Larry Clinton/Sausalito Historical Society
If you never knew Phil Frank, you have my sympathy. If you’ve never heard of Phil Frank, here’s an opportunity to learn about one of our most beloved local figures. Cartoonist extraordinaire, mainstay of the Sausalito’s Historical Society and political activist, Phil gave generously of his time and talent to many local campaigns and causes, using his distinctive drawing style and gentle wit to pinpoint the foibles of life hereabouts. We lost Phil way too early in 2007, but fortunately much of his work remains in books, greeting cards, and in the SHS archives.
In 1990 Phil sat down for an oral history with radio personality and longtime Sausalitan Jan Wahl. Jan began by asking about his cartoon alter ego, a newspaper reporter and sometime park ranger named Farley.
“Some people call me Phil, some call me Farley, some call me Frank.” He began. “There are just too many Fs in my life.” Here’s an excerpt from their conversation, lightly edited for brevity and clarity:
Farley is the comic strip in the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s the only locally featured comic strip that we know of in the whole country. The strip used to be syndicated in about 50 newspapers, but I took it out of syndication six years ago. The reason I did it has a very interesting Sausalito connection.
When we had gotten settled in Sausalito and began getting involved in local issues, especially around the houseboats and the development project that was going on about 1975, I found that Marinscope was willing to run cartoons and I proposed that I do an occasional single panel cartoon for the paper. The first one was about a lady going downtown in Sausalito and wanting to know if her husband needed anything. He turns to her and says, “Yeah, pick me up a couple of tee shirts and a redwood burl coffee table.” [Jan cracks up.]
So it grew from that kind of humor satirizing downtown Sausalito and the strips became bigger and bigger and more complicated and right to the heart of local politics. I would draw the cartoon on a Sunday and drop it off Sunday night and it would be in print Monday. It would be all over town, and it seemed to fire a lot of peoples’ imaginations. It kind of took cartooning one step beyond where it is when a cartoon is syndicated, because you have to work so far in advance. I would go from that cartoon, which I had so much fun doing, to having to sit down and draw strips that were going to be nationally run, but not for 30 days. Yet I had to appear timely.
The more I did the cartoon for the local paper, in exchange for free Xeroxing and a photostat made now and then, the more frustrating it became to try and do the syndicated strip. So I showed a handful of the Marinscope cartoons to the Chronicle editor, and said, “What do you think of this as an idea? Let’s take this strip and make it local, just about San Francisco.”
The editor said, “I’ve never seen this done before,” and my response was, “All the more reason to do it.” It took me a month to sell the idea. In a rough form I’d give them six cartoons every week that never actually ran in the paper. After a month they grasped the idea. Once we set the specific start date, about two months out, I notified the syndicate that I was going to cancel the syndicated strip, and I told Marinscope I wasn’t going to be able to do a local cartoon any more. So, no more free Xeroxing.
I just moved the same characters from national to local.
Farley is sort of the hero of the strip and a lot of people think I identify with him. I do to a certain extent, but the situations are very different. He’s an urban kind of guy, he lives in San Francisco. We do look a lot alike but he’s single, I’m married, I have a couple of kids in their twenties. We have very different life experiences, and I try to keep it that way.
At a 2008 city-wide memorial tribute, dubbed a Philabration, the Bay Model was festooned with tee shirts, posters and flyers Phil had created for various causes and candidates. He left a lasting impact on everyone who met him, and even on some who never did.