I’ve never had a long conversation with Neal Adams, though I’ve seen him and exchanged a few words several times at various conventions. Neal was at the San Diego Comic-Con this year, and I wanted to ask him about Ira Schnapp, DC’s main logo and cover lettering designer for many years. Schnapp was on staff at DC from about 1949 until 1968, working in the bullpen, or shared area, and Neal was also there for about the last two of those years, starting in 1967 I believe (maybe 1966). While Schnapp was a staffer, Adams was drawing freelance artwork, but often spent time in the bullpen doing it. I was hoping Neal might have some personal memories of the Ira and his work, and he did. While I wasn’t able to record our conversation, and therefore can’t quote him directly, what follows is, to the best of my memory, what Neal had to say about Mr. Schnapp. And I have to add that, once the subject came up, it brought a warm smile of remembrance to Neal’s face, and the comment, “I loved Ira.”
Neal told me that he became interested in lettering himself while working in advertising early in his career, and he lettered the Ben Casey strip he did from 1962-66. He learned from an old master. “Was that Ira Schnapp?” I asked. No, Neal said. He met Ira later, at DC Comics.
When Neal worked in the bullpen at DC, Schnapp was there, and he loved to talk and tell stories about his life. Many people found this annoying, but Neal enjoyed Ira’s stories and talked with him often. In addition to all the logos, house ads and cover lettering he’d done for DC, Ira had crafted all kinds of lettering for many clients, and it was those other jobs he most wanted to talk about. When he realized Neal was interested, Ira brought in examples he’d saved of some of that early work, which Neal said were mind-boggling.
The first example Neal mentioned were some large, folded up tissue or vellum layouts. Neal said Ira took them out, and started unfolding them, and unfolding them further, until huge letters were revealed, or in some cases just parts of letters. Neal’s jaw dropped with amazement as he told me these were from the work Schnapp did designing the huge carved letters on famous New York City buildings like the James A. Farley Post Office Building on 8th Avenue between 31st and 33rd streets.
Here’s a closer look at some of the carved inscription, which many think is the post office motto, but in fact it was chosen by one of the architects. This monumental façade was built in 1912. Not a lot is known for sure about Ira Schnapp, but his birth in Sassow, Austria is certain, and his birthdate I’m now sure was Oct. 10, 1894. That would mean he was just 18 years old when the Post Office lettering was designed. Ira came to America with his family in 1900. Jack Adler, who also worked with Ira, reported he was well educated with a background in the classics, though one census record says he had only two years of high school. What training he might have had in lettering design, if any, is unknown.
Neal and I talked a bit about how such a young man, and an immigrant, might have been given the opportunity to do such important work, but of course we can only speculate. At the time, crafts like this were generally learned through the apprentice system, where a young person would become an unpaid or poorly paid assistant to someone already working professionally. That might have happened though a family connection, perhaps Ira worked with someone doing this kind of work already, showed great aptitude, and rose quickly to the top. Or it could have been an opportunity that came through an art teacher at his school.Then again, we don’t know if he was the only person designing those giant letters, or part of a team.
“Do you think he also carved the letters?” I asked Neal, and he said emphatically, no. Ira was not a carver, he was an artist, a designer. He formed the letters using those tissues, and the carvers transferred them to the stones and carved them. This makes sense to me, as I always thought it odd that Schnapp would excel in carving at a young age, but not stay with it. So, reports on Wikipedia and elsewhere about this are wrong.
I don’t think Neal and I spoke of it, but other sources like Jack Adler have said Schnapp also did this kind of work on the New York Public Library Main Branch on 5th Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets. There’s an example above. The construction dates for this building begin earlier, 1905 to 1913, so if Ira did work on it, this might have been the first job like this he did. Again, we don’t know if he was working alone or with a team of designers, but the latter seems likely to me for such a young person. While the letters on both buildings are Roman in style, the ones on the Post Office are more traditionally Trajan, while these seem to show a bit more individual flair that does remind me of Ira’s work.
Neal said Ira also spoke about working on large lettering for Grand Central Terminal at 42nd Street and Park Avenue. this building was constructed between 1903 and 1913. The only large letters I know of on the outside are the ones above, similar in style to those on the Post Office.
