November 13, 2019

The wonderful cat

November 9 was the 100th birthday of Felix the Cat, the world's most famous cat, as well as one of my personal cartoon favorites. For that reason, as well as because he was the first image to be broadcast on commercial television, I think it's only appropriate to celebrate the occasion with this essay that I originally wrote last year for The Electronic Mirror. If you'd like to read more from what I consider to be a most wonderful book (without admitting any bias, of course), click here for details. Did I mention it makes a great gift?

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We could only see him in black and white. But that didn’t matter, since he was black and white himself. And it was appropriate that his was the first image to be broadcast on television, since he was once one of the most famous movie personalities in the world.

I speak, of course, of Felix the Cat.

Felix’s origins date back to the silent film era. Nobody’s quite sure who first thought of him; Pat Sullivan, who owned the rights to his image and made him famous, claimed that he was the creator, while Otto Messmer, Sullivan’s head animator and the man who gave Felix “life,” makes a similar claim (one that is favored by many film historians). Whatever the case, during the 20s Felix became one of the film industry’s top stars; as one source put it, “he ruled animation as Chaplin ruled live-action comedy, Babe Ruth base-ball, or Man o' War horse racing.”

Particularly in the silent era, Felix was one of the most well-developed animated characters ever. From his famous “thinking” pose in which he paced back and forth, head down, front paws clenched behind his back, to his irrepressible way of connecting with the audience by turning and winking, he was in fact quite Chaplinesque, with a bit of Buster Keaton thrown in. As John Cawley and Jim Korkis describe him in the Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars, “Felix was like a real person and would solve problems with ingenuity and just a touch of mischief.” The “surreal” silent movies were filled with “wild angles, strange characters and preposterous stories.”

In addition to cartoons that came out at the rate of at least one per month, there was a Felix the Cat comic strip, Felix the Cat toys, Felix the Cat watches (I have one!), Felix the Cat-endorsed food products, and Felix “interviews” in newspapers and magazines. The famous Kit-Kat Klock bears a strong resemblance to Felix; he’s the symbol of Felix Chevrolet in Los Angeles; he’s been the mascot of bomber groups and high school teams and even the New York Yankees. Felix appeared in movies and magazine spreads with starlets, movie moguls and other celebrities and there’s a story that Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic with a Felix mascot. It’s not for nothing that even today, ads for Felix merchandise bill him at the “World’s Most Famous Cat.”

He came by his name honestly. It was supposedly suggested by John King of Paramount magazine, seeing as how domestic cats are included in the genus Felis, Latin for “cat”; the term “feline” is derived from the adjective form felinus (“of the cat”). Additionally, the Latin word felix translates as “happy,” which speaks directly to his friendly, wide-mouthed smile and famous “Right-ee-o!” fol-lowed by a hearty, belly-holding laugh. (There have also been four popes with the name Felix, not to mention Saint Felix of Nola, but that’s just a coincidence. Probably.)

Thus, it should come as a surprise to no one that when RCA began testing its experimental television equipment on New York’s station W2XBS in 1928, they would turn to our hero, in the form of a 13-inch paper mache figurine. It was a practical consideration: his black-and-white color was perfect for the tests, and, unlike human actors, the intense heat from the lights was no problem. “Felix was placed on a record player turntable and was broadcast using a mechanical scanning disk to an electronic kinescope receiver. The image received was only 2 inches tall, and the broadcasts lasted about 2 hours per day.”

In 1939, RCA transmitted an image of Felix on the first commercial television broadcast leading up to the New York World’s Fair. There was a pause in developmental work during World War II, but on November 7, 1946, a coin-operated television receiver was set up in New York City. Its purpose was to give people a glimpse of the future that awaited. Among various test patterns there was one familiar figure: Felix the Cat. It’s true that there was that fully functional reason for selecting Felix, but I think it was also an affectionate one.

Felix’s popularity has waxed and waned throughout the years, but it’s never gone completely away. In 1958, a new series of cartoons for TV introduced the famous Magic Bag of Tricks, one that contained a variety of marvels and could assume whatever shape Felix (and the cartoon’s plot) happened to require at the moment. It also featured the Felix theme song (“Felix the Cat/the Wonderful, Wonderful Cat”) that anyone of a certain generation will recognize at a moment’s notice. And did I mention that his tail could detach and be used as anything from an exclamation point to a fish hook to an airplane propeller?

It was, in fact, the 1958 series, rerun on Channel 11 during my childhood, that first introduced me to Felix, and made me a lifelong fan. In addition to my prized watch, I’ve got a whole shelf of Felix memorabilia in my library, including books, DVDs, mugs, music boxes, and stuffed Felix toys. You might call it an eccentricity; as a television historian, I prefer to think of it as honoring the very first TV star, and if you want to say that as well, it’s all right with me. TV  


  1. I remember watching FELIX THE CAT on WZTV, then-indie station (now-Fox affiliate) out of Nashville, TN when I was a preteen. I knew unlike most cartoons it was in B&W (although w/ my family's TVs at the time that's the only way I'd see it anyway). I was too old by then to enjoy it much, but since it was on early mornings, it was probably better to me than the network morning news shows. I still know the words of the entire theme song (at least what was included on tv).

  2. Loved the 1959-1962 TV cartoon version. To this day so many of us of a certain age remember VaVoom, so its startling to learn that he only appeared in about 3 shows. I guess in that respect he's the cartoon version of Ernest T. Bass.

  3. Here's a classic Felix the Cat cartoon w/an added soundtrack by Eric Dolphy:


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