The cover of “I’m the Guy” as a refrigerator magnet, available on EBay for $4.99.
Long before newspaper humorists like Erma Bombeck and Dave Barry came on the scene, there was Rube L. Goldberg, Renaissance Man of entertainment. Cartoonist, columnist, and script writer, the witty Goldberg is perhaps most well known as the creator of images displaying zany out-of-this-world contraptions that when operated in sequence, perform a simple task like breaking an egg, ringing a bell, etc. He was also perhaps one of the first newspapermen to realize the value of “branding” himself, creating songs, shows, and film projects from his work.
Born on the Fourth of July, 1883 in San Francisco as Reuben Goldberg, the madcap wordmaster graduated from the UC Berkeley with a degree in engineering. Young Goldberg moved on to the San Francisco Chronicle and soon became a hit. Hired by the Hearst syndicate in New York, his work for the paper grabbed him lasting fame, combining his hilarious, breezy ideas with witty drawings and sayings that often became catch phrases. His Evening Mail syndicate gave me approximately seven million readers across the country. One of his cartoons in 1912 was called “I’m the Guy,” and displayed an odd little gentleman who seemed to always get the the goat of whoever he was dealing with, whether they discussed donuts, July 4, sports, or whatever.
Hollywood at Play, by Donovan Brandt, Mary Mallory and Stephen X. Sylvester is now on sale.
Rube Goldberg’s “I’m the Guy” cartoon for the Fourth of July, from the Washington Times, 1912.
Starting around 1911, New York Friar Club member Goldberg began occasionally performing on New York’s vaudeville stage at popular venues, often wowing the show with his fantastic witticisms. A January 1912 Variety issue praises one such performance. “‘Rube had them all the way and his ‘Minnie the Beautiful Waitress’ in six chapters for a finish was a scream from beginning to end.” A later review from the Colonial Theatre believed that Rube would win even more applause if he wasn’t “so afraid of himself on stage… .” Other reviews mention him performing on stage, sometimes with Bert Grant accompanying him.
Capitalizing on their names and talents, such popular newspaper cartoonists as Winsor McKay and George Manus along with Goldberg were finding successful careers performing on the vaudeville stage, sometimes just drawing cartoons, other times telling stories or performing songs they had composed. Going on tour helped grow their popularity and hopefully their salaries as well known cartoonists, while earning some extra money on the side.
In August 1912, Variety reported that one night while Goldberg visited the Friars Club, he began work on what he thought would be another “I’m the Guy” cartoon, but instead realized they actually worked better as song lyrics. He approached Mose Gumble at the Club, a performer/song plugger for the Jerome H. Remick Co., who he approached about publishing. Pairing him with musician Bert Grant, who wrote the music, the publisher printed the sheet music and released it.
A plug and branding opportunity thanks to sharing the title of his cartoon, Goldberg’s funny little ditty took off, selling well as sheet music and also as a recording, becoming popular with stage performers looking for a witty showstopper. The October 1912 Edison Phonograph Monthly reviewed the song as sung by popular singer Billy Murray, stating, “A tuneful dissertation by ‘the guy that put the noise in noodle soup, the kid in kidney stew and the holes in Sweitzer cheese,’ in which he tells of his many other accomplishments. It is a very clever song, original and exceptionally funny, set to a catchy air. Billy Murray’s enunciation is very clear, enabling one to thoroughly enjoy the humor and the words. Words by Rube Goldberg, the well-known cartoonist.”
Capitalizing on this great review, Goldberg wowed audiences at Hammerstein’s in October when he performed the song as “burlesque drama in six parts with ‘foolish’ glass slides accompanying his performance. Audiences roared with laughter as the creator/composer parodied himself and the song’s lyrics, perhaps a model for later satirical humorist Robert Benchley.
Rube Goldberg’s “I’m the Guy,” The Washington Times, May 29, 1912.
Around the same time, the publisher arranged to have the sheet music included in some newspapers around the country like the Oakland Tribune, providing free copies in hopes that word of mouth would spread to the reader’s friends and families and therefore help build sales.
Goldberg himself was not shy about promoting his own work in his columns or cartoons, in fact creating what could be one of the earliest post modern references to another work. In his December 4, 1912 “I’m the Guy” cartoon strip, Goldberg parodied the creation of the song, ironically commenting on the act of composing while at the same time demonstrating how artists could expand or even plagiarize their own work in search of fame and profit.
His song “I’m the Guy” has seen itself revived for film and television shows over the years, appearing in a 1957 Nat King Cole TV show and in a 2011 episode of “Boardwalk Empire.”
“I’m the Guy” in the Washington Times, June 1, 1912.
In late 1914, Variety reported that Goldberg had joined in partnership with Frank Tannehill in a collaboration to adapt “I’m the Guy” into a stage presentation for 1915. It appears their work came to naught, however, as no trades or newspapers list a show by that name, or any show with Goldberg’s name in 1915. He did see to releasing books of his cartoons, helping promote his talents and name.
Goldberg appeared in movies for the first time in 1914, writing a hilarious short called “He Danced Himself to Death” for the Vitagraph Company, in which performer Ralph Ince performed funny dances and in which Goldberg himself appeared in a cameo. In 1916, Goldberg produced, directed, drew, and wrote “The Boob Weekly,” “a travesty on news weeklies,” an animated cartoon series parodying newsreels through droll and self-mocking humor, an early version of Jack Parr and David Letterman. Motion Picture News review admits that normally emotionless reviewers were “fairly split” with laughter over his weird creations. While critics raved about it and audiences flocked to theatres, the strip required so much work by Goldberg that he was forced to end it after one year.
The cartoonist continued writing and drawing for newspapers for more than 30 years, finally winning the Pulitzer Prize for cartooning in 1948. His hilarious cartoons of otherworldly creations gained him fame as well, with the Merriam Webster Dictionary listing his name as adjective for these marvelous creations. Goldberg continued performing and composing throughout his life, a comedy Renaissance Man who continues to see his work exhibited in museums across the world.