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November 4, 2009

Home Grown Smut

Filed under: 150 Best Minnesota Books — Pat Coleman @ 2:09 pm

Capt. Billy's Whiz Bang, 1921Capt. Billy's Whiz Bang, 1932

Wilford (Billy) H. Fawcett returned to Minnesota from World War I with a footlocker full of dirty jokes. On a slow night in 1920 while he was working at the Minneapolis Tribune he sorted through the jokes and put them into a pamphlet he titled “Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang” [whiz-bang being the sound shells made during the war]. So our next best Minnesota book is:

Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang

The content was loosely organized around Whiz-Bang farm in Robbinsdale, the original Lake Woebegone. Characters included Gus, the hired man; Deacon Callahan, whose daughter, Lizzie’s virtue was always being designed upon; and Pedro the bull who rejected unworthy author submissions. The masthead read “explosion of pedigreed bull.” The jokes were juvenile, sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, and haven’t aged well.

The Girl: “You mustn’t come into my dressing room.”

The Man: “Why not? Am I not good enough?”

The Girl: “You might be worse.”

Or “Harold” said the pretty young teacher, “in the sentence ‘I saw the girl climb the fence’ how many i’s would you use?”

“Bofe of ‘em teacher” replied Harold with a grin.

Fawcett found a printer and enlisted his sons to distribute the press run from their wagons to Minneapolis at baseball games, drugstores and local hotels where the consigned blue humor was held under the counter. Word of mouth fueled sales. The magazine went from an initial press run of 5,000 to half a million once Fawcett created a distribution network that revolutionized the industry. Soon the “Whiz-bang” was in newsstands, hotels, and trains, all over the country.

By the end of the decade Fawcett had twelve magazines. “True Confessions” was the first followed by titles like “Screen Play,” and “Modern Mechanics” [which was sued by "Popular Mechanics" beginning a seemingly never ending series of lawsuits]. Roscoe Fawcett, Billy’s brother, was brought into the business and much of the work during summers was done on Pelican Lake at Fawcett’s Breezy Point Lodge.

When Billy divorced his wife Annette, who he referred to in his publications as the “henna-headed heckler,” she used his money to purchase a competitor of the “Whiz-bang” called the “Eye-Opener” and moved it to Minnesota. For a period of time Minnesota was the capital of indelicate literature.

The company eventually moved to Greenwich, Connecticut and played perhaps an even more important role in dictating literary taste. Fawcett Publication began Whiz Comics, staring Captain Marvel, and a line of original paperback books under the Gold Medal imprint.

The Company kept the same “Whiz-bang” sensibilities. The Gold Medal Books editor in 1964 stated that they were trying to blend the “shoot ‘em up sex novel” with a helping of good literature. When Gold Medal Books editor -in-chief, William Lengel received a scathing review of a manuscript his inclination was to publish it rather than pass on it. One such title was Mandingo a title that sold two million copies in its first five years.

It is hard to understate the impact, for better or worse, Fawcett had on American culture. By the mid 1960’s the Fawcett brothers presided over an empire with $75 million and 200,000 million units in annual sales.  CBS bought the company for $50 million in cash in 1977 [$ 160 mil in today's dollars].

The Minnesota Historical Society library has a nearly complete run of “Captain Billy’s Whiz-bang” and has microfilmed it for posterity.

Whiz comics

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16 Responses to “Home Grown Smut”

  1. cam Says:

    The words “Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang” immediately remind me of that great, funny song from Meredith Wilson’s ‘The Music Man’ — “Ya Got Trouble”. The key lines:
    “Watch for the tell-tale signs of corruption!
    … Is he starting to memorize jokes from Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang?”
    It’s fun to hear more about exactly what that was.

    Patrick Coleman reply on November 20th, 2009:

    enjoy this! capt. billy is mentioned at about 3:45 in the song but can anyone find the other Minnesota historical reference in the song?

    Patrick Coleman reply on November 20th, 2009:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LI_Oe-jtgdI

    Ulster reply on November 20th, 2009:

    I know! I know. “Dan Patch” right? What did I win?

    Patrick Coleman reply on November 20th, 2009:

    Brilliant Ulster. As a devotee of this blog you will appreciate the book you just won. It is an autographed copy of the 1945 first edition of “Minnesota Writes: A Collection of Autobiographical Stories by Minnesota Prose Writers” by Carmen Nelson and Genevieve Breen. Congratulations and thanks for playing.

    Ulster reply on November 20th, 2009:

    Go raibh maith agat.

    Sean S reply on July 1st, 2012:

    The funny part is The Music Man was set in 1912 and Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang didn’t come out until 1919.

  2. Ulster Says:

    SHAZAM! Know what I mean? And leaving aside the fact that this entry isn’t a book I think you are right about it being important. Until the appearance of “Playboy” this magazine, along with other Fawcett titles, did more to breakdown Victorian precepts than any other publication.

  3. Patrick Coleman Says:

    Yes I do know what you mean. In C. C. Beck’s creation for Fawcett, Billy Batson becomes Captain Marvel when he says SHAZAM which summons…
    S The wisdom of Solomon;
    H The strength of Hercules;
    A The stamina of Atlas;
    Z The power of Zeus;
    A The courage of Achilles;
    M The speed of Mercury.

  4. Bruce White Says:

    What you forgot to mention here is that the reference to Captain Billy in The Music Man is a mistake! The musical was supposed to take place in 1912, but Captain Billy did not begin publishing until 1920.

  5. Fiction Books » Blog Archive » Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang, 1932 Says:

    [...] 1932 Image by Minnesota Historical Society Featured on the Minnesota Historical Society’s Collections Up Close [...]

  6. Fiction Books » Blog Archive » Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang, 1921 Says:

    [...] 1921 Image by Minnesota Historical Society Featured on the Minnesota Historical Society’s Collections Up Close [...]

  7. Fiction Books » Blog Archive » Whiz comics Says:

    [...] comics Image by Minnesota Historical Society Featured on the Minnesota Historical Society’s Collections Up Close [...]

  8. www.happyhousekeepers.com Says:

    Nice read about the Fawcett family and publications

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fawcett_Publications

    Pat reply on March 5th, 2013:

    Thanks HH. Wow! that is a great Wikipedia article. Someone did their homework. I am now on a quest to find a vacation photo with Capt. Billy and Sinclair Lewis.

  9. Damian Klussmann Says:

    There are some interesting cut-off dates in this article but I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart. There is some validity however I will take maintain opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we wish more! Added to FeedBurner as nicely



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