Wilford H. Fawcett
From Captain Billy to Captain Marvel
"Oh, we've got trouble," sings slick salesman Harold Hill in The Music Man, Meredith Willson's 1962 musical, "right here in River City." Hill continues his shtick, designed to frighten River City's impressionable parents into buying into his proposal to outfit their sons with spendy band instruments and uniforms, by asking a series of shocking questions: "Is there a nicotine stain on [your son's] index finger? A dime novel hidden in the corn crib? Is he starting to memorize jokes from Captain Billy's Whiz Bang?"
It's that third question that causes the fair mothers of River City to swoon. Captain Billy's Whiz Bang was a bawdy joke magazine filled with double entendres and racy poems. And here's the truly shocking part--it was published by a company located not in some cesspool of a city on one of the coasts but right here in America's heartland--Robbinsdale, Minnesota.
"Captain Billy" was Wilford Hamilton Fawcett. Born in Brantford, Ontario, Fawcett was a veteran of the Spanish-American War and World War I who had also served stints as a police reporter for the Minneapolis Journal and with the army's Stars and Stripes magazine. Fawcett tapped into the postwar loosening of cultural constraints--the same trends that boosted the popularity of F. Scott Fitzgerald's stories about flappers--with his magazine. And, boy, could he pick a winner. Just four years after its first issue appeared in 1919, Whiz Bang had a circulation of 425,000, with $500,000 annual profits.
Fawcett Publications went on to a string of other successes in the magazine world, from True Confessions to Mechanix Illustrated. In the 1930s, its headquarters moved to New York City and Greenwich, Connecticut; after Wilford's death, in 1940, his sons continued to build the company. They introduced Captain Marvel through their Fawcett Comics, and they launched a hugely successful line of paperback originals, Gold Medal Books, featuring popular authors like Louis L'Amour, John D. MacDonald, and Mickey Spillane. But it was Captain Billy who started it all, and he's still feted each year during Robbinsdale's Whiz Bang Days.
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