There are also letters like these inside in a different style, but perhaps from the same period. All three projects were going on around the same time, and if Ira did work on these three, it was certainly work to be proud of. In 1914 World War I began in Europe, which probably put a damper on such elaborate projects for a while. Nothing is known for sure about Ira’s activities then, but perhaps he found work doing smaller lettering and logos for other commercial markets.
Film title cards is something Ira might have done. Most films were being made in California, but Thomas Edison’s studio in New Jersey could have employed someone like Ira for work like this. The film above is from 1910, Edison films continued until 1918.
Theaters also used lobby cards like this one to advertise films, but again, they were supplied by the movie studios, usually in California, and generally involved more elaborate art.
Individual theaters also hired letterers to make show cards like these to promote films. I think these are more recent examples, but they illustrate the kind of thing Ira probably did, and Neal remembers Ira bringing in a box full of show card lettering samples that he said were impressive.
Movie magazines like this one (and many magazines of all kinds) also used hand-lettering on their covers, which would be right up Ira’s alley. Pulp magazines were another market that I believe Schnapp was involved in at least by 1934, when he started working for the Trojan Publishing Company, owned by Harry Donenfeld and Jack Leibowitz, the men who were publishing Superman and Batman comics a few years later, and very likely Schnapp’s entree into doing logos for comics, beginning with his SUPERMAN logo, based on Joe Shuster’s original design, in 1940.
Still in the movie theater business, Neal Adams told me Ira designed huge title lettering signs for Radio City Music Hall’s premiere of “King Kong.” Neal said these very large signs were set up in the lobby on bamboo poles meant to fit the theme of the film. I haven’t been able to find any photo examples, but Ira continued to do that kind of giant showcard work for the theater at least as late as the 1941 release of “Mighty Joe Young.” It might have looked a bit like the sign above, though from Neal’s description, much larger lettering.
Another arena for hand lettering was advertising, both for newspapers and magazines, and in the store windows themselves, like the example above. All this work may have come under Schnapp’s pen and brush between 1914 and 1941.
This Ira Schnapp draft card from an article on Dial B for Blog shows that in 1941 he lived at 515 West 110th Street in New York, was self employed, and worked in what must have been his studio (perhaps shared with others) at 442 West 42nd Street, near the center of mid-town Manhattan. Ira had already begun working on logos for National Comics, the home of Superman and Batman, but that was probably only a small part of his freelance work. Though I have no hard evidence, I put his joining the DC staff at around 1949 because that’s when his work on covers and house ads suddenly takes a huge leap until, by 1950 he’s doing nearly all of it, as far as I can see. But Ira may well have been working on story lettering for the company before that.
Neal Adams and I talked a little about Ira’s cover lettering. Neal doesn’t think it’s very good, calling it too old-fashioned. “I love that work,” I told him, but Neal pointed out it was on the comics when I was a kid, and that’s why. He could be right, I suppose.
When Neal first began spending time in the DC bullpen in about 1967, Ira was still the main guy for logos, house ads and covers, but that began to change soon after. Gaspar Saladino had been working for the company since late 1949 lettering stories. He was very talented, showing a natural flair for dynamic lettering design, and was also a high-school classmate of Carmine Infantino. When Carmine took over the editorial reigns, he started shifting the prime lettering tasks to Gaspar. Ira was years old in 1967, and from the evidence of his work, his design capabilities were failing. Some is not nearly as good as work done even a few years earlier. Carmine kept Ira on for a while, but in 1968, he let Ira go, which as Neal said, meant he was sending him home to die. Ira did die in July, 1969. Neal feels it was a great shame, and that Carmine should have and could have kept Ira on staff longer, even if he was only given less challenging tasks.
Neal wonders what happened to those samples of work Ira showed him. “I wish he’d given them to me,” he told me. “He might have, if I’d asked.” I suspect they were thrown away when Ira died. Census records have revealed Ira had a wife named Beatrice, who he married in 1918, and two children named Martin and Theresa. Perhaps surviving family members, if any, know more about Ira than I’ve yet discovered.
I had a great time talking to Neal about Ira, and though I never met him, I now feel a little better informed and closer to the man who, in many ways, set the style for logo designers and letterers who came after him, including myself. Thanks, Neal.