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HOLLENBECK: Newspaper life brings many sobriquets, but Brenda Starr is favorite

July 19, 2011

Nicknames are as much a part of Southern life as biscuits and gravy.
I ought to know. I've lived in the South my entire life and I've been the recipient of several of these after-birth monikers. The most frequent, of course, being "Red." That's a given for any redhead.
Jokes about the flaming tresses started early in life and still go on, even though it takes a little loving care (pun intended) to keep them that way today.
Later on, being compared to the most famous of redheads, and coupled by the fact that my middle name is Lou, I wore the "Lucy" tag for a time.
The Courier's Carroll Powell, among the greatest of rock 'n' roll dancers (who surely is showing them how to do the "push" and the turns of the '50s in heaven now), forever compared me to Lucy, but that was OK. She was one of my heroines — the champion of dizzy redheads. All accounts say her hair color wasn't natural, but that had to be a mistake of nature because she carried the redhead banner in every other way.
Friend Brenda and I were known by many as "Lucy and Ethel" because of activities that shall be relegated to history. Still, I really didn't object to being called Lucy.
Then later on, as I became interested in newspapers, there was the Lois Lane handle I acquired for a time. But that quickly gave way to another one that described me more accurately: Brenda Starr.
With my penchant for news as well as the stage, Brenda Starr was more appropos. In case you don't recognize the name, she was a comic book reporter by day — a redhead, of course — and an occasional movie star by night. In the strip — some of the time — the pupils of her eyes were drawn as stars.
Starting out as "Brenda Starr, Reporter," the strip was created in 1940 for the Chicago Tribute Syndicate by Dalia Messick, who used the pseudonym Dale Messick to compete in a male-dominated profession.
Although set in Chicago, initially it was the only Chicago Tribune Syndicate strip not to appear in the Tribune itself.
When it debuted June 30, 1940, it was relegated to a comic book supplement that was included with the Sunday Tribune. Soon the strip appeared in the Sunday paper and a daily strip was added in 1945. During the 1950s, at the height of its popularity, the strip appeared in 250 newspapers. In 2010, 65 newspapers were carrying it with 36 being international papers.
Following Messick's retirement as Brenda Starr's artist in 1980, the strip was continued by different female writer and illustrator teams. The story ended not long ago when the 70-year run came to a close. That's a pretty good track record.
Of all my pet names, I confess I liked Brenda Starr best. You could have fun with it.
I don't remember ever taking a call from the late Dodge Holland when he didn't start out with: "Uh, could I speak with Brenda Starr, please?"
"You've got her," I'd tell him, and then he'd share whatever news tip or gossip that he couldn't wait for me to hear
Glamorous and brave, Starr, with her flowing red hair, basked in an adventurous career and romantic stuff long before graphic novels came on the scene. But after seven decades, the original girl reporter put the "30" at the end of her story, leaving popular culture without a fictional journalism ambassador.
Starr emerged at a time when women were trying to figure out their place in society. World War II raged and women were discovering they could do a lot more than stay at home. Starr perfectly captured that independent daring streak that brewed in American females at the time.
The combination made for a character who wasn't an unattainable super heroine like Wonder Woman but a real career possibility for girls who loved to write and explore.
She provided the biggest gift to female journalists by proving they could do more than write obits and cover society events. (And, yes, I've written my share of those and still do on occasion, but there's been a lot of other stuff in between.)
Lots of awards were given to the creator and subsequent writers/illustrators of Brenda Starr. And in 1995, the redheaded comic strip character was one of 20 comic strips honored by a series of U.S. postage stamps.
Mary Schmich, the final person to write the strip, said on Starr's retirement: "Everything comes to an end. It's really that simple. ... But I'm ready to spend my time doing something new now. And Brenda, who has a life of her own, tells me so is she."
Maybe so. Time will tell.

Lynda Hollenbeck is associate editor of The Saline Courier.
lyndahol@yahoo.com

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