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Al Hirschfeld: 1903-2003. (In Memoriam).

Willard Mullin, the great sports cartoonist for the New York World Telegram, was once asked how he felt about all the other sports cartoonists who copied him. Mullin's response was: "They can copy me line for line but not thought for thought." It was even harder with Al Hirschfeld, because behind Al's line there was more than Al's thought; there was Al's soul.

And in his final years--the last 15 or so--that soul, like Picasso in his late drawings, was refined to pure essence.

You see, on any given Sunday in the New York Times Arts and Leisure section, a dot of an eye, a swirl of a hairdo, a flick of a nose, a gap of a mouth, a sinuous, rubbery hand, and, as you look at it, what first stopped the eye, posing as caricature, transforms itself--and ourselves. Al's drawing has become not a comment on the show, but the show itself--live theatre made out of newsprint. And we, the readers of the Sunday Times, are not readers any more--we are the audience, with front-row seats in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, which, in truth (though it opens officially in June), has been in place for us to applaud for more years than most of us have lived. Just open the Times and you're there.

Which may be the reason why newly appointed Arts and Leisure editors have occasionally started off their jobs trying to replace Al. They did not take it lightly that Al stole Arts and Leisure right out from under them.

Al's line, much talked about, much celebrated, undeniably brilliant, is, in a sense, a red herring. The line, no doubt, helps--but it isn't the line that makes Al great: It's the vision thing. Had he drawn less elegantly--say with a truncheon dug out of a foxhole, like Bill Mauldin, another great American artist who defined our times and who died recently--Al would have been no less effective.

His stunt, week after week after week after week, was to put on his stage someone else's show (theoretically) and, in his display, give us glamour without sentiment, wit without malice, satire so precisely denoted that for all time afterward we are less likely to recall the actor's face than the Hirschfeld caricature. Zero Mostel became his Hirschfeld caricature. Ray Bolger told Al that he studied the drawings of himself dancing and tried to imitate them. Will the real Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand, Louis Armstrong and Jule Styne please stand up?

Al drew to a beat. Repose does not exist in his work. The line flows like music; the bodies--every bit as important as the head--waltz, fox-trot, shimmy, shake. Comedy, drama, musical--it doesn't matter. It's all turned into high-styled gesture. Even an arched eyebrow becomes a dance. Imagine! Even the backgrounds are choreographed.

What remains of glamor in our theatre is not to be found on Broadway, but only in Hirschfeld. His grace, his elegance, his wit and his irony remind us of a time when audiences seemed only to go to plays on spring nights and in formal dress. Al's artistry captures more than likeness; it captures a culture.

He is to caricature what Fred Astaire is to dance.

Jules Feiffer is a playwright and cartoonist. He delivered the above remarks at Al Hirschfeld's funeral in January.

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Author:Feiffer, Jules
Publication:American Theatre
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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