The Daily Heller: 90 Years of Squiggles and One Complaining Stomach

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R.O. Blechman turned 90 last week. When I saw him a few days after the big day, he looked great not just for his age but any age. Seeing him, I was happily reminded of two crystal-clear memories, and glad to see my addled mind has retained both—and a bit more besides.

The first memory: The night when I first saw his unprecedented animation on TV for the brilliant 1967 Alka-Seltzer commercial showing what I now call a Blechmanian arguing with his squiggly, angry stomach (voiced by Gene Wilder). I was watching a boring sitcom when this word from the sponsor came on …

The spokestummy for Alka-Seltzer aired frequently thereafter for about a year; the more I watched the more I loved the simple nervous line cut with unadulterated humor. (Sorry for the quality of the video.) Graphic wit at its finest. Advertising at its most intelligent. Now it is a classic.

The second memory: The very first time I met the master illustrator and cartoonist himself. Like all firsts, our initial meeting only happened once—yet it has remained vivid for all these years. Allow me to share it with you …

It was 1973, and I was 23. A novice. However, I had just been appointed art director of The New York Times Op-Ed page, where Blechman was a regular contributor. I was so looking forward to meeting him.

My office was one of the upper-level dark-wood-paneled warrens on the editorial page floor, where lofty intellectuals worked diligently on the next day's weighty editorials. I shared one of the offices with a writer and editor. They sat behind big mahogany desks and I was given a sturdy old drawing table in a corner.

At the end of my first orientation, I returned to the office, and hunched over my table was a diminutive fellow drawing many tiny squiggles on a piece of adhesive-backed white paper. Ignoring my presence, he began cutting a few of them with an X-Acto knife, meticulously placing them on his meticulously squiggly drawing. I knew exactly who he was. So I interrupted his labors to introduce myself. "Hello, Robert, I'm …" He stopped me in mid-greeting.

"You can call me R.O. or Bob, but never Robert!"

I think he said "please," but that is lost in the fog of memory. In any case, I never called him Robert again. I rarely called him R.O. (Although I did learn what the 'O' stood for.) But for around 47 years I've called him Bob, and my respect an admiration have only grown deeper.

I have only one regret in all the years I've known him. I was too young (and what's more, much too untalented) to take his evening course at SVA in the early 1960s (course description above—via Beth Kleber at the SVA Archive). What an experience that would have been.

I have written about Blechman many times, often at some particular milestone in his life. I am pleased to say, like many of his fellow nonagenarian artists, he is still busy, robust, acerbic and young as this wonderful card attests:

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