#460: The Mystery Half-Wit Sure Has the Girls All Agog

April 6th, 2015

Norwood Park seems like a suburb.

The single-family houses, grassy lawns and seemingly omnipresent Little Leaguers seems to scream suburbia. There’s a Metra station there. Little shops.

Only the Rahm and Chuy signs for Tuesday’s mayoral race remind what municipality you’re in.

Part of the confusion is the new development. Newish, at least. Places with developer-sanctioned nouns like “Crossing” wedged in. One angular thing with jagged points that screamed “modern” 15 years ago sits kitty from the train station.

It was slammed too close to the older building next door, obscuring half a hand-painted sign on the brick, turning “James A. Hall Jeweler” into “James Jew.”

The older building has been there for 126 years, according to the Cook County Assessor’s Office. The newer one has been there 13.

The older one housed the Half-Wit.

It housed the Half-Wit and the Lady Killer, Satan, Tramp, Monster Man, Clown, Monkey, Sophisticated Lady, Santa Claus, 4 Eyes and officially licensed Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse rubber masks that you could buy from “The Spirit,” “Airboy,” “Torchy” and other fine Quality and Hillman comic books of the 1940s.

From these little offices that now house a dentist and an antique shop, Rubber-For-Molds Inc. sold $2.95 rubber masks that “COVER ENTIRE HEAD… LAST FOR YEARS… SO LIFELIKE PEOPLE GASP WITH AMAZEMENT AND DELIGHT…”

“It pulls on over the head like a divers helmet,” a game young man would tell the young comic readers in a two-panel gag illustrating the masks. “Now watch me have some fun with the gang tonight at the masquerade.”

The second panel would show the man – variously as a clown, monkey, idiot or other retouched artwork – terrorizing a woman in a low-cut top, because romance and assault were one and the same in the post-war era.

“The mystery half-wit sure has the girls all agog,” an impressed, FDR-eque partygoer would whisper admiringly to a friend in each comic.

Depending on the illustration retouching, sometimes it would be “The mystery monkey man” or “The mysterious clown” who had the girls all agog.

“Who is he and where did he get that mask?” the friend would respond each time.

They sold blackface masks from there too. Minstrels and Mickey Mouse shared a common origin point at this old storefront in Norwood Park at least through 1950.

Rubber-For-Molds didn’t end its rubber empire at masks they sold in comic books and “The Rotarian” magazine. They also sold licensed Disney hand puppets, featuring Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Thumper and, for some reason, Half-Wit again.

“Can I buy it from you, Jimmy? It’s more fun than a puppy!” one child exclaims, oozing envy over Jimmy’s Rubber-For-Molds Mickey Mouse hand puppet.

In “Popular Science” and “Popular Mechanics,” they offered their rubber mold secrets in book form, promising a profitable sideline business “Ideal for convalescent children, ‘shut-ins’, mothers who want extra money.”

Norwood Park seems like a suburb. But like any place where people live and work, there’s oddness under the surface.

Here’s a little storefront with a dentist’s office and antique shop kitty-corner from a Metra station. Ample parking, tree-lined streets, an old jeweler’s sign half obscured by a 2002 condo development containing a marketing solutions firm.

And its history is as colorful, offensive, nostalgic and nasty as anything else the golden age of comics could dish.

From Torchy #5, July 1950, via Comic Book +

Clown version, The Spirit #13, autumn 1948, via Digital Comic Museum

Monkey Man version, via Advertising Is Good For You

Puppet ad, from Airboy, Dec. 1949, via Comic Book +

Popular Science, May 1947

Popular Mechanics, June 1947

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