By Lese Dunton
Dick DeBartolo was dubbed MAD magazine’s “Maddest Writer” by its legendary publisher Bill Gaines, because he had written for every issue from 1966 to 2019. Known as DickDe, DeBartolo was born in Brooklyn in 1945 and grew up there. He moved to the Upper West Side in 1969 and has been here ever since. He lives and works in the same building on West 82nd Street, with his studio and apartment conveniently located down the hall from each other on the first floor. The studio is filled with memorabilia from the old MAD offices. The famous face of Alfred E. Neuman, the magazine’s mascot, is everywhere — on mugs, books, posters, hats, and toys. It was the perfect environment for an interview, when WSR visited recently.
DickDe is a warm and friendly fellow, with a big smile and moustache, who likes to see the humor in life.
WSR: Tell us about the very first time you submitted your work to MAD. You sent them something called, “The Ads We’d Like to See”?
DD: That was in 1960-something. They sent it back to me in my self-addressed stamped envelope. I was so depressed. And then later in the day I thought, well, I should open it, maybe it’s a note saying it’s almost good. I opened it and there was a check for a hundred dollars. Wow! The note said, “Ha, you thought your script got rejected. Here’s a hundred dollars. Please call us because we want you to write more.”
WSR: Where did Alfred E. Neuman come from, and what does Mad’s tagline, “What, me worry?” mean?
DD: Bill Gaines, who was the founder as well as the publisher, used to say the image of Alfred dates back to a dentist ad from the 1890s. The ad said something like: “I go to Dr. Romine, The Painless Dentist. What, Me Worry?” The character can be found in lots of old ads, but MAD gave him the name Alfred E. Neuman. There are lots of stories on how that name came to be. The one I like best came from Al Jaffee, creator of the MAD fold-in on the last page of every issue, and the famous Snappy Answers To Stupid Questions. Al said: “I suggested it because Alfred Neuman did hundreds of musical scores for movies; I added the E because it sounds better.”
WSR: What was it like working with Bill Gaines?
DD: It was great. Bill hated when Warner Media bought MAD and he made sure it was the only division that would not move into a corporate building. We had our own offices and we just had a great time. When Bill died in 1992, the Suits came over and they said, “This place looks like a high school newspaper.” We thought that was complimentary. “Bill put a wall between you and the corporate world,” they said. “Bill is dead. The wall is coming down. You’re going to have new offices. You’re not going to hang crap everywhere.” Oh my God. One of the women started crying. Our offices were at 485 MADison Avenue and shortly thereafter we had to move to 1700 Broadway, opposite the Ed Sullivan Theater. They finally relented and said that MAD would have half a floor of its own, and that people could do whatever they wanted in their offices as long as they closed their doors when they left. Also, everybody got a 40% pay cut. Then they moved to Los Angeles in 2017 and only did 10 issues before they closed and started just doing reprints.
WSR: So, periodically, when special editions of MAD magazine do come out, where can people find them?
DD: Barnes & Noble at 82nd and Broadway always has them. So it’s good to keep going in there to check. People can also subscribe at madmagazine.com.
WSR: What do you like about living on the Upper West Side all these years?
DD: When I first moved here Zabar’s was open until midnight every night. And then they slowly moved it back. Of course now there are so many blocks with closed stores. It’s kind of depressing. Fortunately, Riverside Park is still astoundinly beautiful.
WSR: How has Riverside Park changed?
DD: It is way more beautiful. I bought a bench in Riverside Park for Bill Gaines. We used to have all MAD’s New Year’s Eve parties on my 50-foot houseboat. Bill was eternally early and the marina was locked, so he’d sit on a particular bench. A friend would come and tell me, “Your heavyset friend from MAD is out on the bench.” So, when Bill died, I took pictures of it to send to the Parks Department. They said, “That bench is available.” So I had it devoted to Bill. It’s right in front of the marina near 79th Street.
WSR: You used to live at the marina?
DD: Well, I never lived there. It was just my office. My office was on a houseboat. Then it got wildly expensive, so I went down to a little 25-foot boat. I was there for around 50 years, until the marina closed two years ago.
WSR: What was it like to have your office on the water?
DD: It was wonderful. Early on, there were a lot of artists down there then — Richie Havens, Shari Lewis, the puppeteer who had a puppet named Lamb Chop, Hugh Downs had a boat for a short time, and a couple of other famous people.
WSR: How would you describe the Upper West Side and its people?
DD: I think there’s a vitality about the Upper West Side that doesn’t exist on the Upper East Side. And also, there’s a much bigger variety of people and the way they dress. On the East Side, it seems to be more businessey. I guess the thing about the West Side is that there are a lot of writers and artists and a great many colorful people.
WSR: Do you have any advice about living here?
DD: (Laughs) Just don’t jump the line — and behave, don’t antagonize anyone. Wear what you want.