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Popeye the Sailor Man based on cartoonist Segar’s Chester, IL hometown

Written By | Jul 8, 2021
Popeye, Mercer, Hines

ILLINOIS: “You learn something new every day,” as the old expression goes.  What if I told you the beloved cartoon characters Popeye, Olive Oyl and Wimpy were all based on real people who once lived in Chester, Illinois? Elzie Crisler Segar, better known as the cartoonist E.C. Segar, was an American cartoonist who lived from 1894 to 1938.  He was the creator of the Popeye cartoon character and was born and raised in Chester, Illinois, a small town in southern Illinois along the Mississippi River.

As a young man Segar moved to Chicago, Illinois.  

It was there he met cartoonist Richard F. Outcault, the creator of “The Yellow Kid” and “Buster Brown”.  Outcault mentored Segar and got him on at the Chicago Herald.  Then, on March 12, 1916, the Herald published Segar’s first comic, “Charlie Chaplin’s Comic Capers”.  This comic series lasted about a year.

In 1917, “Barry the Boob” was created which also ran about a year in the Chicago Herald. Segar and Myrtle Johnson, the Chicago-born daughter of Norwegian immigrants married that year as well.  They would go on to have two children Marie and Tommy.

In 1918, Segar moved to William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Evening American where he created Looping the Loop and worked as a second-string drama critic.  Segar’s reputation grew wider as he covered the 1919 World Series that fall.  He created eight cartoons for the sports pages.




“Thimble Theatre” was cartoonist Segar’s third published strip (1919) when it first appeared in the William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.  Segar created a fictional character, Castor Oyl in 1920 for Thimble Theatre. Castor Oyl was Olive Oyl’s older brother.  He was the protagonist of the strip for years before the first appearance of the Popeye character.

Popeye, Segar,

Thimble Theater Cast

1923 led Segar to move to Santa Monica, California, where it was said he spent a lot of time in meditation out on the pier. 

His favorite hobbies included “swimming, sailing, and fishing in the Pacific Ocean near his home.”  He was able to take up another pastime from his childhood: hunting/shooting.   It was said that at the local shooting club Segar even taught film movie star, Clark Gable, how to shoot skeet.

On January 17, 1929, Castor Oyl needed a mariner to navigate his ship.  Castor would pick up an old one-eyed sailor named Popeye.  Popeye’s first line in the strip, after being asked if he was a sailor, was “‘Ja think I’m a cowboy?”  Popeye stole the show and became a permanent star.

Some of the other notable characters Segar created to co-star with Popeye were J. Wellington Wimpy, Olive Oyl, and Eugene the Jeep, a dog-like pet.

Popeye was said to be a one-eyed, 34-year-old sailor who was born in a typhoon in Santa Monica, California, semi-deformed with a severe speech impediment.  Segar once said:

“Popeye is much more than a goofy character to me.  He represents all of my emotions, and is an outlet for them.  I’d like to cut loose and knock the heck out of a lot of people, but my size and good judgment hold me back.”

Popeye, mercer, hines

Frank “Rocky” Fiegel – the inspiration for Popeye

In 1932 “Bluto the Terrible” came into the series to be a constant antagonist to Popeye.  Bluto’s name would become Brutus in the theatrical shorts and television cartoons that would come later.

In 1933, Popeye received a baby in the mail he adopted and named “Swee’Pea”.  Popeye, with his speech impediment, would refer to Swee’Pea as his “adoptid infink.”

Popeye moves to the big screen

In 1932, King Features signed an agreement with Fleischer Studios to have Popeye and the other Thimble Theatre characters begin appearing in a series of animated short cartoons.  The idea was to play these shorts before the main feature movie would play in theaters.  Releasing the first cartoon in 1933.

Thereafter, Popeye cartoons played before Paramount Pictures’ main features and remained a staple of Paramount’s releases for nearly 25 years.

As an interesting aside…  In the old 1930s Fleischer Studios theatrical shorts, Popeye theatrical shorts,  Jack Mercer was the voice of Popeye and Margie Hines the voice of Olive Oyl.  Mercer was also the voice of Felix the Cat, a variety of Casper the Ghost characters, including Spooky Ghost and numerous other animated cartoons. Hines also had a full career as a voice actor, including another iconic animated female, Betty Boop.



Hines and Mercer would later live out the romance of their characters. They married in real life in 1939.  The couple having spinach for their wedding breakfast.

