Readers of this site are familiar with Paramount’s (and later Harvey Comics) Little Audrey – a character created to replace Little Lulu in a series of animated theatrical cartoons beginning in 1947.
Based on surviving evidence, the character was designed by Bill Tytla and refined by Steve Muffatti. But what about her name? Where did they get that?
It turns out that like “Tom & Jerry” (the cat and mouse duo – whose name was borrowed from both the Van Beuren characters as well as the famous christmas cocktail) and the “What, Me Worry?” kid (well known for decades before being dubbed “Alfred E. Neuman” for Mad Magazine in the 1950s), the name “Little Audrey” also has a back story, a secret origin, that was perhaps influential in creating the “playful” little lady we know today.
“I figure that when Famous Studios lost “Little Lulu” someone in the company realized that they had a chance to grab something even more famous for absolutely nothing,” movie critic and film historian Eric Lurio recently told me. “Kids in 1947 would have recognized the name immediately.”
Why? What was “Little Audrey” before Santa’s Surprise (1947)?
Apparently she was a ‘name’ first used in a series of jokes popular in the 1930s. Steve Allen mentions “Little Audrey jokes” of the thirties in his history of American humor, Make ‘Em Laugh (1993). Another recent book, American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny by Christopher Miller, sums it up this way:
During the 1930s, a genre of cruel jokes became popular known as “Little Audrey” jokes. The short jokes were usually pretty macabre, involving various fatal events happening to people. They also featured the catch phrase that Little Audrey “just laughed and laughed”.
In rare cases, the bad stuff happened to Little Audrey and then people “laughed and laughed” at her.
Could this be where animated cartoon Audrey’s annoying laugh comes from?
Here’s a little more detail about the character, in this page out of The American People: Stories, Legends, Tales, Traditions and Songs (1997) by B.A. Botkin.
If you Google “little audrey laughed and laughed” you’ll get all sorts of stuff. Here’s another clipping from a 1930s Brisbane, Australia newspaper (click to enlarge):
And speaking of Australia, there was the “Skipping Girl” who was the famous cartoon mascot for Skipping Girl Vinegar since 1936. Their factory on Victoria Street, in Abbotsford, was well-known for its iconic signage. Aussie blogger Danno explains on his Melbourne History website Beside The Yarra:
It wasn’t long before the Skipping Girl sign was dubbed Little Audrey. Little Audrey was a common phrase in Australia at the time, a curious little piece of folk slang lingo. Little Audrey stories were a popular piece of light entertainment, swapped between people like jokes.
In the stories, Little Audrey would normally be wide eyed and naive and would have some humourous interaction with someone older or more discerning. Audrey would ofetn say or do something daft, which provided the punchline. Competitions were held, asking people to submit their favorite Little Audrey Stories.
Interesting to note that Paramount’s first merchandising art of their “Little Audrey” has her skipping rope.
The name “Little Audrey” was so well known – from either joke books or Vinegar labels – that a famous British tank that took part in the D-Day landings, well before Santa’s Surprise was even conceived, was dubbed “Little Audrey II” (a “Little Audrey I” commemorates the vehicle today in England – photos below).
After the war, Famous Studios adopted the name, her mischief and her laugh – and the rest is history. According to Eric Lurio, who searched the character trade mark registration, “Little Audrey” was only ever trademarked by Harvey – as PLAYFUL Little Audrey™ – in 1960. “I guess that they knew the name “Little Audrey” was in the public domain and had been for decades – and it took them twelve years to figure out how to do it.”
As for the original “Little Audrey” of American folklore… she still lives on. Here’s an excerpt from the book Little Audrey, a 1998 novel by Ruth White, which intertwines the traditional Audrey character with a fictionalized memoir of the author.
(This post was written with assistance from Eric Lurio and information obtained from various sources, including Australian blogger Danno.)