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A History of Popeye: From Newspaper Hero to Silver Screen Star!

Written and Researched by Popeye connoisseur Fred Grandinetti.

In honor of the spinach-loving-sailor’s 90th birthday, we’re giving our readers a special look into Popeye’s history, and the history of the comic’s creator, E.C. Segar. Our many thanks to Fred Grandinetti, noted Popeye connoisseur and founding member of the Official Popeye Fan Club, who wrote this article.

Born on December 8, 1894, and raised in Chester, Illinois, E.C. Segar knew he wanted to be a cartoonist at a young age. By age 18, he was enrolled in a correspondence course. Eventually, he moved to Chicago, where he met The Yellow Kid creator, Richard F. Outcault.

The connection with Outcault proved fruitful, as the cartoonist introduced Segar to The Chicago Herald, where Segar would produce his first comic strip, Charlie Chaplin’s Comedy Capers; which ran a little over a year. Shortly after, Segar worked for King Features Syndicate and created Thimble Theatre for The New York Journal in 1919. The strip’s original leads were precursors to now iconic figures of Olive Oyl, her scheming brother, Castor, and Ham Gravy. This trio headlined the strip for about a decade.

On January 17, 1929, Segar decided that his character Castor needed a navigator for his trip to Dice Island in one of his storylines. Who better for Castor to meet than an odd looking fellow called Popeye? Upon asking the man if he is a sailor, to which the man replies “ja think I’m a cowboy?” a legacy was born.

Originally, Popeye was intended for only one story, but the newspaper-reading public fell in love with the pipe-smoking sailor man, leading to his permanent appearance in the series. A character who didn’t take guff from anyone, Popeye had superhuman strength long before Superman put on his tights.

All the best stories have a hint of truth to them, and the cast of Popeye characters are no exception. For example, Chester, Illinois resident Frank ‘Rocky’ Fiegel, was a pipe smoking man with a penchant for fistfights, the perfect model for a new, larger than life headliner. Fiegel’s wife, Dora Paskel, was an unusually tall and thin woman who wore her hair in a bun, just like Popeye’s beloved Olive Oyl. And William Schuchert? He was a theatre owner, who loved hamburgers and became the inspiration for moocher, J. Wellington Wimpy. Segar went on to create other memorable characters for Thimble Theatre including Popeye’s The Sea Hag, the ever-frightening Alice the Goon, Eugene the Jeep, and Poopdeck Pappy, Popeye’s father.

Although Segar passed away in 1938, he is still regarded as one of the most influential and talented cartoonists of all time, among the first to combine humor into long running adventures. Though difficult to fill Segar’s shoes, successors Doc Winner, Tom Sims, Bela Zaboly, Ralph Stein, Bud Sagendorf, and Bobby London, kept the strip going and eventually added their own creations, giving the strip new life. Today a new Popeye strip is produced by veteran cartoonist Hy Eisman, and can be viewed here.

Despite his success in newspapers, Popeye is most widely recognized from his career in animated films. In 1933 Max Fleischer put Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto in one of his Betty Boop films. A huge success, the sailor went on to star in his own series shortly thereafter, with one important change. In the comic strip, Popeye rarely ate spinach, but Fleischer enhanced this character trait, making it a staple of the animated films. By 1938, polls showed that Fleischer’s Popeye cartoons were more popular than Disney’s Mickey Mouse.

Beginning in 1942, Famous Studios took control of producing Fleischer’s animated cartoons, keeping them in high demand at the box office. The success of the theatrical cartoon series was in no small part due with the talented individuals who supplied the voices for Popeye (William Costello and Jack Mercer), Olive Oyl (Mae Questel and Margie Hines), and Bluto (Gus Wickie and Jackson Beck). In fact, it is the mumblings of Jack Mercer as Popeye that are remembered by audiences today.

When the theatrical cartoons produced by Fleischer and Famous Studios debuted on television in September of 1956, Popeye mania swept the country with hundreds of new Popeye products hitting shelves. Nearly every television station had a live host introducing Popeye cartoons. Gus Bernier, for example, host of the New Hampshire based program, The Uncle Gus Show, would introduce the sailor by cranking up his Popeye jack-in-the-box.

Between 1960 and 1962, King Features Syndicate created a television division and churned out 220 cartoons made for the small screen. Beginning in 1978 and airing until 1984, CBS broadcasted new Popeye cartoons produced by Hanna-Barbera for CBS, a huge success for the network. Popeye and friends returned to the big screen in 1980 when Robin Williams starred as the sailor in the feature film, Popeye. The film co-starred Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, Ray Walston as Poopdeck Pappy, Paul Dooley as Wimpy, and Paul L. Smith as Bluto.

There have been other attempts of bringing Popeye back to the small screen including Hanna-Barbera’s Popeye and Son, and a CGI adventure which aired during his 75th anniversary. Cartoon Network’s The Popeye Show was the most successful as this anthology series aired the theatrical cartoons restored as they appeared in theatres.

Today, Popeye has a highly successful Facebook page managed by King Features Syndicate located here. Warner Home Video also recently released a DVD of his early color films produced by Famous Studios, and a preschool version of the sailor and his pals is in production, poised to introduce him to a new generation.

To some, Popeye acts as a “strength figure,” an icon who is much more than a guy who downs spinach to bop assorted bearded brutes. In print, Popeye would often stop a brawl to remind an opponent that, despite their size or strength, they can’t win because of corrupt values. On film, several hundred of his cartoons would conclude with Popeye singing a song with lyrics featuring an important lesson. Whatever Popeye represents to you, there is little doubt that he is an iconic symbol for the American public.

Today we invite you to raise a can of spinach juice and stream some of his old classics here as we all celebrate our favorite cartoon sailor through the ages — Happy 90th Birthday Popeye!


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