AMESBURY — Three decades ago, cartoonist and radio personality Al Capp drew his colorful L'il Abner cartoon strip characters from a studio space overlooking Amesbury's Market Square.
Now thanks to a handful of locals, his characters will soon be re-emerging on the downtown scene. A new mural honoring Capp's life and work has just been completed, crafted by artist Jon Mooers, who transformed the sides of two downtown Amesbury buildings with historic memorials to John Greenleaf Whittier and Amesbury 's Carriagetowne past.
Though the contents of the four-panel piece will remain a secret until an unveiling ceremony on May 15, it is believed many of Capp's most memorable characters are depicted in the new life-size mural, which is laid out in comic strip style, with Capp's life story retold via text bubbles throughout.
The mural will grace the archway in Market Square, which opens up to the Upper Millyard amphitheater and is the site of acoustic concerts and sidewalk entertainment shows.
Chamber of Commerce director Stefanie McCowan said the mural was painted under the watchful eye of Capp's daughter, Julie Cairol, who grew up in the family's homestead on Whitehall Road just over the Amesbury line in South Hampton and still lives there today.
"Because we're having the Amesbury First festival on May 15, we decided that would be the perfect day for the unveiling of the mural," McCowan said. "The whole thing is a cartoon, but the bubbles tell of his story. Nobody's really seen the final-final except for Jon Mooers and Julie."
The mural is being underwritten by Jay Gould of Gould Insurance and Flatbread Pizza Co., whose office building is adjacent to Capp's old downtown space and is part of a larger effort of some townspeople to mark the spot where Capp spent so much of his time.
Despite his fame, which made his comic strip characters like Daisy Mae, Shmoo and Wolf Girl household names, there is little in the town of Amesbury, short of Capp's unmarked home and tombstone, to tell visitors that Al Capp once lived and worked here. Another effort is being made at the Town Hall level to honor his name in a more permanent fashion, since the mural that will be installed in the archway will be a movable one.
In a letter to the Municipal Council last week, the Amesbury Chamber of Commerce asked councilors to consider naming the Upper Millyard Amphitheatre the "Al Capp Amphitheatre" and commemorating it with a permanent plaque in the artists' name.
"As I'm sure you are aware, Mr. Capp was the creator of the immensely popular L'il Abner comic strip," wrote Chamber President Curtis Wollitz. "L'il Abner was created in 1934 and as an immediate hit. At its height, it was estimated to have a peak audience of somewhere around 60 million readers."
Wollitz is hoping the council will approve the request in time for the May 15 mural unveiling, which he and others feel would be a perfect tie-in to that event. And while councilors expressed the need to follow the town's naming policies, they have generally been supportive of the idea, McCowan said.
"They're totally for it," she said. "But there's policies and procedures that have to be followed. We think we might be a little too short on the time frame. We may be able to do it as a separate event. It's still to honor him, and we're excited about that."