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On . . . Jim Scancarelli: Fiddler, Banjo Player, and Gasoline Alley Cartoonist

Posted by Brooklynbanjoboy on Sunday, May 2, 2021

On 2 May 2021, Gasoline Alley features a Sunday spread in which Bunky, Santa Claus' "Main Elf," offers a guided tour of the inner workings of The North Pole - including Santa's 3-D Printing and Paint Room, the main workshop where the elves do shift work making toys on their annual production schedule, the stable where Santa's herd of deer are apparently very well fed, and Santa's office where he "dreams up" new and exciting toys. 


There's a little bit of Gasoline Alley lore and legend, history and reminiscence, behind this. 


Jim Scancarelli's mother Frances wrote and illustrated a book for children that she called Bunky the Big Book Brownie.  It was a Christmas story, Jim explained, that was not published, and was probably intended just for Jim when he was a little boy:


Santa's elf named Bunky kept the book on all the good and the bad kids.  Momma illustrated the book with large, beautiful 11 inch by 14 inch watercolor paintings.  Those drawings stayed here at the house in Charlotte for years and years and years.  Momma was living up in Arlington, Virginia, and one day she said she'd like to take those home with her to northern Virginia.  So, I packed them up and gave them to her, she put them down in the basement, and later the basement flooded.  Two feet of water, and those watercolors were ruined.  That was it for them.  So, in my comic strip at Christmas time, from time to time, Bunky makes an appearance at Christmas time as a little tribute to Momma.


Jim planned his Gasoline Alley stories out 4 to 6 months ahead, so in late August 2020 he was contemplating the strip that would appear just ahead of Christmas that year.  He envisioned a strip that had Bunky asking Santa why he laughed so much, to which Santa would reply: "Because I only work one day a year."  In another frame, Bunky would proclaim: "This will be the greatest Christmas ever," to which Santa a would add: "But none will ever beat that wonderful first one." 


Jim also envisioned shepherds playing Sicilian bagpipes ("zampogna") in the Nativity scene, instruments that had a shape reminiscent of what would result, Jim said, if you butchered a cow, put a set of pipes on the carcass, and inflated it."  That got Jim to thinking about a story his father told of the "old country," Sicily, where the practice during Christmas was that if a family placed a wooden spoon outside, in front of a door or a window, the shepherds would know to play Novena music at that home.  The shepherds would either be invited to eat a meal with the family or they would receive some money for sharing their music.  Years later, Jim found a recording of zampogna music, and recalled it was decidedly atonal in character. 

Decades later, Jim remembered looking at his mother's drawings when he was a kid and asking her, "How can you do this?"  He wondered how does an artist know what to draw, where to put each color, where to press hard with a pen, what to do with a pencil? 


Jim's mother told her son that eventually, he would know what to keep, and what to leave out, so that with one little flick of a paint brush or a pen, the artist can tell a story.  "Let your mind fill in the blank spots," she told Jim.


In late October 2020, after a long week of work ("slinging the ink") on the Gasoline Alley strips for February 2021, Jim thought about how his mother taught him drawing, writing the letters of the alphabet, and other life skills, and he remembered how his mother taught him to read:


There is a teaching method called the Montessori System. Momma used her own variation of this to teach me to read and write way before Kindergarten. She made a game out of a lot of it, drawing cartoons, not unlike what they do on Sesame Street nowadays.


Jim came to understand that sometimes, those blank spots stay blank.  Years later, he recalled, his mother had started a painting before she suffered a stroke, laying out a base coat canvas of white and orange, probably for a floral scene.   Much later, she decided to return to the painting but never could muster the strength to finish it.  Gertie Rose, Jim's mother's caretaker, wondered why Frances would spend an hour or so staring at the canvas.  Jim remembered:  "I told Gertie not to worry.  Momma was probably completing the painting in her mind."


Jim worked for Dick Moores beginning in 1979.  Moores had made the Sunday page a continuation of the daily strip.  That arrangement for the Sunday page did not work for Jim, and after Jim took over writing and illustrating Gasoline Alley, following Moore's death in 1986, Jim gradually discontinued the practice of kicking off a story line in the Sunday strip and unspooling the details in the dailies.  That was a practice that Moore had adopted following Chester Gould's way of managing the Dick Tracy comic. 


For Jim, the last Sunday strip that served as the vehicle for continuing the storyline carried in prior daily installments of Gasoline Alley had Slim taking a box of aerosol cans that he had obtained when he invested the winnings from a contest he had entered in a cottage industry that manufactured sprays that could elevate the spirits, solve a myriad of serious health challenges, and prevent squeaky shoes.  When Slim enlists Rufus and Joel to help dig a hole to bury those sprays, they discover the buried U.S. Army transmitter that launches a separate story line that plays out in subsequent dailies.


In late 1986, Jim began to shift away from that practice. 


So, the stream of strips before the 2 May 2021 Sunday strip featuring Bunky focused on a story line that revolved around Walt's caretaker, Gertie - the name of the woman Jim hired to take care of his mother


Gertie, of course, was perhaps one of the longest running characters with a continuous presence in the strip.  Gertie was hired to tend to Walt when his wife Phyllis "died" in the strip in April 2004.  


The character Gertie had her origins in Jim's own mother's late life challenges following a mini-stroke in the late 1980s that necessitated placing her in a nursing home.  Jim had promised his mother he would never resort to a nursing home, but the situation warranted it.  However, after six months, it became clear to Jim that his mother needed more care and assistance than a nursing home could provide, so with the aid and support of his family doctor, Jim took his mother home.  Once that decision was made, Jim needed to hire someone to provide daily care and assistance for his mother. 


Jim's postman, Joe Blakney, was just one of those nice people who always stopped for a chat as time allowed - of course, that mailman also appears in Gasoline Alley from time to time.  Blakney knew Jim was looking for a nurse to help care for his mother, and one day he told Jim that his sister, Gertie, a semi-retired nurse, was looking for work. 


* * *


And the rest of the story regarding how life, and Gasoline Alley, converged can be found in: 


Lewis M. Stern

Jim Scancarelli: Fiddler, Banjo Player, and Gasoline Alley Cartoonist

North Carolina:  McFarland and Company, Publishers



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