Winsor McCay was born in 1867 in Canada. McCay had an interest in drawing from the moment he could hold a pen. His father was a real estate agent and encouraged him to become a businessman. Unknown to his parents, he worked as a portrait artist in a “Dime Museum” in Detroit while attending Business college. “Dime Museums” were popular forms of entertainment in the 1800’s. Patrons could view carnival type acts and oddities including “Freak Shows”, as well as other forms of entertainment.
McCay left school at the age of 21, and went to work at the National Printing Company of Chicago. Here he illustrated posters for Circuses and other promotions. After two years he moved to Cincinatti, creating advertising posters for the Kohl and Middleton Dime Museum. He began to create quite a name for himself as avery talented artist.
McCay picked up additional work as a billboard painter. His ability to construct a figure’s outline in one continuous line was quite a sight to see. He would draw crowds wherever he painted.
In 1891, after a whirlwind courtship, Mccay married Maude Leonore Dufour. In 1896 she bore him a son, Robert, and in 1897, a daughter, Marion.
The economic hardships of supporting his family forced McCay to take a new job as a cartoonist/reporter for the Cinncinati Commercial Tribune. It was here he learned to fine tune his talent as a draftsman. He was also able to pick up freelance work for other magazines. In 1903 he produced sort of experimental comic strip entitled “Tales of The Jungle Imps by Felix Fiddle”, based on poems by George Chester. At the end of 1903, McCay was being courted by the New York Herald, and promptly moved his family to New York. It was this period of time when the newspaper comic strip was becoming very popular. MCay began experimenting with his own original strips.
After a few unsuccesful tries, McCay developed “Little Sammy Sneeze” in 1904. This was followed by “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” for the New York Telegram (also owned by the Herald)that same year. Both strips were quite successful. “Dream” was actually so popular that there was talk of producing a Broadway musical. The editor of the Herald wanted to separate his work for the two papers, so his contract would not allow him to sign his real name to the “Dream ” strip. McCay used the alias “Silas” instead. In 1905 McCay began “Little Nemo in Slumberland“, an extremely popular strip that was made into a Broadway musical. This strip is considered by many to be McCay’s masterpiece.
McCay’s popularity increased, and he began performing on Vaudeville. His act consisted of “Speed Drawing” various characters including those from his strips. At the same time, McCay was still producing several daily strips, and editorial cartoons. After Eight years, hundreds of editorial cartons, and seven strips, McCay left the Tribune and went to work for William Randolph Hearst at the New York American. His arrival was a much publicized and hearalded event.
While working for Hearst, MCay began to experiment with the idea of using animated pictures as part of his vaudeville act. His first attempt was made using the popular characters from the “Little Nemo” strip. (See Background history on “Gertie The Dinosaur” for more info). It was a huge success and captivated audiences everywhere he went. He followed this experiment up with “How a Mosquito Operates”, again a success. Finally, in 1914 McCay developed “Gertie The Dinosaur”. Rather then just showing the film as he had with his previous attempts, McCay actually interacted with Gertie, giving her life and charm. Gartie was an instant success and is the first original character developed solely for the animated cartoon and not based on a pre-existing comic strip.
Hearst felt that McCay’s vaudeville act was taking valuable time away from the newspaper, and since McCay was under contract, he forbid him from any more live performances outside the New York area. Gertie was made into a feature film with a live-action prologue and epilogue and shown around the world. Hearst eventually forbid McCay from any vauldville related performances and even doing daily strips. McCay was only to draw editorial cartoons.
McCay began working heavily on animated films during this time. His next film released in 1918 was “The Sinking Of The Lusitania”, one of the first films to use cels. Even when Hearst opened his own animation studio, McCay continued to work on his own, producing six more films through 1921.
McCay continued to draw editorial cartoons until his death by stroke on July 26th, 1934.