John Kelly's Washington

Age-old newspaper humorist find new voice through podcasts

By John Kelly
Monday, November 9, 2009

In the basement of his Woodbridge home -- surrounded by comic books and paperbacks, crumbling hardbacks and yellowing newspapers -- Ron Evry is conjuring up a vanished world.

It's a world of patent medicine-hustling mountebanks and pushy insurance salesmen, of clueless wives and blustering bosses, of penny farthing bicycles and steam trains and celluloid collars and mistaken identities and close scrapes and comically ill-planned get-rich-quick schemes.

It's a world that you would have recognized instantly if you had been reading a newspaper a century or more ago.

Back then, just about every U.S. newspaper published short, humorous stories, brief bits of fiction set amongst the shipping news and the ads for liver pills. Mark Twain and O Henry did that sort of thing better than anybody, but plenty of other writers did it, too: Stanley Huntley, Fanny Fern, Ellis Parker Butler, Stephen Leacock. . . .

Five years ago, Ron decided to rescue these and other writers from obscurity.

He launched a daily podcast in which he reads aloud stories written by the newspaper humorists of yore. Sometime in the next few days, he will record his 1,500th episode of "Mr. Ron's Basement." He says no other podcast can boast so many episodes.

Ron, 59, works as a computer technician for Arlington County public schools. He's head of the D.C. chapter of the National Cartoonists Society -- "mainly because nobody else wanted it," he said good-naturedly.

With his ponytail and gray walrus mustache, Ron looks a bit like a cartoon character himself. When he gets home from work, he pads down to his basement, past mounds of comic books and bookcases full of such titles as "Walt Kelly's Pogo Revisited," "Mad's Don Martin Carries On!" and "Rube Goldberg: His Life and Work."

Ron admits that there isn't a huge pent-up demand for the authors whose public-domain works he reads. "That's kind of my mission in all this: to repopularize some of these people, to make people realize that American humor has a history -- it didn't all spring out of the blue -- and that newspapers were a very important part of this."

His favorite writer is Huntley, who ended his career at the feisty Brooklyn Eagle. Huntley was one of the first reporters hired by the fledgling Washington Post in 1877, the star reporter on founder Stilson Hutchins's staff. "Most of his stories were unsigned," Ron said. "Sometimes you see the initials 'SH.' Of course you don't know if it's him or Hutchins. If it's funny, it's probably him."

Then there was Charles Lewis, a Detroit newsman who wrote under the name M. Quad. "In 1868, he got blown up in a steamboat explosion," Ron said. Lewis wasn't killed, however, and his humorous story "How I Got Blown Up" appeared in newspapers from coast to coast and launched him on his way.

Charles Heber Clark, who used the pen names Max Adeler and John Quill, was a Civil War veteran remembered for feuding with Mark Twain. Each accused the other of plagiarism. George W. Peck owned a newspaper in Milwaukee, became mayor of that city and was twice elected governor of Wisconsin.

"Some of their lives are more interesting than the stories they've written," Ron said. "But some are hysterical."

That might be pushing it. The stories are gentler than what passes for humor today, but what's surprising is how current some of them are. Human folly doesn't change much from decade to decade. Nor does the jaded outlook of the ink-stained wretch or his affection for the ridiculous.

About 100 people download Ron's podcasts each day, listening to the five- to 10-minute selections. For a while, he was getting something like 10,000 hits a day. They were overwhelmingly from China, and he figures they must have been students learning English. (He changed his Web host, and those hits dried up for some reason.)

Last week, I watched Ron as he took a sip of water, leaned into a microphone and started to read. What hijinks would "Perkins of Portland," ad man extraordinaire, get into today?

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