Leapin’ Lombard! ‘Little Orphan Annie’ tours, exhibit celebrate her 100th birthday and suburban roots

“Orphan Annie ‘splains ‘bout new home” read the headline in a Chicago newspaper.

Along with her scruffy sidekick, the comic strip character appeared not in the funny pages but in the real estate section in 1927. With her usual sass, Annie told readers her “boss,” cartoonist Harold Gray, bought a home with a big yard out in DuPage County.

“It’s a pretty town, yuh oughta see it,” she said.

Gray penned “Little Orphan Annie” while living in Lombard, first on Stewart Avenue and then in that grand Main Street home. His comic strip would take on a life of its own, spawning a radio show sponsored by Ovaltine, a Broadway musical, films, red-dressed yarn dolls and countless school productions.

Ahead of Annie’s 100th birthday this August, the Lombard Historical Society is celebrating the plucky redhead with an exhibition on her place in pop culture, the man who brought her to life and his landmark Italianate-style residence.

“Annie” fans of a later generation could imagine the perpetually sunny heroine and her dog Sandy reveling in this Victorian-era house: “I think I'm gonna like it here!”

  Lunchboxes, dolls and other “Annie” memorabilia are on display in “Leapin Lizards! A Hundred Years of Little Orphan Annie,” an exhibition presented by the Lombard Historical Society. Brian Hill/

Jill Carroll, the modern-day owner of the home, was working in the yard many years ago when curious visitors walked up the driveway and asked “when the next tour is.” No, it’s not a museum.

But come June 22, Carroll and her husband Martin will welcome people to do just that — tour the main floor of their preserved family home.

By her count, the house has 80 original tiles — a dozen in blue in the foyer and 68 sepia ones along the main hall, up the staircase and along the upstairs hall. One tile shows Antony and Cleopatra. Another represents a scene from Aesop’s fable of “The Fox Dines with the Stork.”

Four season tiles are in the entryway of the “Little Orphan Annie House” in Lombard. Courtesy of Jill Carroll

“They did amazing work on the house,” said Alison Costanzo, the executive director of the Lombard Historical Society. “They really have a love and care for the house. And it’s quite lovely.”

The couple agreed to open the doors for the Little Orphan Annie House Walk in honor of the “Annie-Versary” and to support the historical society. Costanzo expects tickets to sell out and called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to see inside the home, built in 1881 for Dr. William LeRoy, who made artificial limbs for Civil War veterans.

Gray, who wrote and illustrated the long-running syndicated comic strip, only lived there for a few years and moved out in 1929. But throughout Lombard, the home, one of the finest in town, is still called the “Little Orphan Annie House.”

Annie turns 100

The museum exhibition, “Leapin Lizards! A Hundred Years of Little Orphan Annie,” traces the evolution of the character from her 1924 debut in the New York Daily News to the big screen. If you only know her as a dancing orphan alongside a bald Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks, you might be surprised to learn Gray’s stories sometimes had a political bent, even layers of poignancy.

  “There’s something iconic about Annie and the nuances of Annie,” says Alison Costanzo, the executive director of the Lombard Historical Society. Brian Hill/

“The comic strip is very different than how we perceive Annie now,” Costanzo said.

The Purdue-educated Gray had a Dickensian way of naming characters based on what they did in life, including William Tell the reporter and Herb Root the druggist. Gray set a few rules for Annie.

He didn’t want her to grow up. And he didn’t want her to have a happy ending.

Gray’s first wife, Doris, a schoolteacher, died after a long illness in 1925. They never had any children.

“In Annie’s early adventures, she constantly met couples that wanted to have children, but couldn’t,” reads a display panel in the historical society’s Carriage House, the home of the exhibition.

Cartoonist Harold Gray poses with his first wife, Doris, in front of their 215 S. Stewart Ave. home, which also will be featured in the “Little Orphan Annie House Walk.” Courtesy of Lombard Historical Society

Playing on repeat in one corner is the old-timey theme song of the “Little Orphan Annie” radio series. The show premiered on WGN in Chicago in 1930.

