Before a face adorns a stamp, there are challenges to lick

The Baltimore Sun

What better way to send a letter to New York than by putting Old Blue Eyes on your envelope?

Yes, Frank Sinatra is getting his own commemorative stamp this year. The crooner, who died in 1998, smiles from under his trademark fedora on the first-class postage stamp.

The Chairman of the Board is not the only new face that will grace postage stamps in the new year. On the 100th anniversary of her birth, Bette Davis also will get her own stamp, the 14th in the Postal Service's Hollywood Series.

And so will Edwin Hubble, a pioneering astronomer whose painstaking studies of spiral nebulae proved the existence of other galaxies.

For half a century, countless people have been honored with their own commemorative stamp - including Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol and Harry Houdini. There are only a few criteria for the honor.

You have to be a U.S. citizen.

You have to be dead. Five years, no less, unless you're a president.

Oh, and you can't be a religious figure, either.

So how does one wind up on a stamp?

Stamp committee

The responsibility for choosing falls on the 15-member Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee appointed by the postmaster general. The committee receives about 50,000 suggestions from the public every year. Only 20 make the cut.

Academics, historians and designers look for subjects that are quintessentially American.

Fittingly, the most popular commemorative stamp of all time features one of the most popular Americans of all time - Elvis Presley.

But while you have to be a citizen to be on a stamp, you don't have to be famous. Ask Terry McCaffrey, manager of stamp development for the Postal Service in Washington.

"One of the fascinating aspects of my job is when a new subject is brought forward," he said. "I can't tell you how many times I've said, 'Who?' We try to use the stamp program as an educational tool, to get these people known and tell their story."

In 1995, for instance, the Postal Service produced a 20-stamp series on the Civil War. It issued stamps of Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and President Abraham Lincoln, of course.

But they also made a stamp of a man named Stand Watie.

Watie was the only American Indian to attain the rank of brigadier general during the Civil War and was the last Confederate general to surrender. On the back liner of Watie's stamp - as on selected other stamps - the Postal Service included a brief biography.

But choosing a subject for a stamp is only the beginning of the process. The next steps are securing the rights from the family and finding an artist to paint the portrait. Neither is easy.

While it's an honor to be asked to do a stamp, not all artists can pull it off. The Postal Service asks each artist to submit work that's between 5-by-7 and 8-by-10 inches, and the work is then reduced to postage-stamp size.

"Some artists have trouble working at the size because they do large murals or paintings," McCaffrey said. "We've actually had to reject work by some leading artists because it didn't reproduce well at stamp size."

One artist whose work reproduced well on postage is realist painter Dean Mitchell, who lived in the Kansas City, Mo., area for 27 years before moving to Tampa, Fla., in 2007.

In the mid-1990s Mitchell, a watercolor artist who has two paintings at the Kemper Museum, did a series of jazz stamps.

While he's not much into doing commercial work, his love of jazz wouldn't allow him to turn down an opportunity to immortalize (on postage, anyway) Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Louis Armstrong.

"Who's going to turn down a brilliant man like Louis Armstrong?" he said.

Getting the rights

But before you get an artist, you need the rights. That's the most difficult part of making a stamp.

McCaffrey, the stamp development manager, tells stories of delicate negotiations that sometimes take years.

While securing the rights for the Elvis stamp was relatively easy, getting them for John Wayne was like roping a wild mustang. It took 3 1/2 years to persuade Wayne's oldest son to drop his demand for money.

"We said, 'It's a stamp, not a licensed product,'" McCaffrey said.

And it's an honor, he said.

"Aside from currency, postage stamps are the only other way of being on U.S. securities," McCaffrey said.

It all worked out in the end.

Other times, the negotiations concern how a subject will be portrayed. Boris Karloff's widow didn't want her husband shown as Frankenstein's monster or the Mummy. She wanted him shown as he really looked.

The two sides eventually reached a compromise, agreeing to show Karloff as the famous movie monsters while including the line "Boris Karloff as ..." on the stamps.

They also included a few stamps at the top of each sheet of Karloff as he really looked.

When McCaffrey negotiated with Henry Fonda's widow, he got a tour of his house.

"And I'm a movie buff," McCaffrey gushed. "This is the best job I've ever had."

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