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.
Unbeknownst to Keane, the retro look is back in style, so the famous cartoonist is now more fashionable than outdated, for which he thanks his wife’s decorating skills.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,” says Keane.
Not that style is a concern to Keane. The living room isn’t about what people sit on, after all, but rather who sits there.
With a warm smile and a twinkle in his eye — the kind all grandpas that you want to immediately hug have — 83-year-old Keane 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, cat Kittycat and dogs Barfy and Sam. 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, including the Tribune, more than any other other syndicated comic strip.
When we asked Keane what his favorite room in his home was, his first answer was his studio. After all, that’s where the magic happens (“Hardly!” says Keane with a laugh). But upon arriving at his sprawling four-bedroom home at the base of Camelback Mountain, he informed us he’d changed his mind.
“I want to talk about the living room,” he says. “This is where everything happened.”
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, the syndicated humor columnist, came, and the two comedic artists laughed into the night.
“There were wall-to-wall people,” says Keane about the party.
And 10 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, cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, famous for Peanuts.
“We had a dance floor and three bars,” says Keane. “Igor and the Jazz Cowboys played. There was a catered buffet.”
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,” says Keane. But 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 arcadia doors that surrounded the living room.
At first, the room was fairly empty. “The first furniture we had was old lawn furniture,” says Keane with a laugh.
But 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,” says Keane. “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 Saturday Evening Post cover artist JC Leyendecker that the Keanes brought with them from Pennsylvania.
Through the decades of raising five children — all are now grown, and most have children and artsrelated careers of their own — 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.
That’s because 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 says. “I talk to Gopher, but he doesn’t answer.”
But life marches on, and when Keane is feeling a bit 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 Family Circus.
“It touches you,” he says. “You know then it’s more than just a passing comic.”
Keane pens six new family-friendly cartoons a week in his home studio.
He doesn’t plan to stop working, or redecorate, anytime soon. And every so often, he’ll walk through the living room, channeling endless memories as inspiration for his other family — the cartoon one.
“I have more ideas on little slips of paper than I’ll ever use,” he says.