I Yam What I Yam: The Story of Popeye

The following is an article from Uncle John’s All-Purpose Extra Strength Bathroom Reader.

What cartoon character was so influential that he convinced kids to eat vegetables? Popeye the Sailor Man… Toot toot! Here's the story of how he was born.


In 1919, the New York Evening Journal hired a cartoonist named E.C. "Elzie" Segar and told him to create a comic strip called "Thimble Theater." That's all the guidance he had -the rest was up to him. He came up with a weird bunch of characters: a scrawny, gawky old maid named Olive Oyl; her boyfriend Ham Gravy; her loopy brother Castor Oyl; and her parents Cole and Nana Oyl.

The strip's popularity grew steadily over the next ten years, and as time passed Segar graduated from telling  a new joke in each strip to developing story lines that went on for weeks, months -and sometimes even years. In 1929, he came up with a story in which Ham and Castor decided to set sail in search of a legendary creature called the Whiffle Hen.

Neither Ham nor Castor knew anything about sailing, so they went down to the waterfront to hire a sailor to take them on their trip. In the June 17, 1929, strip, Castor walks up to a scrappy, one-eyed man with a captain's hat and asks him, "Are you a sailor?"

"Ja think I'm a cowboy?" the sailor replies. Popeye the Sailor Man was born.

Segar never intended for the sailor to become a permanent addition to the strip. When the Whiffle Hen story line ended several months later, he retired the character from Thimble Theater. But so many angry readers wrote their newspapers demanding that Popeye be returned to the strip that Segar decided to comply. A few months later, Olive gave him a kiss (on the cheek), and Popeye instantly fell in love. Segar demoted Ham Gravy to a minor character, and Popeye replaced him as Olive's main love interest. Segar also renamed the strip "Thimble Theater, starring Popeye."


The early 1930s was a period of fierce competition among American cartoon animation studios, which were hard at work building up minor cartoon characters into "stars" with strong popular appeal that could be used to increase theater bookings and fatten studio profits. Walt Disney Studios did it with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy; and Warner Brothers would do it with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. A company called Fleischer Studios, headed by brothers Max and Dave Fleischer, had a very popular character named Betty Boop, and was looking for other characters to develop.

Popeye was Max Fleischer's favorite comic strip, and in November 1932 he approached an executive with King Features Syndicate, the company that owned the Popeye strip. "You know, this is a nutty little creature, but I thinkI could do something with it," he told them.

"Out of that ugly looking thing?" the executive supposedly replied.

"The funnier he looks," Max Fleischer replied, "the better the cartoon will be."

Fleischer decided to test Popeye's appeal by featuring him in a Betty Boop cartoon. But fearing other studios would steal his idea and create their own sailor characters, he locked animator Roland Crandall in a studio, where Crandall spent the next several months animating the first Popeye cartoon by himself, in secret.


(YouTube link)

Betty Boop Presents Popeye the Sailor was a huge hit when it premiered in the summer of 1933 and a succession of Popeye cartoons followed over the next several years. Together, the cartoons and newspaper comic strips launched a huge Popeye fad; by the late 1930s Popeye eclipsed even Disney's Mickey Mouse to become the most popular cartoon character jun the United States.

At its peak the Popeye craze was more than just a fad -it was a cultural phenomenon. The comic strip, which appeared in 638 newspapers around the country, was responsible for adding the words "jeep" and "goon" (both characters in the strip) to the English language; and spinach farmers credited Popeye's popularity with causing sales of spinach to rise 33% between 1931 and 1936, saving them from ruin during the Great Depression.


Fighting was part of Popeye's persona from the very beginning. He was the most violent in the earliest days of the comic strip, when he cussed, started fights, and often hit animals, people, and inanimate objects with little or no provocation. The scrappiness of those early cartoons were well suited for the audiences of the 1930s and 1940s. Bud Sagendorf writes in Popeye: the First 50 Years: "Though today it may seem brutal, Popeye's outlook was a natural reaction of the times. A population frustrated by the Great Depression liked the idea of one small man fighting back and winning. They, too, wanted to strike out at something they feared and didn't understand."

But as Popeye's popularity with children grew throughout the 1930s, King Features Syndicate owner William Randolph Hearst ordered Segar to tone down the cursing and the violence and make the strip more suitable for children. Popeye stopped cursing, but remained just as violent as ever, only now instead of fighting for no reason, Popeye always fought for what was right -no longer a brawler. Thanks to Hearst, Popeye was now a full-fledged hero.


Popeye's intemperate nature served him well during the 1930s and the 1940s, when he and Bluto were given white U.S. Navy uniforms so that they could aid in the war effort. Popeye cartoons were a TV staple in the 1950s and 1960s, but the same thing that had made Popeye popular during the Great Depression and World War II -violence- started to work against him, and his popularity slid in the 1970s and 1980s as parents began to worry about the amount of violence there children were watching on television.

A 1980 feature film starring Robin Williams was an even bigger dud. (Popeye was Wiliams' first feature film, and was so poorly received that many film critics predicted it would be his last.)

Popeye received a makeover in 1987: He traded in sailing in favor of owning a health club, was married to Olive Oyl, and had a son named Junior (no word on what happened to Swee'Pea). Likewise, Bluto was married to a woman named Lizzie and had a son named Tank. The new series, called Popeye and Son was such a ratings disaster that it was pulled off the air ofter only 13 weeks.

According to one poll taken in 1991, Popeye had slipped to 92nd in a national poll ranking the popularity of cartoon characters.


The old Fleischer Studios cartoons remain popular on cable television, but all attempts to "freshen up" Popeye have failed.

"Poor Popeye. While other classic characters are going strong, Popeye has missed the boat… The 67-year-old comic strip, once in hundreds of U.S. newspapers, now appears in just seven… These days, even the Popeye's Chicken & Biscuit chain has erased the Popeye cartoon from signs and packaging in its U.S. restaurants." -The Wall Street Journal, 1996

"There''s only so much you can do with a guy in a sailor suit." -Cathleen Titus, spokesperson King Features


* The Popeye theme was written by Sammy Lerner. For years, he refused to admit publicly that he composed it- though he made a fortune from it, and it was probably his best known song.

* Segar needed an explanation for Popeye's super strength. In the late '20s, health specialists were extolling the benefits of spinach as a super-food (erroneously, it turned out -due to a mistake made in calculating the amount of iron spinach contains), so Segar attributed Popeye's power to the vegetable.

* Popeye is known as "Iron Arm" in Italy, and "Skipper Skraek" or "Terror of the Sea" in Denmark.

* Bluto vs. Brutus: Popeye's arch-enemy never appeared in "Thimble Theater." Fleischer Studios needed a regular villain to compete with Popeye for Olive Oyl's affections, so they asked Segar to come up with a composite of all the characters Popeye ever fought. Segar came up with Bluto. But when King Features ordered a new batch of "made for TV" cartoons in 1960, a dispute arose over whether King Features owned the rights to the Bluto character. Rather than risk a lawsuit, they replaced the character with Brutus, who served as Popeye's enemy until 1978, when the situation was resolved and King Features was free to use Bluto again.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's All-Purpose Extra Strength Bathroom Reader.

The 13th book in the series by the Bathroom Reader's Institute has 504 pages crammed with fun facts, including articles on the biggest movie bombs ever, the origin and unintended use of I.Q. test, and more.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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