Cartoonist Fred Wagner’s cozy but cluttered studio looks as though he’s just stepped out to buy some art supplies. Or perhaps, as he did three times weekly, he’s taken the morning off to play nine holes at the Winter Park Golf Course.
Unfinished panels — some roughly sketched in pencil — are scattered across the drawing board, which faces a window overlooking the lush backyard of the historic College Quarter home Wagner shared with his wife of 17 years, Sandi Daugherty, a senior sales director at the Orlando Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The wood-floored hideaway-cum-office, which sits above the circa-1920s home’s detached garage, has a bathroom, a television, a well-worn but comfortable couch, a small kitchen with a beer-stocked refrigerator, and countless awards, vintage original cartoons and family photographs adorning the walls.
In one corner is an easel surrounded by watercolor figure studies and landscapes. With retirement nearing, Wagner was taking classes at Winter Park’s Crealdé School of Art, honing his skills as a painter. After decades of churning out chuckle-worthy comic strips on sketch-pad paper, he wanted to finally indulge his passion for more serious work.
But Wagner, best-known for his long stint as the artist of “Grin and Bear It” and “Animal Crackers,” two nationally syndicated newspaper strips, died in May at 74 of pancreatic cancer. Friends celebrated his life at the golf course’s modest clubhouse, where his paintings were displayed.
“Fred loved it up here,” says Daugherty of the studio, where boxes and file drawers are overflowing with slapdash stacks of “Grin and Bear It” and “Animal Crackers,” which he was drawing at the time of this death. “He watched a family of squirrels living in the oak tree outside the window.”
Daugherty simply hasn’t had the time — or the heart — to clean out the space. And it’s easy to see why. Her husband’s profession, personality and passion are all on vivid display. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” she says. “I don’t think I can stay in the house.”
Wagner was born in Memphis, where his father painted posters for movie theaters and his mother taught school. Wagner, notes Daugherty, always wanted be a cartoonist. But he was also athletic and energetic.
“Fred was the city’s trampoline champion,” she says with a teary chuckle. “He was a regular at the YMCA, and attributes that organization with keeping him on the straight and narrow.”
Wagner attended the Memphis Academy of Art, but didn’t graduate because he didn’t want to write a thesis. One of his teachers was Nelson Shanks, who later became known for his controversial portrait of President Bill Clinton, which was commissioned for the National Portrait Gallery.
(Shanks revealed shortly before his death in 2015 that a subtle shadow in the painting is meant to represent the shadow hanging over the Clinton administration because of the Monica Lewinsky affair.)
Wagner also studied painting at a summer art camp sponsored by the Provincetown (Massachusetts) Art Association and Museum, and worked as a caricature artist, which required him to perfect a quick, confident and breezy ink line.
In 1968 he moved to Orlando, where he worked in a factory that made casts for decorative “sculptures” at Holiday Inns. Soon, though, he joined the graphics department at the Orlando Sentinel, and became a member of Central Florida’s close-knit cadre of cartoonists.
That group included Frank King, who drew “Gasoline Alley,” Les Turner, who drew “Captain Easy,” and fellow Sentinel cartoonist Ralph Dunagan, whose gentle “Dunagan’s People” panel was a family-oriented favorite for decades.
“Grin and Bear It” — a syndicated single-panel daily, with multiple panels on Sunday — was a venerable funny-page staple, started in 1932 by George Lichtenstein under the pseudonym George Lichty. Primarily, it satirized clueless establishment figures, officious but incompetent bureaucrats and the pettiness of marital feuds.
Mostly, however, the strip was memorable for Lichty’s artwork, which rendered figures with a slapdash brilliance. When Lichty decided to retire in 1974, the syndicate — then Field Enterprises — hired Wagner to carry on, with his friend Dunagan supplying the gags.
“Lichty’s style wasn’t easy to copy, and I admired Fred for being able to pull that off,” says Dana Summers, a syndicated cartoonist who spent three decades with the Sentinel. “Dunagan and I shared an office, and every Thursday I’d listen to Ralph read punchlines over the phone to Fred.”
Summers, Dunagan, Wagner and other cartoonists often met for lunch at Malcolm’s Hungry Bear on West Colonial Drive. The unpretentious eatery, which closed in 1989, was run by former Golden Gloves boxing champ Malcolm Tait and featured an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Wagner had a short-lived original strip, “Shambles,” from 1979 to 1981. He took over “Animal Crackers” from cartoonist Rog Bollen in 1994, and for a time was drawing that strip as well as “Grin and Bear It.” His workload lessened in 2015, when “Grin and Bear It” was discontinued.
But Tribune Content Agency, which syndicates “Animal Crackers,” is continuing the strip with a new cartoonist, Mike Osburn, who lives in Lake County. Osburn, who had been writing gags for “Animal Crackers” since 2009, was already being trained by Wagner to take over upon his retirement.
The two met monthly for lunch, where Wagner gently critiqued Osburn’s drawings of Lyle the lion, Dodo the bird and other residents of Freeborn Preserve. “Fred was such a great guy and a terrific mentor,” says Osburn. “Drawing comic strips look deceivingly easy, but it isn’t. Fred made it look easy.”
Osburn says that during the time he wrote gags for “Animal Crackers,” he would sometimes introduce new characters just to see how Wagner would conceptualize a cartoon version of an unusual species, such as an aardvark.
They talked about the strip, Osburn says, but the conversation virtually always turned to current events — which often provided fodder for gags — and their personal pursuits. As retirement grew nearer, Osburn recalls, Wagner spoke often about painting, and how much he looked forward to expanding his scope as an artist.
But it wasn’t to be. Daugherty says that Wagner, who had survived a heart attack in 1999, died just a few months following his cancer diagnosis. Once he realized that time was short, he made arrangements to buy a plot in Palm Cemetery, adjacent to the golf course. His remains are now interred there.
In Wagner’s final days, friends visited to say their goodbyes. They say that despite his rapidly failing health, he was unfailingly polite, genuinely touched by the attention — and often even funny.
“Fred was quiet, but he could crack everybody up with one line,” recalls Summers. “His humor reminded me of George Gobel — low key, but razor sharp.”