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Drawn Together

Like a group of Laguna Beach cartoonists before them, today's young lions from near and far gather regularly for lunch and camaraderie-- but hold the beer.

February 05, 1997|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Laguna Beach's once-large contingent of magazine and newspaper cartoonists began getting together regularly back in the 1950s, they had one prerequisite: The noontime break from their drawing boards had to be in whatever bar was closest to the post office where they dropped off their morning output.

At first it was the bar of the White House restaurant on Coast Highway. And when the post office moved to Forest Avenue in the mid-'70s, the cartoonists followed and settled into the bar of the Ivy House restaurant a few doors away.

But that was then.

When a current crop of syndicated newspaper cartoonists decided to start getting together occasionally for a few hours of camaraderie, they had an altogether different priority: Forget being close to a post office. They just wanted to make sure wherever they met was near a freeway exit.

They chose the Claim Jumper Restaurant overlooking the San Diego Freeway in Laguna Hills.

"We wanted to pick a place that was easy to find--cartoonists are pretty dumb," joked Kevin Fagan, who pens "Drabble."

Unlike the old guys who gathered in Laguna Beach--Virgil Partch, Frank and Phil Interlandi, John Dempsey, Dick Oldden and several other cartoonists whose work appeared regularly in the New Yorker, Playboy and elsewhere--the new guys don't live in the same small town.

Fagan lives in Mission Viejo. Jeff Keane, who assists his father, Bil, on the classic "Family Circus," lives in Laguna Niguel. Mark O'Hare ("Citizen Dog") lives in Aliso Viejo. And Greg Evans ("Luann") and Vic Lee ("I Need Help") live in northern San Diego County.

In fact, to accommodate Evans and Lee, the cartoonists now alternate between the Laguna Hills Claim Jumper and the also-freeway-exit-friendly Claim Jumper in Carlsbad.

Like the old guys in Laguna Beach who viewed their midday ritual as their only chance for "socializing at the water cooler," the new guys view their lunch sessions as a welcome break from the self-imposed isolation of their profession.

O'Hare, for one, jumped at the chance. "I was just home talking to the plants anyway," he said.

They've been meeting about every six weeks for more than a year now.

"As cartoonists, you don't get to see anybody else," said Keane, 38, who was seated in a corner booth with Fagan and O'Hare as they waited for Lee and Evans to arrive for their first gathering of the new year.

"You're working at home alone all the time," said Keane, "so it's one opportunity to sit around and talk about cartooning and just be a little bit more social than the hermits that we usually are."

The Laguna Beach cartoonists' midday ritual began after Phil Interlandi moved out to the seaside art colony from Chicago in 1952. Magazine cartoonist Ed Nofziger was already living there. Interlandi's twin, Frank, came out in 1953. Over the years, Laguna's cartoonist contingent grew to include Don Tobin, Roger Armstrong, Dempsey, Oldden and Partch.

The lively, sometimes boisterous group was known for trading quips, pulling pranks and just plain having a good time.

Management of the Ivy House came to jokingly call them and their non-cartoonist drinking buddies the Street Gang.

So Fagan and company, who range in age from 28 to 49, are carrying on a colorful tradition in their own style.

Whereas the Street Gang bellied up to a leather-padded bar, the Claim Jumper bunch is more likely to belly up to the salad bar.

Unlike their forerunners who were partial to beer, wine and cocktails, these guys order soft drinks and tea.

Which led to this exchange while Fagan, Keane and O'Hare waited for the arrival of Lee and Evans:

Waitress: How about something to drink while you wait?

(Keane orders a Coke; O'Hare orders the same.)

Fagan: I'll have a 7-Up.

Keane (looking at Fagan): This is the first time you've had 7-Up.

Fagan: I'm born to be wild.

Evans (who just arrives and promptly orders a root beer): Yeah, we're the Age of Denial here--all healthy.

The artists usually bring along samples of their work.

"It's always so much fun for cartoonists to see how other cartoonists work--to see what kind of paper they use and pens and things like that," said Fagan.

Which brings up another distinction between the old group and the new.

The Street Gang seldom discussed business. The Claim Jumper bunch makes a point of talking shop: The merits of using a computer to add color to their Sunday cartoons. E-mail from fans who check out their syndicate's Web site. How their syndicates are treating them. Or cartoon book deals--and how, as Lee put it, a book is a great "tool" for selling "product" to editors.

Deadpanned Fagan above the swirl of shop talk: "This is kind of it--two hours of this."

*

The Street Gang was such a fixture at the Ivy House that they were not only known by the bartender, waitresses and manager, but by the other customers.

The Claim Jumper bunch, in contrast, eats and sips their drinks in virtual anonymity.

However, there was one time they were all treated like celebrities.

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