ATHENS THRU THE YEARS
Buster Brown Comes to Athens
By Anne Adams
If you and your family have ever been to Disney World you’ve no doubt seen the various costumed characters who pose for pictures – characters that appear in Disney movies and other media. Yet as we enjoy our children’s response to the fantasy of maybe meeting Mickey Mouse or Cinderella rarely do we ever wonder “Is that the real Mickey or Cinderella?” No, we understand that a person dresses in a costume and just assumes a role.
This, of course, is a timeless concept and was the idea that when Athens had a visitor named Buster Brown.
If you’re a so-called “baby boomer” then you probably remember the name Buster Brown as a brand of shoes and it was in that role that kids in the 1950s knew him when he appeared on TV commercials in cartoon form. “’I’m Buster Brown and I live in a shoe!” He sang, “And this is my dog Tige and he lives there, too!”
However, to the children of Athens he not only represented a brand of shoes but he actually came to town, as reported in the Athens Weekly Review of May 1, 1925. The reporter related: “Circus Day could not have proved more popular with the kiddies than the visit to Athens Monday of Buster Brown and his famous dog Tige.”
The pair attracted a crowd when “…over 500 kiddies crowded into the Dixie Theater this afternoon to see the two perform.” During the show, the pair (Tige was a pit bull type of dog) performed tricks and showed a travelogue film that “proved popular with the kiddies.” Buster “impressed on them the importance of wearing Buster Brown shoes and at the same time pointed out that they could buy them only from the Owen-Broom Dry Goods Co., exclusive agents in Henderson County.”
Earlier Buster visited a local elementary school to distribute tickets to the Dixie event where there “was a scramble” and, later accompanied by a “trail of kids,” Buster also visited the offices of the Athens Review.
Some ten years later Buster and Tige again came to Athens where the reporter in the March 29, 1934 Review described them as the “famous dwarf and his equally famous dog ‘Tige.’” The reporter seems to have forgotten the 1925 visit when he wrote, “The  visit recalled the first time that Buster and Tigue [sic] were in Athens back in 1906 when they appeared under the auspices of the Dr. B.P. Adams store here.”
So again, who was Buster Brown – aside from the shoes?
Created in 1902 as a comic strip by Richard F. Outcault, Buster Brown was depicted as a boy, dressed in a smock and trousers. With a big floppy bow at the collar, he also had a pageboy haircut and wore a broad-brimmed hat. The name probably came from vaudeville child actor and later silent film star Buster Keaton. Various artists continued to produce the strip over the next few years.
According to the ongoing storyline in the strip, Buster was depicted as the son of a wealthy family who though eerily cute actually played pranks on others. He was boyishly tricky, and though he was often punished, it was never clear if he actually felt remorse. For example, in one strip he was having a soda at a soda fountain with Tige when he splashed some of his drink on a nearby woman. And though his mother punished him, in the last panel of that strip he posted a sort of moral to the story: “Resolved! That druggists are legalized robbers; they sell you soda and candy to make you ill, then they sell you medicine to make you worse.”
In 1904 when Outcault was at the St. Louis World’s Fair seeking buyers for the licensing rights to his characters, he encountered John Bush of the Brown Shoe Company who persuaded his company to use the Buster Brown name. To portray the character on the tours, the company often employed a short-statured actor – or “dwarf” – along with a pit bull-type dog, as to make those personal appearances.
Later in the 1940s and 1950s, Buster Brown was the subject of various comic books, as well as films, and even a Broadway play. In the latter, a dwarf actor played the role, and Tige was performed by a man in a dog suit.
The radio version of Buster Brown began in 1943 as a part of the “Smillin’ Ed McConnell” program and then moved to television in 1950. It was there that Buster’s cartoon version sang his famous song so well remembered by that generation.
The shoes are still widely available both in stores and online.