Little Orphan Annie: From Comic Strip to Radio, Broadway, Television, and Two Movies

Posted on December 18, 2014 at 8:00 am

Copyright Harold Gray and Tribune Syndicate
Copyright Harold Gray and Tribune Syndicate

The spunky little girl with the curly red hair and a dog named Sandy began as Little Orphan Annie in 1924, created by Harold Gray.  Her pluck, self-sufficiency, and resilience caught the imagination of the Depression-era audience in the 30’s, and soon she was everywhere. You could buy books, dolls, jewelry, even dishes showing Annie with her iconic red dress and pupil-free eyes. There was a popular radio program (remember Ralphie and his Little Orphan Annie decoder disappointment in A Christmas Story. After Gray’s death, the strip was continued by the brilliant Leonard Starr (Mary Perkins On Stage).

In 1977, the Broadway musical version became one of the biggest hits in history. Here is the original star, Andrea McArdle, singing “Tomorrow.”

Dozens of young girls appeared in the play, including Sarah Jessica Parker. The documentary Life After Tomorrow has interviews with many of them about the stress of auditions and performing and how it affected their feelings about growing up.  And in 2013, PBS aired another documentary about the casting of a revival of the stage show.

The 1982 movie musical version starred Albert Finney, Aileen Quinn, Carol Burnett, and Bernadette Peters and was directed by John Houston.

In 1999, a version made for television starred Alan Cumming, Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth, Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, and Alicia Morton.

All of those versions kept the 1930’s setting — they even feature a rousing musical number with Franklin Roosevelt and his Cabinet.  But this week’s release, produced by Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Jay-Z, updates the story to the era of Instagram and Twitter.  It stars Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Rose Byrne, and, as Annie, “Beast of the Southern Wild’s” Oscar-nominated Quvenzhané Wallis.

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Little Orphan Annie Says Goodbye

Posted on June 13, 2010 at 4:20 pm

The sun’ll come out tomorrow, but Little Orphan Annie won’t be there to see it come up in the morning. After 86 years, the daily comic strip about the plucky redhead and her dog, Sandy has come to an end.

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Harold Gray created the strip and was its writer and artist from 1924 to 1968. During the Depression, the story of the feisty, independent-spirited orphan captivated newspaper readers. It became a popular radio show and Annie merchandise included everything from books and dolls to piggy banks, tea sets, board games, and, as anyone who has ever watched “A Christmas Story” knows, a decoder ring. Decades later, a musical based on the comic strip was one of the biggest box office hits in Broadway history. Several of its young stars went on to careers in show business including Sarah Jessica Parker. There is even a documentary called Life After Tomorrow about the girls who played Annie and the orphans and what happened to them while they were in the show and after they outgrew the role.

The musical later became a movie with Albert Finney as Annie’s adoptive father Daddy Warbucks and Carol Burnett as the cruel Miss Hannigan, and was remade for television. In 1977, Leonard Starr of “On Stage” took over the strip, retitled “Annie.” Under his direction, it received the National Cartoonist Society’s Story Comic Strip Award in 1983 and 1984. Starr retired in 2000 and the cartoonists who followed were not able to continue at his level. The fading appeal of comic strips and the struggles of print newspapers led the syndicate to announce its cancellation.

Little Orphan Annie survived the Depression, WWII, the Cold War, Watergate, and the dot.com bubble. She began just four years after American women got the vote and six years after the end of World War I. Gray, Starr, and all those who worked on the strip created a cultural touchstone that will continue through future generations. A junior version of the musical is performed frequently in elementary schools. Somewhere, someone is singing “Tomorrow.”

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