Mike Peters: The Man Behind Mother Goose and Grimm
Mike Peters extracts humor from catastrophe, political angst, private fears, and a goose's pet dog...
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Sex, power, loneliness, farts. Hunger, hypocrisy, Mr. Potato Head. Texting, abortion, Iraq, nuclear power, fire hydrants, Romulus and Remus, agnosticism, and the pop-up button on a frozen turkey. It all goes into Mike Peters’ whimsical, dyslexic, Pulitzer Prize–winning brain, and a few days later, a bell goes off, the brain whirs, and out comes a picture, drawn in heavy, sure black lines and sealed with a few clever words that stop people all over the world and make them laugh aloud.
He sees his life in cartoons, too. There’s no subtext, no finger-pointing or grudges, no maudlin analysis or rationalization. Just funny, endearing scenes, like his friends splashing around on the brick porch of his house in Dogtown after his mother rolled blankets to seal the stairway and filled the porch with three feet of water to improvise a pool. Or Mike putting on the Superman suit she made him—complete with long johns dyed blue, yellow belt, and cape—and leaping into an empty house’s basement to turn off a spigot someone left running.
What his scenes don’t tell you is how it felt to run home from school sobbing because kids had made fun of his stammer, and to hide, shaking, in the coat closet or behind the TV set, so they couldn’t find him. Or how it felt to hear his mother rage and sob because she couldn’t bear the daily pressure of doing a one-woman TV variety show, singing and dancing and being so charming, the housewives wouldn’t dare click the channel to a soap opera.
He’d rather make you laugh.
In 1947, housewife Charlotte Peters entered an amateur-hour contest—and wound up doing her own show on KSD-TV for almost 23 years. She was the first lady of St. Louis television, musical, bubbly, and willing to do anything to make the crowd laugh. She loved her fans: When she signed autographs, it never felt like quite enough, so she’d smear on extra lipstick and kiss the paper.
Charlotte was a little manic; she’d lost her mother at age 8, and a Dickensian childhood had left her with a wild, joyous energy that could turn dark at the slightest setback. She’d stopped school after eighth grade, so instead of realizing Mike had to do homework, she’d say, “C’mon, let’s go to a movie!” Before she went on TV, she and her sister used to whitewash a wall in the basement, paint a backdrop for whatever show was new on Broadway that year, set up folding chairs, and invite all the neighbors over for a show. Once she was famous, she’d let Mike skip school to meet her celeb guest stars—Jerry Lewis was an instant hero, because he stammered and was funny—or try out every single kind of pen nib at Bader’s art-supply store downtown.
Having Charlotte Peters as a mother was wonderful, but it wasn’t easy. Mike’s friend since fifth grade, Bruce Tuffli, used to knock on their door with trepidation, never sure what kind of mood Mike’s mom would be in. His father was a traveling salesman, so unfortunately, he was gone a lot. He was her “spittin’ opposite,” Tuffli thought, quiet and steady and serious. He could settle her down just by putting his hand on her arm and saying, “Come on, Charlotte.”
Charlotte’s best moods had the shimmer of fantasy. One Fourth of July, she dressed Mike and his cousins in old, torn clothes, smudged dirt on their faces, reminded them to call her Mrs. Peters, and called the Forest Park Highlands amusement park: “This is Charlotte Peters. I’m bringing some orphans—could I possibly have a roll of tickets?” At the park, she handed the kids the tickets and told them to go have fun, and the grown-ups settled in to play pinochle and drink highballs.
At Christmas, she sewed Mike the perfect Superman suit, and he wore it to St. James the Greater School underneath his uniform jacket, shirt, and tie. He’d urge older kids to hit him in the chest—his mother had padded it—then open his shirt to reveal his triumphant powers. “Oh God, I was like a giant in third grade,” he says. He got sent home for leaping off of a urinal onto an unsuspecting janitor.
Mike loved going to movies, and he perfected a technique for getting in free: He’d wait until the crowd lined up for the show, then come up to the ticket-taker’s elbow and say, “My dad’s gonna pick me up. Is it OK if I go see if he’s here yet? You’ll remember me and let me back in, right?”
“Sure, kid, sure,” the distracted ticket-taker would say.
Mike was never big on schoolwork, but he was a sweet kid, an altar boy at St. James the Greater Church. He used to ride his bike all over Dogtown; he’d stop at the deli and buy bags of Fritos, then dump them in his pocket so he could eat them at school without the bag crackling.
Copyright Grimmy, Inc., Distributed by King Features Syndicate
Often, he hung out at the Post-Dispatch, watching the illustrators work while his mother did her show. Ralph Graczak, who drew Our Own Oddities, told him, “Draw everything.” So he drew feet, bags of Fritos, Coke bottles, TV sets, and, again and again, his spaniel-eared mutt, Tony.
Mike loved dogs, and he loved that he lived in Dogtown. He just sort of got dogs: their eager innocence and enthusiasm, and the way they’d sprawl on their backs with their legs open no matter who walked into the room. He wondered if maybe he was a dog once, in a previous life…
Across the living room, the phone rang. Fear snaked through Mike’s gut. “Hello,” he said as he walked toward it. “Hello, hello, hello.” He kept saying it, faster and faster until he’d picked up the phone. That was the only way he knew to get the sound out, so he didn’t have to stand there listening to some friend of his mother’s trilling, “Halloo? Is anybody there?” while he squeezed his eyes shut and fought to push the word out of his mouth.
His mother talked fast; he had to keep up. His brain moved at the speed of lightning; he couldn’t keep up. Whatever the reason, words jammed in the back of his throat like a 10-car pileup on the freeway. He didn’t get cured until college, when a frat brother said, “Hey, I think I can help you. Talk lower.”