Popeye moves to King Features and television

After the original Popeye cartoons ended by the late 1950s a new, series of “Popeye” cartoons was issued by the King Features syndicate.  This series was more for the television market than the movie theater market and lacked the appeal of the originals to many.

Popeye was also marketed in a series of comic books as well as memorabilia including keepsakes and toys.

When visiting Chester, Illinois, today one can find many signs of Segar and his Popeye.

Dora Paskal – the inspiration for Olive Oyl

At the Evergreen Cemetery, one can find the gravestone of the inspirational model for Olive Oyl, Dora Paskel, 1872-1953.  Paskel owned a general store in Chester.

She is said to have been dressed and looked similar to Olive Oyl and was both tall and thin as well.

While at the St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery one can find the gravestone of the inspirational model for Popeye, Frank “Rocky” Fiegel, 1868-1947.  Fiegel was a Polish immigrant.  His work in Chester including a maintenance man, bartender, and bouncer in Chester watering holes.

In 1971 the National Cartoonists Society created the “Elzie Segar Award” in Segar’s honor.

According to the Society’s website, this award is “presented to a person who has made a unique and outstanding contribution to the profession of cartooning.”

In 1977 Chester, Illinois named a park after Segar.  The park contains a six-foot-tall bronze statue of Popeye.  Chester also hosts an annual celebration, The Popeye Picnic.  This weekend-long event has a parade, a film festival, and other activities.  The Popeye Picnic is the first weekend after Labor Day.

Starring Robin Williams as Popeye, in 1980 a live-action musical feature film, was the co-production of Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Productions.

In 1994 Spinach Can Collectibles, The Popeye Museum opens at the old Opera House of Chester, Illinois.

In 2006, Chester opened the “Popeye & Friends Character Trail”.  This walking route links a series of statues of Segar’s characters located throughout town.  Each statue stands on a base inscribed with the names of donors who contributed to its cost.

Popeye Remains Politically Incorrect Today!

While the reasons vary, here are some of the most common ones of both then and now:

Popeye smoked a pipe.

Popeye had tattoos.

Brutus would slap Olive Oyl around when he held her captive from Popeye.

Popeye mumbled adult humor.  Seeing Bluto disguised in drag once, saying “I’d take you home for $1.98.”

Olive Oyl insulted and berated Popeye verbally and was often a flirt and unfaithful to Popeye.

Olive Oyl, despite looking anorexic, actually hit and beat Popeye physically.

Popeye was once incapacitated and whistled for help through his empty eye socket in one episode.

Popeye made fun of some foreign-speaking people (Asian and Middle Eastern).

Popeye’s mumbling ad-libs (Seymour Kneitel allowed Jack Mercer’s ad-libs more than Willard Bowsky)

“Get up you female imperculator,” from Vim Vigor and Vitaliky.

“I hit an officer and broke the law. I think I broke his head, too,” from Cops is Always Right.

“These wimmen, half the time they can’t make up their minds, the other half they don’t know what they want,” from Cops is Always Right.

“I never made love in Technicolor,“ from Aladdin.

Popeye Shorts that were Banned After the War

“Spinach for Britain” (Hitler)

“You’re a Sap Mr. Jap”

The one thing we can all agree on about E.C. Segar is he was among the first cartoonists to offer children animated entertainment with humor for adults all in one cartoon.  He and his art became famous throughout the world!

When it comes to human nature and “fight or flight”, Popeye always chose the fight.  Some might argue with the wisdom of teaching that to children.

The one thing we can all agree on about Popeye, he helped kids learn to eat their spinach because they all heard his message, “Anyone who doesn’t like spinach is my emeny!!! ”

 

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Read more from Mark Schwendau

About the author:

Mark Schwendau is a Christian conservative patriot and retired technology professor (CAD-CAM and web development) who prides himself on his critical thinking ability. Schwendau has had a long sideline of newspaper editorial writing where he used the byline, “- bringing little known facts to people who simply want to know the truth.”

Mark is on alternative free speech social media platforms after lifetime bans from Facebook and Twitter and shadow bans from Instagram and Fox News commenting. His website is www.IDrawIWrite.Tech

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Mark Schwendau

Mark Schwendau is a Christian conservative patriot and retired technology professor (CAD-CAM and web development) who prides himself on his critical thinking ability. Schwendau has had a long sideline of newspaper editorial writing where he used the byline, “- bringing little known facts to people who simply want to know the truth.” Mark is on alternative free speech social media platforms after lifetime bans from Facebook and Twitter and shadow bans from Instagram and Fox News commenting. His website is www.IDrawIWrite.Tech