From 1924 to 2010, cartoonist Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie comic strip presented the adventures of a plucky young girl with empty pupils who fell in and out of trouble at home and abroad while endearing herself to her adopted family. You’ve probably seen one of the many stage or screen musicals based on the strip, but you may not know some of the details behind Annie’s tenure in newspapers. Check out some facts about her origin, concerns over the strip’s violence, and which president pushed "Daddy" Warbucks into an early grave. (You can also check out our list of facts on the 1982 Annie feature film here.)
1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY LITTLE ORPHAN OTTO.
Harold Gray was originally a hired pencil, owning and operating an art studio in Chicago following his service in World War I. After Gray began assisting cartoonist Sidney Smith on a strip titled The Grumps, Gray decided he might like to try his hand creating his own. Believing a character who had no allegiance to family or society would free them up for adventures, he decided to make his protagonist an orphan. Originally a young boy named Otto, Gray decided to switch genders when he realized that of the 43 strips running at the time, only three featured women in prominent roles. Little Orphan Otto became Little Orphan Annie, entering syndication in 1924.
2. ANNIE WAS A FIGURE OF FEMALE EMPOWERMENT.
In stark contrast to the portrayal of women in popular culture of the time, Annie was no damsel in distress. Though she found a guardian in rich industrialist Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks, her tendency to get caught up in criminal schemes or political intrigue meant she was often in physical danger. But Annie was resourceful and wily, and usually able to extricate herself from those situations without needing to be rescued. Annie, wrote historian Elizabeth Maurer, was “neither ladylike nor cute ... she was the antithesis of Shirley Temple ... While she frequently ends up in dicey situations, she usually saves herself.”
3. SHE PIONEERED MARKETING TO KIDS.
Tie-in merchandising and marketing to children is commonplace today, but the template for it may have been laid down by Annie’s first foray into multimedia. In 1930, the Little Orphan Annie radio program debuted, bringing with it a unique strategy of marrying entertainment with corporate messaging. The show was sponsored by Ovaltine and written by its advertising executives, who concocted several ways to get listeners to pick up the chocolate drink mix. Box tops could be mailed in and redeemed for Annie decoder rings and shake cups, the equivalent of an Avengers Big Gulp today.
4. HAROLD GRAY USED THE COMIC STRIP TO DELIVER POLITICAL PROPAGANDA.
A staunch conservative, Gray often used the powerful platform he had as a widely distributed cartoonist to comment on the politics of the day. Opposed to government interference in private financial affairs, in 1936 he ran a series of strips in which "Daddy" Warbucks is harassed by “political racketeers” and denounces virtually anyone holding public office. Newspaper editors were not pleased, claiming Gray was being too subversive for the funny pages. West Virginia's Huntington Herald-Dispatch pulled the strip and replaced it with a banner that read: “Deleted! For violation of reader trust!” The syndicate soon circulated word that Gray would be starting a new story, one free of any political subtext.
5. SOMETIMES THE STRIP GOT TOO VIOLENT FOR NEWSPAPERS.
One might not normally associate Little Orphan Annie with controversial content, but the carrot-topped crime-solver sometimes found herself pushing the envelope a little too far. For a 1956 story in which Annie runs afoul of a vicious street gang, papers including the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the Ohio State Journal suspended the strip for depictions of muggings, knives, and other unsavory content. Annie returned to their pages only after her dalliances with juvenile delinquents had come to an end.
6. THE STRIP GOT SUPERNATURAL.
In the 1930s, Gray attempted to make Annie’s adventures slightly more escapist for readers mired in the Depression. When Annie would get into scrapes, sometimes accomplices like the eight-foot-tall Punjab would appear, throwing a magic blanket over crooks and teleporting them into unknown planes of existence. Annie later met Mr. Am, a bearded sage who could apparently enter other dimensions and bring the dead back to life.
7. SHE MADE A DIFFERENCE DURING WORLD WAR II.
Annie’s efforts in wartime weren’t limited to the comics pages. While she sunk a German submarine and foiled spy rings, kids longing to become one of her “Junior Commandos” made their mark in the real world by collecting scrap for the government. Even something as simple as kitchen fat could be repurposed to make glycerin, which had applications in both medicine and explosives. Gray was apparently so pleased with his character’s influence that he asked for extra gasoline coupons during the fuel ration. The local board turned down his request.
8. "DADDY" WARBUCKS DIED BECAUSE GRAY HATED FDR.
Gray could never stay away from his thinly-veiled political commentary for long. A stubborn opponent to president Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” the cartoonist was astonished to learn FDR was aiming for a fourth presidential term in 1944. By way of protest, Gray had Annie’s benefactor, “Daddy” Warbucks, die of a mysterious illness—one some readers suspected was death by way of being a capitalist hero. But when FDR himself passed away in 1945, Warbucks miraculously recovered after Gray revised his fate to being in a coma. The character said that “the climate here has changed since I went away,” a clear reference to new leadership in the Oval Office.
9. THE BROADWAY MUSICAL GAVE IT NEW LIFE.
After Gray died in 1968, Little Orphan Annie was passed to a series of successors, including former assistant Tex Blaisdell and cartoonist David Lettick. But their efforts proved unpopular, and Annie originals left the comics pages in 1974: Reruns of Gray's work took up residence on newspaper pages. When the 1977 Broadway adaptation became a smash hit, interest in the strip was revived. Artist Leonard Starr took over the strip in 1979, restoring it to much of its former popularity. Starr retired in 2000.
10. THE STRIP ENDED ON A CLIFFHANGER.
Contemporary times were not kind to Annie, who was appearing in less than 20 newspapers in 2010, when Tribune Media Services announced the strip's cancellation. Readers were left with a cliffhanger ending, with Annie captured by a war criminal dubbed the Butcher of the Balkans. The story was resolved in 2014, when Dick Tracy—another Tribune strip—continued "Daddy" Warbucks’s search for his missing adoptee. The trench-coated detective found her alive and well. She continues to appear sporadically in the Tracy strip, still devoid of any pupils.