WESTFIELD, NJ - By all accounts, Charles Addams was a slightly strange child growing up in Westfield in the 1920s. He was known to draw skeletons here and there around town, and he liked to walk from his home on Elm Street to the Presbyterian Cemetery on Mountain Avenue, where he would sit alone for hours drawing sketches on a pad.
Few would have predicted that he would become one of the town's most famous people -- a humorist, satirist and artist enjoying a new and renewed surge of popularity in 2010.
And, few would have predicted the latest honor bestowed on him Monday afternoon at Westfield High School, where he drew cartoons for the school newspaper and graduated in 1929. Seven-foot tall letters spelling out his name were unveiled to mark the Broadway opening of "The Addams Family Musical" on Thursday, April 8.
"He's blowing up right now," said Westfield High senior Pat Keville.
For those over 18, that means that Addams is enjoying a sudden rush of acclaim at the moment.
For starters, the Broadway show's been a huge hit during preview performances, grossing an eyebrow-raising $1 million-plus a week for the past three weeks at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on 46th Street.
Then there's the current exhibition of his cartoons and watercolors at the Museum of the City of New York, which runs through June 8.
And, there's Hollywood director Tim Burton, who often works with actor Johnny Depp, who's currently preparing an Addams Family 3-D movie to follow his recent 3-D success with "Alice in Wonderland."
Not bad for a kid from Westfield who died at age 76 in 1988, after marrying and divorcing a beauty contestant and later dating actresses and Jacqueline Onassis.
In his primetime, in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, he was famous the way John Stewart, Steven Colbert or Lewis Black are famous today. There was no internet, there was very little television. His cartoons and social commentary in The New Yorker magazine pushed the envelope for that day.
He was avant-garde. He was hip. He was weird. He was snide. He liked to show human nature's darker side. He especially liked cemeteries, that trait that began in Westfield.
"He became a real inspiration to a lot of people, not just in Westfield, and not just in the United Sates, but throughout the world," said Westfield High School principal Peter Renwick. "He presented a lot of clever ideas in a way that you might not expect them to be presented. He was funny and he was irreverent and he was odd, but he also tried to show us a little bit of what we're made of."
More than any other, yet another Westfield High grad, Ron MacCloskey, was responsible for Monday's Addams celebration. "I grew up in Westfield and I always admired Charles Addams," said MacCloskey, who became a performer-writer-producer in the public relations and advertising world of Manhattan.
"Unveiling these letters today is just the latest we can do. This man, Charles Addams, was very very big in America. He set the tone in his day."
In the past few days, MacCloskey has seen a preview performance of "The Addams Family Musical" and he pronounced it "great" and "hysterical."
The lead role of Gomez Addams is portrayed by Broadway icon Nathan Lane, perhaps best known to non-Broadway fans as starring opposite Robin Williams in "The Birdcage" movie. As for Broadway aficionados, Lane is regarded as royalty, including his Broadway-record performance aside Matthew Broderick in "The Producers," the most successful show in Broadway history.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Addams has never been represented in any way on Broadway. Not until now.