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‘The Family Circus’ cartoonist alone but not forgotten

'The Family Circus' cartoonist Bil Keane, 83, stands in his Paradise Valley home, where many of the cartoon strip's ideas came from.

'The Family Circus' cartoonist Bil Keane, 83, stands in his Paradise Valley home, where many of the cartoon strip's ideas came from.

PARADISE VALLEY – From the brightly patterned orange couch to the wood-paneled walls, the living room of Bil Keane’s Paradise Valley home has hardly been touched since 1960, when he moved in with his family.

The retro look is back in style, so the famous cartoonist is now more fashionable than outdated, for which he thanks his wife’s decorating skills.

“It must have been my wife’s clairvoyance if that’s the case,” Keane said.

Not that style is a concern of Keane.

The living room isn’t about what people sit on, after all, but rather who sits there.

The 83-year-old sweeps his arm across the long, windowed room and proclaims its purpose.

“This is where ‘The Family Circus’ grew up.”

For more than four decades, Keane has been responsible for the never-aging cartoon family of Billy, Dolly, Jeffy and PJ (based on his five children), along with their mom and dad, grandparents, dogs Barfy and Sam, and their feline, Kittycat.

He’s made famous the dotted line, the mischievous children and the family friendly humor.

Family Circus appears in more than 1,500 newspapers worldwide, more than any other syndicated comic strip.

Keane’s favorite room is his studio. After all, that’s where the magic happens.

“Hardly,” Keane said with a laugh.

One of his favorite memories is from the 1970s when he and wife, Thel, short for Thelma, threw a cocktail party for their friends.

Erma Bombeck, then a syndicated humor columnist, came, and the two comedic artists laughed into the night.

Ten years ago, the National Cartoonist Society held its annual convention in Scottsdale and the Keanes rolled out the red carpet for a final-night dinner at their place.

Cartoonists and their spouses made up a 400-strong guest list that included the Keanes’ close friend, “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz.

What Keane remembers most about the living room is that his five children played on the couch that sits in the room today.

The family was looking for a moderately priced home when they moved to Paradise Valley from Philadelphia in 1960.

“We were hoping (to find a house) for around $25,000,” Keane said.

The asking price on the house they wanted was $42,500, and so the Keanes took out two mortgages.

What sold them was the view of Camelback Mountain out the wide doors that surrounded the living room.

As the children grew, so did the home.

Each summer, the family would add on – a rec room one year, tennis courts the next. Thel did most of the designing.

“She had an eye for what could be done,” Keane said. “She was always very inventive, had all kinds of ideas.”

Furniture made in Arizona in the 1960s, including the solid wood dining and coffee tables, accented the old stove lamps and original oil paintings by magazine cover artist JC Leyendecker that the Keanes brought with them from Pennsylvania.

Through the decades of raising their children, the Keanes’ living room has held strong, never changing, only getting quieter.

It’s a bittersweet place now for Keane to sit and reflect only with Gopher, his 8-year-old yellow Labrador retriever.

Seven years ago, Thel was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and Keane recently made the heartbreaking decision to move her to an assisted-living facility in Scottsdale that specializes in caring for Alzheimer’s patients.

“Sometimes, I walk through the house with tears in my eyes,” he said. “I talk to Gopher, but he doesn’t answer.”

Life marches on, and when Keane is feeling down, he chases Gopher around the living room or reads some of his endless fan mail. He’ll autograph cartoons and send them off, moved by letters about children who learn to read through his cartoons.

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This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

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For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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