STORY & PHOTOS BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY
FROM THE SPRING 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Only a handful of vintage American comic strips and their featured characters have managed to gain long-term popularity: Gasoline Alley, Popeye, and Barney Google are each nearly 100 years old, and Blondie is turning 88 this year. The vast majority of strips have their heyday, and then pass into inky obscurity.
One comic strip character that few remember today is Harold Teen. Created by cartoonist Carl Ed (pronounced “eed”), the strip ran from 1919 to 1959. Debuting as “The Love Life of Harold Teen” in the Chicago Tribune, it starred high school student Harold “Teenzy” Teen, his sidekick Shadow Smart, bob-haired girlfriend Lillums Lovewell, her sometime rival Mimi Snatcher, and Pop Jenks, proprietor of the Sugar Bowl soda shop, where the gang often gathered. Ed said he started the strip because at the time, “…there was no comic strip on adolescence. I thought every well-balanced comic sheet should have one.” Despite its obscurity today, Harold Teen was so successful at depicting teenage life in the day that comic aficionados consider it a cultural icon of the Jazz Age.
Besides longevity, a strong measure of the popularity of any comic strip is how far their characters leap beyond the newsprint and into other media. Two films were made featuring Harold Teen: a 1928 silent film and a 1934 musical starring tap dancer Hal Le Roy. A 1941 Harold Teen radio show on station WGN in Chicago aired hit records of the day. Numerous songs were written about Harold and his pals, including “Swinging at the Sugar Bowl” recorded by Bob Crosby (Bing’s brother) and a tune by Kansas City pianist Joe Sanders that proclaimed Harold as the “Don Juan of comic strip fame.” There was certainly no shortage of Harold Teen merchandise, including toys, a board game, celluloid wind-up figures, pin-back buttons that came in boxes of Pep Cereal and Cracker Jack, and . . . one of the coolest ukuleles ever.
The Harold Teen uke was first manufactured in the late 1920s/early 1930s by the Harmony Company, which was the largest instrument maker in the country at that time. The Harold Teen ukes are painted whitewood instruments that came in red, green, or yellow. A sticker inside the body read, “Genuine Harold Teen Ukulele made by The Harmony Co. Licensed by Famous Artists Syndicate.” Despite the simple paint and basic construction, the ukes were bedazzled with colorful decals of the entire Harold Teen gang. Below the bridge, Harold is shown strumming and singing to Lillums, their thought bubbles declaring that “music self played . . . is happiness self made.” The top also shows Pop Jenks and Mimi Snatcher dancing and shouting “boop boop a doop,” as well as Harold’s jalopy “Leapin’ Lena,” which expels a musical note from its exhaust. Harold, dressed in a cardigan sweater and baggy slacks, appears on the uke’s headstock, while other minor characters are pictured the sides of the body.
Harmony-made Harold Teen Ukes sported a pearloid (aka “mother of toilet seat”) fretboard with bull’s-eye fret markers. Later models (likely built by Regal) had fretboards painted ivory white and bodies bound with dark celluloid purfling. Tuners were the typical “chess piece” style Bakelite found on many other ukes from this period.
Sonically, the Harold Teen uke isn’t anything to write home about. Even when strung with modern nylon strings (its original strings were gut), it lacks volume and harmonic richness. But nevertheless, its snazziness makes you want to slip on a raccoon coat, strum a jazzy tune, and yell “Yowsah!”—a slang term Harold often uttered in the frames of his comic strip.