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(This article is taken from the February 1938 Edition of the "Railroad Magazine")The Real Toonerville Trolley
By Frank Donovan, Jr.
In the slumbering hamlet of Betzwood, Pennsylvania, lies the rotting remains of the most famous trolley in America -- the Toonerville Trolley. Its wheels, pole, and controller handle have long since been removed, leaving only the empty, worm-eaten car body. Moreover, the abandoned field wherein the trolley rests was formerly a relatively large and prosperous motion picture studio.
The origin of this trolley was more or less accidental. A young newspaper cartoonist, Fontaine Fox, lived on the old Brook Street car line (now discontinued) in Louisville, Kentucky. For years this route had been getting the cast-off equipment from the trunk lines until it became the joke of the town. Finally, the managing editor of the local paper asked Fox to draw some sketches caricaturing the antiquated vehicles. This he did, and in so doing, cast the germ for the Toonerville Trolley.
It was not, however, until some ten years later that the famous electric car appeared as a regular cartoon. The direct reason was a trip the cartoonist made in Westchester County, New York, on a shuttle line from Pelham Station to Pelham Manor. On this line plied a small, single-truck, one-man car. But what pleased Fox the most was the accommodation motorman and the solicitude he showed for his patrons. In fact, the old fellow had hardly pulled out of the station when he stopped the trolley and walked back to see if he had left a passenger talking to the station agent. Ten minutes later he reappeared fully convinced that the passenger was nowhere to be found. That evening when Fontaine Fox arrived at his destination he pondered over the incident and drew the first Toonerville Trolley with, quite naturally, the obliging Skipper. Incidentally, this stub line was supplanted by buses last August (*note* 1937), and Mr. Fox attended the ceremony.
By 1920 the Toonerville Trolley became such a phenomenal success as a cartoon it was decided to put it in the movies. The historic Betzwood Film Company was chosen to do the job. This firm was formerly the Lubin Film Company, one of the pioneers in the motion picture industry. Its head, Sigmund Lubin, owned a string of penny arcades, nickelodeons, and theaters in eastern Pennsylvania. In the Betzwood studios appeared such early stars as Lewis Benison, Tom McNaughton, Raymond Hitchcock, Mary Carr, Marie Dressler, and Gladys Handson. Among the pictures produced were such thrillers as For the Freedom of the World and the Battle of the Shiloh. In one production they staged a real train wreck at Portage, Pennsylvania, costing over $20,000 -- a huge sum in that day.
At the outset Mr. Fox and his coworkers realized the success or failure of the Toonerville films would depend upon who played the part of the skipper. It was extremely fortunate they selected an old gentleman named Daniel Mason for this role, for he looked and acted his part to a nicety. Of course, the other characters were there, including the Powerful Katrinka (Wilma Hervey), Aunt Eppie Hogg, The Terrible Tempered Mr. Bang, Cynthia Snoop, and Mickey (Himself) McGuire, yet none could compare with Dan the Skipper. He out-acted them all.
There were two trolleys built for the occasion -- the one in Betzwood, and another whose whereabouts is unknown. When last heard of it was exhibited at the Steel pier in Atlantic City.
In the first pictures the Toonerville Trolley ran on the narrow-gage quarry railroad operated by the Valley Forge Silica, Sand & Ore Company in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. This did not prove very satisfactory and henceforth the local trolley line -- the Phoenixville, Valley Forge & Strafford Electric Railway Company -- was used. This picturesque electric line was chartered in 1905 and completed from Valley Forge to Phoenixville several years later. It never reached Strafford. In 1921 Thomas O'Connell, its president and builder, acquired the Montgomery & Chester Electric Railroad, thus making a through line from Valley Forge to Spring City. Because the route abounded in hills and curves and on account of its rural atmosphere, the electric road proved to be an ideal setting for the Toonerville films.
Most of the filming took place between Valley Forge and Corners Store, especially near a town called Williams Corner. The car barn was located at this spot, and nearby stood a weather-beaten covered bridge spanning the Pickering Creek. Since the "trolley" had no motor it was pulled by a truck on flanged wheels or pushed by a regular electric car. With the aid of a push pole is was relatively easy to photograph the car as if running under its own power.
To give the vehicle the maximum vertical and lateral motion the car body centered on more or less of a pivot with springs on either side. If, for example, Aunt Eppie boarded the trolley it would sag at the rear and list to one side, often touching the rails. It usually took the combined efforts of the Skipper and passengers to pile out on the front platform and right the old boat.
In making one picture a first-class derailment had been carefully planned, and the players were coached in the act of falling with padded clothes. But it happened that in going to the location for the spill the car accidentally jumped the track. The passengers were thrown into a briar patch far below the right-of-way. Unfortunately, the photographer was up the line waiting for the fake derailment, and thus missed the real thing.
Another time in coming down Mount Misery on the narrow-gage road the trolley got out of control. Despite the frantic efforts of Skipper Dan to check the flight, it would not be stopped. At this point, Fontaine Fox, the only passenger, realized the perils of the situation and started to rock the car vigorously until it jumped the rails and halted. To this day Fox asserts he saved the life of the Skipper -- a fact easy to believe if one had seen the grades on the quarry road.
Once in a while the Skipper's vehicle would get in the way of the regular trolleys until several husky men lifted it from the track. As a general rule the Toonerville never strayed far from the car barn, although one Halloween they took it to Phoenixville for a parade. Toonerville films were distributed by the First National Pictures and later by the Educational Films Corporation. Among the titles were Toonerville Blues, Toonerville Trials, The Skipper's Narrow Escape, The Skipper's Treasure Garden and many others. The present animated cartoon depiction the trolley and produced by Van Beuren should not be confused with the old Betzwood outfit. The original films were, of course, not talkies, hence they are no longer on the screen. As a matter of fact, the Skipper, Dan Mason, is dead; and the trolley ceased operation back in 1923.
"In drawing a cartoon," says Mr. Fox, "I always try to keep three things in mind -- it must have an original thought: it must be something that has happened or could happen: and it must be laughable. That's all there is to it!"
Born in Louisville in 1884, Fontaine Fox started drawing cartoons for a local paper while in college. Today (*note* 1938) he is syndicated in over 250 newspapers all over North America. His characters have appeared over the radio and on the stage with Charles Withers as the Skipper. The toy Toonerville Trolleys and doll-like figures of Mickey McGuire were best sellers for years. Moreover, Mr. Fox has written three books -- Fontaine Fox's Funny Folk (1917), Fontaine Fox's Cartoons (1918), and The Toonerville Trolley and Other Cartoons (1921), besides illustrating several more.
The Toonerville Trolley is, indeed, an American institution. What could be more fitting than to resurrect a part of the defunct Phoenixville, Valley Forge & Strafford Electric Railway Company from Valley Forge Park to Corners Store and run the trolley along this route? Its purpose could be threefold: to serve as a source of amusement; to preserve the Toonerville Trolley; and to make a profit.
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