Those who tune into the 24-hour marathon of “The Christmas Story” each year on TV will recognize the images of decoder pins used by members of “Annie’s Secret Society.” In that movie, Ralphie learns the ways of the world by decoding a “crummy commercial” for Ovaltine (a candle in the historical society gift shop smells just like the chocolate malt drink). But in real life, the encrypted messages usually revealed a “clue to the next episode,” Costanzo said.

Also on display is Gray’s well-worn travel writing desk, with his little doodles on the side.

Since opening in April, the exhibition has drawn people who remember the 1982 movie version of “Annie” and kids who’ve performed the musical.

  The Lombard Historical Society’s Carriage House, behind the Victorian Cottage Museum, is the home of the “Leapin Lizards! A Hundred Years of Little Orphan Annie” exhibition. A mannequin wears the white-collared red dress that appeared in a 1980s Sears catalog. Brian Hill/

“They all have a reference,” Costanzo said.

Character, craftsmanship

Jill and Martin Carroll were living near Wrigley Field when they saw a picture of Gray’s one-time Main Street house in the Chicago Tribune and a reference to Annie, but they didn’t “really understand what it all meant” until a real estate agent told them about the history of the home.

“It needed a lot of work, and that’s sort of what made it work for us,” Jill Carroll said.

The couple purchased the home in the late 1990s and gradually brought it back to its former splendor. They removed the aluminum siding covering the whole exterior of the house. The damaged areas were replaced with cedar siding, the same material as the original.

The couple, parents of three daughters, re-created the coach house by consulting historical society photos “because, again, everything that was here has to come back,” said Martin Carroll, an attorney.

“Old homes have so much character and craftsmanship and just the amount of detail that they would spend on the plaster, in the woodwork, in the stained glass on the windows — it’s just so much work,” he said.

“Little Orphan Annie” creator Harold Gray lived in Lombard during the 1920s. The Lombard Historical Society is celebrating the village’s connection to the classic comic strip with an exhibition open now through December. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The dining room has a tulip motif, as seen in the leaded stained glass windows. What would have been Gray’s drawing room has a “very masculine arrow pattern” in it, Jill Carroll said.

The prior owners bought full-page comic strips dated the years Gray resided in the home he bought for his parents. One of the comic strips, Jill Carroll said, shows a curved banister and stairwell.

“We like to think that he was modeling that particular comic strip off of the house he was living in,” she said.

Gray’s first home in Lombard, off Stewart Avenue, also will be featured in the house walk.

“The homeowners are just so proud of their homes,” Costanzo said. “They’re great caretakers. They have a great respect for the history of who’ve lived in their houses and just how special they are.”

“Little Orphan Annie House Walk”

What: Step inside the former Lombard homes of “Little Orphan Annie” cartoonist Harold Gray

When: Saturday, June 22

Where: Guided tours start at 10 a.m. and run every 15 minutes until the last tour at 4 p.m. of the home at 215 S. Stewart Ave., where Gray created the comic strip in 1924. For tours of 119 N. Main St., reserve your time slot (no walk-ups are allowed) at Tours are limited to the main floor at both sites.

Tickets: $50 per person. Guests must be 12 and up.

Details: The Lombard Historical Society event is held in partnership with the Lombard and Villa Park Kiwanis clubs.

  Alison Costanzo, the executive director of the Lombard Historical Society, says the “Annie” exhibition features artifacts from the society’s collection, along with items on loan from Northwestern University, Purdue University and the Boston University Library. Brian Hill/
  With the “Annie-Versary” coming up in August, the Lombard Historical Society has created an exhibition, “Leapin Lizards! A Hundred Years of Little Orphan Annie,” examining her influence on pop culture. Brian Hill/
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