Ted Key, Creator of Hazel

May 15, 2008

     Cleaning, vacuuming, tidying the Baxter home and family, the efficient, saucy maid Hazel has been keeping everyone in chuckles for decades. The comic's development was quick, coming to the cartoonist in a midnight dream. Ted Key created the Hazel cartoon in 1943 for the Saturday Evening Post, and 65 years later, she is still going strong. Unfortunately, the immensely talented Ted Key isn't - he passed away on May 3, 2008 at the age of 95.

     Theodore (Ted) Keyser was born to Latvian immigrant parents on August 25, 1912 in Fresno, California. His father changed the family name to Key some time during World War One. Attending the University of California at Fresno, Ted Key earned his way up to editor of the student newspaper and to associate editor of the university humour magazine. He graduated in 1933.

     Talented from the start, Ted's work was published in popular magazines such as Good Housekeeping, McCall's, Ladies Home Journal, The New Yorker and Better Homes and Gardens. While sleeping, Ted's mind must still have been at work on cartooning - one night in 1943 he jotted down an idea that came to him on a notepad near his bed. Looking at it the next morning, he saw that it was a good one, about "a maid who took a message, but she screwed it up completely," said his son Peter Key in Idaho Statesman. Ted drew the idea up, submitted it to the Saturday Evening Post , and Hazel was born. (The name Hazel was a random and very successful pick.) The single panel comic became a weekly staple in the Post, filling the prestigious back page slot when Little Lulu by Marjory Buell, left, and stayed there for 20 years.

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     During World War Two, Ted served in the public relations department of the United States Army, creating ads to recruit women into the Services.

     Hazel was so popular that the comic turned into a television show in the 1960s, running on the NBC Network from 1961 to 1965 and then on CBS in the 1965/66 season. Shirley Booth played Hazel and won two Emmy Awards for her work. Published in eight books over the years by EP Dutton, Hazel sold a whopping half-million copies in 1946 alone.

    In 1965, The Saturday Evening Post collapsed, leaving Hazel without a home. Ted acquired the rights to his comic in that year (it was common for cartoonists to not have the rights initially) and found a new place for the spunky maid to take over: King Features Syndicate. In the meantime, the cartoonist had been busy with other projects besides Hazel. He developed the idea for a talking, time-travelling dog scientist and his young friend - Mr. Peabody and Sherman - to star in shorts on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (then called Rocky and His Friends). He also developed characters Diz and Liz and many animal stars for the Jack and Jill Children's Magazine.

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     Also a writer, Ted wrote radio and screen plays, including Disney's Gus and The Cat From Outer Space, and a number of children's books. He must have been bursting with ideas: He continued to create magazine cartoons, too, along with developing motivational pamphlets and illustrations for twenty years.

     Ted Key retired from creating Hazel in 1993, leaving King Features with decades of single-panel cartoons to re-publish. Cancer developed in Ted's bladder in 2006 and a stroke in September of 2007 left the popular cartoonist in a poor way. He died at home in Philadelphia, leaving his wife Bonnie, his three sons and three grandchildren.

     A great and skilled cartoonist, Ted Key received the NCS Newspaper Panel Award in 1977.
Though there was little fanfare for his enormous body of work, he earned the love of millions of fans.

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© Susanna McLeod 2008
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