Colony Comic : New York Cartoonist Takes Aim at 'Old Stomping Grounds'

Times Staff Writer

An ape dressed like a man probably wouldn't raise an eyebrow in Malibu Colony, the exclusive seaside playground of Hollywood's rich and famous where legend says that almost anything goes.

What is attracting attention, however, is a series of cartoon strips about a simian visitor to the Malibu enclave who views the Colony life style with detached humor.

"Rudy," an offbeat, syndicated comic strip that appears in 25 daily newspapers across the country, is set in California and written by William Overgard, a former Santa Monica resident who lives in New York. It follows the adventures of a talking chimpanzee named Rudy, a retired vaudeville actor who lives with a parrot in a seedy Hollywood apartment complex called the Garden of Allah II.

Recent episodes showed Rudy going to Malibu to meet a movie director who agreed to make a film about his uncle, a tango dancer. Along the way, the ape offered a number of laconic observations about life and values in the gated community that outsiders regard as a Babylon-by-the-Sea.

Overgard, 58, who attended Santa Monica High School and surfed at Malibu beaches, said he has pleasant memories of the area, although he has visited his former stomping grounds only intermittently since moving to the East Coast in 1948. He said that Malibu has changed so much that he couldn't resist poking fun at the absurdities of the community and the foibles of its residents.

Colony dwellers didn't seem to mind the pointed humor. One longtime resident, a screenwriter who did not want his named used, said he made color photocopies of one of the strips to send to friends who live abroad. "It's better than a picture post card," he said.

Another resident, Tita Cooley, said the comic series was well deserved. "We're as ridiculous as anyone else," she said.

The first installment in the Malibu series, which began Dec. 16 and concluded last week, unfolded on the California Incline above Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica. Rudy, dapper in a bow tie, sports jacket and plaid shirt and smoking a cigar, was driving an old Packard convertible past the houses where movie stars lived before the Colony became a prestigious address. Overgard's drawings are so faithful to detail that familiar landmarks, such as the Malibu pier, are easily recognizable.

As Rudy spotted the former estate of the late actress Marion Davies, now operated as the Sand and Sea Club, he observed that it had 55 bathrooms, "which says something about either opulence or kidneys."

As he passed the old Thelma Todd Cafe, named after the motion picture actress who briefly operated the restaurant (and who died mysteriously in a house above the cafe in 1935), he noted that it was "a hangout for a movie crowd looking for thrills in the '30s."

Then, alluding to Malibu's disaster-prone beachfront homes, he commented that today's celebrity-residents "must still be looking for thrills. . . . Where else can you be burned to the ground and washed out to sea at the same time? It can't get much more thrilling than that."

In a subsequent episode, the ape was shown walking along a narrow beach that was backed by a row of tightly packed houses and crowded with Frisbee-chasing dogs and buxom, bikini-clad bodies--much the way Malibu Beach looks on a typical summer day. The beach was so densely populated that he compared it to a "packed tenement or teeming barrio" but with one difference: "There it's called miserable overcrowding. Here (it's called) 'Life Styles of the Rich and Famous.' "

Finally, Rudy encountered a ragged, barefoot bum on the beach who appeared to be shuffling through the contents of a garbage can. When Rudy offered him some loose change, the man refused and revealed that he was the director the ape had come to meet. "I'd like to dress better," the man said, explaining his scraggly attire, "but fans expect directors to be declasse."

Overgard said in a telephone interview from his home, an 18th Century farmhouse in Stony Point, that he hoped the jokes didn't offend anyone in Malibu. He said the images of Malibu conveyed in the comic strips were inspired by his most recent visit there in 1977.

"It had gotten terribly crowded," he recalled.

Overgard said he remembers Malibu in the 1940s, when he was growing up, as a vastly different place. "I have pleasant memories of Malibu as a kid. Then it was much simpler, a sparse kind of place. The Colony was just a bunch of little beach houses. The hills behind it were not built up. People treated it as a weekend getaway."

He said he used to go for "weenie bakes" at Point Dume and frequented the beach next door to the old Davies estate. But he learned during his latest visit that the landscape has changed and with it, the times.

Thus Malibu seemed the perfect place to send Rudy, whom his creator describes as a symbol of "the best of old show business." The sympathetic primate is also the kind of character who is always "going up against people who don't quite understand what he's about."

Overgard said the idea for "Rudy," which first appeared two years ago, came from his wife, Gloria, a keeper at the Bronx Zoo. When the zoo started placing baby chimpanzees with surrogate human mothers, his wife came home with "fantastic stories about these ladies who took them home, put them in bassinets and dressed them up in baby clothes.

"That was the basic idea of 'Rudy.' What would it be like," the cartoonist wondered, "if you could translate a primate into a human?"

Overgard also is the author of "Steve Roper," a more conventional comic strip that has been appearing since 1954. In addition, he has written several television movies and feature films, including the 1978 release, "The Bushido Blade."

He said that part of the reason he chose Malibu for Rudy's recent adventure was to "get back" at some of the producers, directors and actors he has worked with over the years.

The character of the movie director whose deliberately bedraggled appearance belied his wealth was a composite of several older directors, "with a little bit of Willie Nelson thrown in," Overgard said.

With his untrimmed beard and tattered clothes, the director looked more like a shipwrecked sailor than the owner of the pretentious beach house that he described in one of the strips as "neo-class modern with ironic columns."

But "California state law says directors have to live in Malibu or El Segundo," Overgard said, quoting another of the strips.

"That's why Rudy went to Malibu."

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