justin and 17-year-old son Worth continued with the books, and his widow incorporated the family. Worth, his wife, Suzanne, and brother Richard all worked on the drawings, and turned out almost 50 more books. One time they produced four books in three months on request from an eager publisher. Worth is 75 and retired, and divides his time between the farm at Cashiers and a winter place in Rockledge, Fla.

Over the years the rights passed from the P.F. Volland Co. to the Johnny Gruelle Co. to Bobbs-Merrill to Macmillan. And over the years the look of Raggedy Ann has changed--just the way, Macmillan says, Mickey Mouse changed.

But when Worth Gruelle got a load of the latest model Raggedy Ann he almost popped.

"It shows Raggedy Ann with her mouth open. It couldn't happen! She might smile a little differently, but she would never have her tongue hanging out, never!"

Two Raggedy Anns

Macmillan executives explained that there are, in fact, two divergent Raggedy Anns, the New and the Classic. The new one, said Judy Korman, a Macmillan vice president, was designed "to make her more viable, to keep up with the times. Actually, we've been altering the look gradually over the years."

And Macmillan has licensed Crown Publishing to bring out a facsimile edition of original stories and drawings, for collectors and grandparents. It will show up in the market by fall of 1988. Two animated TV shows are also in the works.

One little problem with the Raggedy Ann stories, Korman said, is that today they are considered racist and sexist. There was that black Mammy, Beloved Belindy, for instance. Also, the text is exceptionally wordy for children raised to expect a minimum of actual reading in their books.

The dolls, of course, are a different story. Hasbro, maker of G.I. Joe, handles that end of things. Last year a musical was built around the famous floppy doll, who at one time had a heart made of candy.

Raggedy Ann herself goes back to 1910, when pioneer-cartoonist Winsor McCay quit the New York Herald and editor James Gordon Bennett ran a contest to replace him. John Gruelle won with Mr. Twee Deedle, about a little boy and girl who had a sort of fairy godfather, a la Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley. The little girl always seemed to have a doll trailing from her hand.

That doll was a doll of destiny. She took on a name and a personality, and before you knew it, she was bigger than any of them, bigger even than Mr. Twee Deedle himself, with a spinoff cartoon of her own, and a brother, and books by the dozen, and now, dolls and china figurines and a line of cards and two movies, and who knows what next.

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