Stephen Slesinger (December 25, 1901 – December 17, 1953), was an American radio, television and film producer, creator of comic strip characters and the father of the licensing industry. From 1923 to 1953, he created, produced, published, developed, licensed or represented several popular literary legends of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.
Slesinger was born on December 25, 1901, in New York; He was a third generation New Yorker of Hungarian and Russian ancestry. His father, Anthony, was a dress manufacturer, and his mother, Augusta (née Singer), was a prominent psychoanalyst. He studied at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School from September 1914 until June 1919 and later attended Columbia University. His younger sister was the author and screenwriter Tess Slesinger.
Slesinger died at 4:45am on December 17, 1953, of gastric hemorrhage, during an ill-advised stomach surgery by doctors at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, only eight days before he would have turned 52. Slesinger's doctor, the eminent Benjamin Kean of New York, advised the Cedars doctors NOT to perform the surgery. Dr. Kean, a prominent tropical disease specialist was treating Slesinger with antibiotics. In those days the treatment was novel, today Dr. Kean's treatment has become the Gold Standard for the treatment of H-pilori. Tragically, Slesinger's son-in-law also died unexpectedly a few hours after being prematurely released from Cedars, at age 53. Slesinger's son in law was treated by two rogue doctors who, against Cedars' policies, disregarded and proceeded against the express advice of his son-in-law's primary care doctor, the eminent cardiologist, professor and vice-chairman of medicine Dr. Jan Tillisch of UCLA.
In 1927, Slesinger set up shop in New York as a literary agent, and went on to represent, among others, Newbery Medal-winning writers Hendrik Willem van Loon (who won the first Newbery Medal in 1922), Western authors Zane Grey and Rex Beach, Will James and journalist Andy Rooney. Slesinger acquired the rights to popularize illustrations, texts, characters and personalities in other media, a pioneering effort into ancillary rights uses and licensing. Always interested in new media, Slesinger took out patents for experimental television presentations of cartoons and presented Winnie the Pooh as the first Sunday morning TV cartoon in the mid-1940s. (The New York TImes)
Slesinger acquired US and Canadian merchandising, television, recording and other trade rights to Winnie-the-Pooh from A. A. Milne in the 1930s, and developed Winnie-the-Pooh commercializations for more than 30 years, creating the first Pooh doll, record, board game, puzzle, US radio broadcast (NBC), animation, and motion picture film. In the 1950s, after Slesinger's death, his widow, Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, took over the business and launched her own nationwide licensing campaigns. In 1961 and 1983, Stephen Slesinger, Inc. licensed certain Pooh rights to the Walt Disney Company.
Premiums and products
In 1933, Slesinger acquired the merchandising rights to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan character and produced a series of Big Little Books, games, premiums, toys, treasure maps and other products. Slesinger's marketing and media strategy for Tarzan became the blueprint for success in character merchandising, including the campaigns Superman. Slesinger's The New Adventures of Tarzan "Pop-Up" (Blue Ribbon Press, 1935) book, which he also illustrated, was chosen by Albert Tillman as one of the 100 best pop-up books ever published and featured on the cover of Tillman's historical survey, Pop-Up! Pop-Up! (Whalestooth, 1998).
Slesinger purchased the rights to the Ozark Ike comic strip from creator Rufus A. ("Ray") Gotto. In 1936, it became his first comic strip in syndication. Other licensing included Tom Mix, King of the Royal Mounted, Alley Oop, Captain Easy, Wash Tubbs, Polly the Powers Model, Charlie Chan, Buck Rogers and Og, Son of Fire, as well as all Newspaper Enterprise Association comic strips.
In the late 1930s, Slesinger began developing original characters, which he then hired artists to bring to life. Most prominent among these are Red Ryder and King of the Royal Mounted, which became Slesinger's most popular characters, syndicated internationally in newspaper comic strips and also generating books, radio shows, motion pictures and numerous ancillary commercial products.
Red Ryder and Little Beaver
Working with artist Fred Harman, who came from Pagosa Springs, Colorado, Slesinger launched the popular comic strip Red Ryder. The strip's artistic style evolved from Harman's 1937 comic strip, Bronc Peeler. The two worked on the project for a year before Red Ryder was launched in 1938.
Between 1938 and 1967, the long-run Red Ryder comic strip was also a long-run comic book, the subject of 12 chapter films, 26 motion pictures and numerous merchandising and promotional tie-ins, including the still-produced Red Ryder Daisy Carbine Air Rifle, which holds the longest continuing license in the history of the licensing industry and was depicted in the film A Christmas Story (1983).
King of the Royal Mounted
In 1937 Slesinger licensed Zane Grey's byline and created King of the Royal Mounted, the adventures of a Canadian Mountie who always got his man. King appeared in newspaper strips, comics, Little Big Books and other ancillary items. Grey's son Romer and Slesinger collaborated on many of the stories, and the artwork was produced by Allen Dean and Charles Flanders in Slesinger's New York studio. A movie serial was produced in 1942.
Television and films
In 1940 Slesinger licensed to Republic Pictures the right to produce a 12-chapter Red Ryder serial and 23 Red Ryder motion pictures from 1944 to 1946.
In the mid-1940s through the early 1950s, Stephen Slesinger Productions began producing films and television programs, including adaptations of Winnie-the-Pooh, Red Ryder, King of the Royal Mounted and The West That Lives Forever. He formed Telecomics Presents, which displayed scripted comic strip segments as static images instead of animation. There were approximately 130 episodes produced, each lasting about three minutes. Each episode began with the opening of a comic book, the first page showing a silhouette of the lead character (Space Barton, Danny March or Kid Champion); the page then turned to show a full-page illustration. Telecomics is generally noted as one of the first cartoon series produced for television. In 1950, NBC optioned Telecomics' product and repackaged it as NBC Comics.
Among Slesinger's many honors was a proclamation shortly before his death in 1953 from the County of Los Angeles which singled him out as a "nationally known humanitarian" whose works "are read by more than 25 million youngsters and adults" and who "has devoted much of his personal time and energy toward helping underprivileged children throughout the nation" and whose "interest in underprivileged children stems from the magnificent work done by his mother, Augusta Slesinger, who served as a psychoanalyst and social worker… for 40 years". The proclamation ends with Slesinger being "complimented for continuing to help in the program of making better citizens out of the youth of the land."
- "United States Social Security Death Index," index, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/JR37-ZJ6 : accessed 19 Mar 2013), Stephen Slesinger, December 1953.