He had to think to lower his voice, and that slowed down his brain, so the jam in his throat broke up and the words flowed. Now his speech is fast and fluent, but in casual conversation, he’ll often repeat whole phrases, buying time while the kaleidoscope of images and associations in his brain comes into focus.
In fifth grade, Mike’s report on Walt Disney’s lawsuit over Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was so good, his teacher sent him over to the other fifth-grade class to say it aloud, stammer and all. Practicing the part about Disney inventing Mickey Mouse, he pronounced the phrase “tickled pink” as “pickled tink” and giggled. “That’s funny,” he thought. “I’m gonna do it that way.” He did, and the kids roared. It was the first time he’d made a crowd laugh. Afterward, Bruce saw him on the playground, all by himself, sketching. “I like to draw cartoons, too,” Bruce said.
By the time recess ended, Mike had a future career and a lifelong friendship, both born of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
When Mike was 10, his family moved to Webster Groves, to a striking modernist house with a real swimming pool, not a filled-up front porch. Mike called the friend he’d named his dog for, Tony Novelly, who used to beat up anybody who bullied Mike. Tony lived in an apartment in Dogtown, and he loved coming over to swim; he’d never seen a private pool. (Now he has; he’s the CEO of Apex Oil.)
Mike and Tony both went to Christian Brothers College High School, class of ’61. Mike drew a naked lady in a boys’ bathroom stall and signed it because he wanted everybody to know he could draw. He got in trouble regularly; the words of the curriculum bent into meaningless squiggles, and the military discipline was lost on him. “They had you carry M1s—rifles—and wear scapulars with a picture of Jesus on one side and Gen. George Patton on the other,” he’d say later. “It was this weird school that taught you to love people and then kill them. Our Lady of Armageddon.”
By junior year, Mike’s transcript was a binary series: DDDFFDFFFFDFFF. He fell to his knees in the chapel and promised God he would not cheat once in his senior year if God passed him.
By graduation, Mike had raised a few F’s to C’s; more important, he’d refined the art of cashless dating. He’d take a girl to the airport, walk down to the gate, and pretend she was leaving so he could kiss her. Or he’d take her to the Starlight Room at the Chase Hotel—knowing full well that it wasn’t open on weeknights—and just happen to have wine and cheese in his car, and sneak up to the empty room, with its piano and dreamy view… He says he fell in love with his future wife because she was the first girl who could really play the piano.
Marian Peters remembers it a little differently. She’d seen Mike on his mother’s show—she can still picture him in his little sailor suit, doing a song from South Pacific—and she remembers thinking he was just as crazy as his mom. In high school, she saw him from afar at Washington University’s ROTC military ball; her dad, assistant dean of students at the university, had invited Charlotte Peters to sing. Marian decided Mike was “definitely the clown prince of St. Louis. Cute, but a little…entitled.”
It wasn’t until their sophomore year at Washington University that they actually met. Marian had a crush on Mike’s best friend, Bruce Tuffli, who chaired the Sigma Chi fraternity committee tasked with homecoming decorations. She chaired the same committee for the Delta Gamma sorority, so together they were masterminding construction of a huge papier-mâché bear—until Tuffli’s pants zipper broke.
“Uh…would you like to meet my friend Mike?” he asked, desperate to get away and change his clothes.
“Sure,” she said. “Where is he?”
Tuffli pointed up at the scaffolding, where Mike, who’d drawn the template for the bear, was hanging from one arm making monkey noises in the hope that the pretty girl would notice him.
Marian did not, at the moment she craned her neck, think, “There is the father of my children.” She thought, “There is no way this will ever be serious.”
And it wasn’t—until she showed up for one of their dates and just happened to have Kent cigarettes in her purse (he smoked Kent and hated the menthol in her Newports), and he sheepishly reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of Newports.
By the end of sophomore year, Mike and Marian were “pinned,” and Marian’s father had gone into apoplexy. But all the times he’d worried because they were sitting outside steaming up the car windows, they’d actually been hashing out their religious differences, arguing about the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception. They were ready for his Calvinist objections.
Mike was still convinced, though, that the dean was lining up engineering students for his daughter to date as soon as the unsuitable, stammering young cartoonist flunked out of college.
Junior year, the dean said he could no longer take summer school to finish up his courses. He would have to complete them—and pass them—by semester’s end. He panicked and sought counsel from his favorite professor, who stroked his chin and thought a minute.
“You want to be a cartoonist, right?” he asked finally. “Well, why don’t you do this: When you go into all your classes, just do cartoons. When you go into figure-drawing class, do the figures in exaggerated, cartoon style. When you go to painting class, paint cartoons.”
“Won’t I get into trouble?”
“Mike, you’re already flunking.”
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He took the advice, and to his amazement, nobody yelled at him. The grade report came, and he opened the envelope with shaking fingers.
He had all A’s and B’s.
Mike and Marian both graduated in May 1965. Marian already had a teaching job in Chicago, starting in the fall, and Mike had a job lined up with the Chicago Daily News. They planned their wedding for August. The only way all of their parents would attend was if both a priest and a minister officiated, so they got a special dispensation from Rome.
In July, Marian opened TIME magazine and froze. The article, just a one-pager, was about the Archdiocese of St. Louis having these double marriage ceremonies for “mixed marriages.”
Rome rescinded its dispensation. Marian and Mike phoned all their guests and explained that the lovely engraved invitation was null and void. They went to Chicago to take their jobs. “We tried to do it the upstanding way,” Marian said. “Let’s just lie.” She cheerfully assured a priest that she would raise their children Catholic, and they went first to a Presbyterian church, then to a Catholic church, for separ-