Berndt Toast Gang artists celebrate milestone anniversary

By Rita J. Egan

In 1966, when two Hanna-Barbera cartoonists living on Long Island met for lunch once a month to discuss a project, they began a tradition that still exists today. The cartoonists continued meeting monthly after the job was completed, and soon other local cartoon artists, members of the Long Island chapter of the National Cartoonists Society, joined them. To celebrate the group’s 50th anniversary, the Huntington Public Library is hosting the exhibit Cartoonist Showcase featuring 60 pieces of artwork from the chapter’s prominent members, both illustrators and letterers.

Chapter chair, Adrian Sinnott, said the group, nicknamed the Berndt Toast Gang, consists of approximately 40 members. Visitors to the exhibit will find drawings of favorite characters such as the Lockhorns, Batman, Spider-Man and Wonder Woman in cartoon form as well as paintings and drawings inspired by them.

Laurene Tesoriero, the library’s art gallery coordinator, said when cartoonist Helen Murdock-Prep, creator of the comic strip “Shrinking Violet,” approached the library about the exhibit, she was thrilled to be able to display the cartoonists’ work and their legendary characters. “I feel good, because this is the library; this is where you come to see history; this is where you come to see good things,” Tesoriero said.

The art gallery coordinator said she believes after seeing the variety of work people will reflect on the cartoonists when they see their illustrations in the future. “I think a lot of times when people think of cartoons they think of comics. I think they’ll walk away seeing the variety of styles that’s there,” Tesoriero said.

‘Woody Allen’ by Garrett Bender
‘Woody Allen’ by Garrett Bender

Sinnott, a children’s book illustrator, explained that the chapter’s roots date back to World War II when a loose connection of Long Island illustrators would get together and visit injured soldiers at local veterans’ hospitals. Today a number of the chapter’s members continue this tradition traveling with the USO overseas to Iraq, Afghanistan and Turkey to draw for the soldiers, while others work with the Ink Well Foundation and visit patients in children’s hospitals.

Sinnott said Port Jefferson resident Walter Berndt, creator of the comic strip “Smitty,” which ran from the 1920s until the 1970s, started attending the group’s monthly luncheons when he was older. After he passed away in 1979, one of the cartoonists raised a toast to him, and said, “Here’s a Berndt toast.” The toast inspired the chapter’s nickname, and now at every luncheon the group raise their glasses to members who have passed or who are celebrating recent accomplishments.

Sinnott, who joined the chapter approximately 30 years ago, said the Berndt Toast Gang is a friendly and encouraging group where members can share ideas and give feedback. “It’s quite an amazing group because technically we’re all competitors but we enjoy each other’s company so much,” Sinnott said.

Joe Giella, who for over 40 years illustrated characters such as Batman, Wonder Woman and more for DC Comics, has also been a member of the chapter for decades. For the last 25 years, he has illustrated the “Mary Worth” comic strip.

Working from his studio in East Meadow, Giella said he looks forward to the monthly lunches, because it gives him a chance to get out of the office, and with working under the pressure of deadlines, it also helps to relieve work-related stress. “I go down there and it’s like therapy,” he said.

The lunches also give the newer cartoonists a chance to receive advice from more seasoned artists. Giella, who pursued his artistic aspirations despite his father wanting him to follow a more traditional career path such as firefighter or police officer, said his advice for aspiring artists is simple. “I tell them that if you really want it there’s nothing going to stop you,” the illustrator said.

Chapter member Bunny Hoest, letterer of several cartoon series including “The Lockhorns,” “Howard Huge” and “Agatha Crumb,” was an English teacher when she married her husband, illustrator Bill Hoest, and started in the cartoon business. After he passed away in 1988, she continued working with illustrator John Reiner, and to this day continues to write “The Lockhorns.”

 ‘The Original Batmobile’ by Adrian Sinnott
‘The Original Batmobile’ by Adrian Sinnott

Hoest, who started attending the Berndt Toast Gang luncheons with her husband, said the members are incredibly humble. When she hosts a party at her house every summer, she said she can’t believe that so many talented people are assembled outside on her terrace. “I look at them and I think, ‘this terrace is so full of talent it’s just going to rise into the sky.’ These guys are so modest they don’t even know it,” she said.

Hoest said when she brought her family to the exhibit, they all enjoyed it. “It’s an up-lifting exhibit to see. We’re not talking about terrible things. You get a laugh and get a look at some great beauty. I think it’s just a great exhibit to go to,” she said.

In addition to Sinnott’s, Giella’s and Hoest’s work, visitors will see the illustrations of former Newsday cartoonist Tony D’Adamo, comic book and strip artists Don Heck and Sy Barry among others.

Sinnott hopes that visitors to the exhibit will walk away with a better understanding of cartoonists and their work. “It’s really an extension of them. When they do their work, they’re showing you a part of them. Even if they are making it up completely, it’s still a very personal endeavor.”

The Cartoonist Showcase is on display at the Huntington Public Library, 338 Main Street, in the Main Art Gallery through April 25. For more information, visit www.myhpl.org or call 631-427-5165.

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