Little Orphan Annie | It happened here
A Chicago ragamuffin inspired the iconic redhead.
A half-century before child actresses began donning curly, carrot-topped wigs in productions of Annie, the little chatterbox with the auburn locks was born in Chicago. Struggling cartoonist Harold Gray was pacing the city’s streets trying to come up with ideas for a strip to pitch to Tribune publisher Joseph Medill Patterson when he bumped into a Dickensian ragamuffin who inspired Little Orphan Annie.
“I talked to this little kid, and liked her right away,” he told Editor & Publisher in 1951. “She had common sense, knew how to take care of herself. She had to.”
Gray went back to his home and studio at 215 South Stewart Street in west suburban Lombard and drew a blank-eyed vagabond in a red dress. His parents’ Lombard abode, a large Victorian residence at 119 North Main Street now known as the Little Orphan Annie house, was the basis for Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks’ mansion, according to Jeanne Schultz Angel, director of the Lombard Historical Society.
The comic premiered in the Tribune-owned New York Daily News on August 5, 1924. “It was an overnight success,” Angel says. By November, Little Orphan Annie was a daily strip in the Trib. Syndication followed, spawning a WGN radio show in 1930 and films in ’32 and ’38. But the most enduring spin-offs came after Gray’s death from cancer in 1968: the ’77 Broadway production that brought the earworms “Tomorrow” and “Hard Knock Life,” and the ’82 film based on the musical.
Almost 90 years after Gray’s chance encounter with a scrappy street urchin, you can bet your bottom dollar Annie is being performed nearby. The production at Paramount Theatre in Aurora runs through December 30.