Lee Holley, Cartoonist of Teenage Life in ‘Ponytail,’ Dies at 85
Posted April 19, 2018 11:14 p.m. EDT
Lee Holley, who created an idyllic picture of postwar American teenage life through “Ponytail,” a syndicated cartoon panel and Sunday comic strip that appeared in hundreds of newspapers around the world, died in a plane crash March 26 in Marina, California. He was 85.
His daughter, Karen, confirmed the death in the past week as DNA tests on the remains were being performed. Holley, an amateur pilot, was flying his single-engine plane when it crashed the morning of the 26th. There were no passengers aboard. Marina is about 10 miles north of Monterey, California.
Holley was an assistant and ghost illustrator for Hank Ketcham’s “Dennis the Menace” comics in 1960 when he conjured up “Ponytail.” In single- and multi-panel comics he depicted a lanky teenage girl immersed in postwar suburban life: cruising in hot rods to drive-in movie theaters and burger joints, attending school football games, negotiating with teachers at Watson Hill High School (about completing her homework), and managing diplomatic concerns with her parents (like the size of her allowance).
Holley, drawing on his own adolescent years, recognized a growing interest in teen humor comics at the time, perhaps best exemplified by the “Emmy Lou” and “Penny” strips and the “Archie” comic book franchise.
His “Ponytail” panels were windows on teenage sensibilities. In one scene his heroine tells her father why she is justified in watching a live performance by the Beatles: to stay on top of current events.
In another, she corners him on the couch to ask for money: “Daddy, I need five dollars ... I’m in a hurry, so could you give me your lecture about money TOMORROW?!”
Many of Ponytail’s narratives revolved around dating, with her focus on her main beau, Donald Dawson. By high school hallway lockers she tells him: “Of course I’ll love you forever Donald ... well, at least until someone with a better CAR comes along!”
Newspapers liked “Ponytail” because the strip attracted younger readers, Greg Beda, who is writing a biography of Holley, said in a phone interview.
“I think ‘Ponytail’ was the best panel to get teenagers to read the newspaper versus other comics,” he said.
Gordon Leroy Holley was born April 20, 1932, in Phoenix and grew up, with a brother and sister, in Watsonville, California. His father, Gordon Virgil Holley, was a machinist; his mother, the former Vida Marie Canada, was a nurse’s aide.
Lee Holley showed artistic talent from a young age. While he was a high school student, he began taking on commissioned work and painted a wall mural for a local ice cream shop depicting archetypal teenagers playing basketball and sharing milkshakes with two straws.
After graduating, he joined the Navy in 1951 and was stationed on an aircraft carrier during the Korean War as a weapons inspector. He spent his free time drawing cartoons and comic strips for the Navy publications Our Navy Magazine and All Hands.
Holley attended the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1955 and was later hired by Warner Bros. Studios to work for the animator Friz Freleng’s award-winning “Looney Tunes” unit.
By 1958, Holley was assisting Ketcham as a ghost illustrator of the popular “Dennis the Menace” strip, handling the comic’s art for the Sunday papers, cereal box advertisements and “Dennis the Menace” books. In a 2005 autobiography, Ketcham described Holley as a “young fitness nut and a clever cartoonist with a special affinity for the younger generation.”
Branching out on his own with “Ponytail” in 1960, he signed on with King Features Syndicate, which began distributing it to about 300 newspapers internationally.
Although “Emmy Lou” and “Penny” predated “Ponytail” in focusing on American teenage life, the dialogue in Holley’s comics was often considered the most authentic.
Holley revealed in 1963 on the television game show “To Tell the Truth” that he conducted field research by chatting up teenagers at pizza parlors and attending dances. He subscribed to publications like “Teen Beat” and “Seventeen” and even went back to his own high school to sit in on classes, he told Hogan’s Alley, a magazine of the comic arts, in 1999.
He also wove his own family members into the story lines.
“Ponytail’s boyfriend Donald was our brother Donald; Ponytail’s father was like our dad,” his sister, Donna Roberts, said in an interview. “He drew on those memories.” Holley also drew a number of characters for the “Looney Tunes” and “Porky Pig” books by Gold Key Comics during the 1970s and succeeded Greg Walker in drawing the “Bugs Bunny” newspaper comic from 1980-88.
By 1988, the number of newspapers still publishing “Ponytail” had dwindled, and Holley retired the following year.
In addition to his daughter and sister, he is survived by his wife, Patricia; his brother, Donald; another daughter from a previous marriage, Susan Carothers; two grandchildren and a great-grandson. His first marriage, to Dorothy Crosetti, ended in divorce in the 1950s.
What Holley enjoyed most about his career was the freedom it gave him, he told Hogan’s Alley.
“There was no one telling me what to do,” he said. “I had deadlines, but other than that I was on my own. It really wasn’t work to me.”