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OBITUARIES | Ted Key, 1912 - 2008

Magazine cartoonist created maid Hazel

May 06, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Ted Key, the magazine cartoonist who created the bossy but lovable maid Hazel in the 1940s and later the time-traveling Mr. Peabody and Sherman of Rocky and Bullwinkle TV cartoon fame, has died. He was 95.

Key, who was diagnosed with bladder cancer in late 2006 and suffered a stroke in September, died Saturday at his home in Tredyffrin Township, Pa., said his son, Peter.

The Fresno-born Key was a New York City-based freelance cartoonist when he sold a single-panel cartoon about a maid to the Saturday Evening Post in 1943.

The sale turned into an unexpectedly big break for Key, whose cartoon soon became a regular feature in the national magazine.

The character grew so popular that the first collection of "Hazel" cartoons, published by Dutton in 1946, sold an impressive 500,000 copies.

Peter Key said the idea for his father's first cartoon about a maid came to him in a dream.

"He woke up, wrote it down and went back to sleep," Peter Key told The Times on Monday. "He woke up the next morning and looked at it, expecting the thing to be crummy, because most of the gags that occurred to him in his sleep were crummy."

But this time, Key read what he had written and thought it was good. So he drew the cartoon and the Post bought it.

The next week, he drew two more maid cartoons, submitting one to the Saturday Evening Post and one to Collier's magazine. Both publications bought them, and the next week he drew three maid cartoons -- one for the Post, one for Collier's and one for This Week, a Sunday newspaper supplement.

"All three bought them, and shortly thereafter the Post, which was his biggest buyer at the time, said, 'We want the maid cartoons exclusively,' " his son said.

The character evolved quickly, he added.

"She was originally thin and stupid, and he was never comfortable doing gags about people's stupidity, so she quickly evolved into what she became in later years."

Although his father picked the name Hazel out of thin air, Peter Key said, it had an unintended consequence: Hazel happened to be the name of the sister of an editor at the Saturday Evening Post. "She thought the editor had chosen the name to spite her and didn't talk to him for two years," he said.

Peter Key, who wrote gags for "Hazel" for eight years in the 1970s and '80s, believes Hazel's "humanity" was a big part of the success of the maid who ran the Baxter family household with what he described as "the precision of a Marine drill sergeant."

"She certainly, in some ways, said things that other people wished they could say in terms of standing up to authority figures, sometimes her boss and sometimes authority figures in general.

"But she always had a heart of gold and that always came through, and without that, I don't think the comic would have succeeded."

"Hazel" was turned into a popular situation comedy in 1961, starring Shirley Booth in the title role. The show, which earned Booth two Emmy Awards, ran first on NBC and then on CBS until 1966.

Key acquired the rights to "Hazel" from the Saturday Evening Post in 1969, the year King Features Syndicate began distributing the comic panel to newspapers. Although Key retired in 1993, his previously drawn "Hazel" cartoons continue to appear in newspapers.

But even more famous today than "Hazel" for many people, Peter Key said, are the two characters his father created for producer Jay Ward in the late '50s for the cartoon series "Rocky and His Friends" -- the genius dog Mr. Peabody and his adopted boy, Sherman, who traveled back in time in the WABAC machine.

"I think they were popular just because they were so wild," he said. It was "the inherent insanity of what they were and what they did, combined with that sort of adult sophistication that the Ward cartoons had."

Key was born Theodore Keyser in Fresno on Aug. 25, 1912. His father was a Latvian immigrant who changed his last name from Katseff while living in South Africa and then shortened it to Key during World War I.

After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1933, Key moved to New York to freelance as a cartoonist. While turning out magazine cartoons, he also did some writing for radio in the early '40s.

Key, who served stateside in the Army during World War II, also created "Diz and Liz," a multi-panel cartoon about a brother and sister that appeared in the monthly children's magazine Jack and Jill from 1961 through 1972.

He also wrote the screenplay for the 1978 Disney film "The Cat From Outer Space" and wrote the stories for Disney's "The Million Dollar Duck" and "Gus."

Key's first wife, Anne, died in 1984. In addition to his son Peter, he is survived by his second wife, Bonnie; sons Stephen and David; and three grandchildren.

Instead of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the American Cancer Society.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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