Eighty-nine years ago, Popeye the Sailor appeared for the first time in Elzie Segar’s “Thimble Theater”, a newspaper comic strip revolving around the lives of Olive Oyl and her extended family, including her brother Castor and then-boyfriend Harold Hamgravy.
The strip was around for ten years or so, when Olive & co. decided to recruit a sailor to get them to the casino on Dice Island. Approaching a rough looking character on the docks, “Popeye’s” first line was “Ja think I was a cowboy? He was supposed to be an extra, but he became so popular he soon developed into the center of the strip.
Like Olive, who was patterned after the real-life Dora Paskel, the one eyed, fighting, pipe smoking sailor was based on a real man: Chester, Illinois boxer Frank ‘Rocky’ Fiegal. The boxer didn’t mind being associated with a cartoon character. When Fiegal died in 1947, his gravestone was inscribed with the words “inspiration for Popeye.”
Before spinach, Popeye gained his superhuman strength patting the head of a magical “whiffle hen” named “Bernice”.
Back in 1870, a misplaced decimal point in a scientific journal led readers to believe that spinach had ten times the iron than it actually does. Some ideas die hard. Sixty years later, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those people still believed it to be true.
Bluto beat our sailor up in 1932 and tossed him into a spinach field, with predictable results. Following that episode, spinach sales increased by 33%. At one point, children voted spinach their third favorite food, behind turkey and ice cream.
To the everlasting joy of depression-era spinach producers, Popeye found extra muscle in the leafy vegetable, ever since. On March 26, 1937, Crystal City, Texas spinach producers unveiled a statue of Popeye, the first time in history that a statue had been erected in honor of a cartoon character.
Popeye’s pet “Eugene the Jeep” first appeared in a 1936 strip called “Wha’s a Jeep?”. Eugene was sort of magical dog who could go anywhere. Five years later, military contractors worked to develop the iconic off-road vehicle of WWII. Like Popeye’s pet Eugene, the General Purpose GP (“Jeep”) could go anywhere. Eventually, the name stuck.
Jeep isn’t the only word we get from the Popeye cartoon franchise. The inveterate moocher J. Wellington Wimpy, who would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today, gave us the word “wimp” and the burger chain that goes with it. The comic strip introduced a character called “Dufus”. To this day, a Dufus (Doofus) in the American vernacular is a “silly fool, a dimwit, or a stupid person”,
Just about every cartoon character who ever was, appears in the 1988 “Who framed Roger Rabbit”, except for Popeye. Disney didn’t forget him, the problem was that they couldn’t get legal permission to use the character, from Paramount Pictures.
Cartoonist E.C. Segar (rhymes with cigar) passed away back in 1938, but his characters live on. Over the weekend of January 16-18, 2004, the Empire State Building was lit up spinach green, a tribute to the 75th anniversary of Segar’s favorite character. Weight Watchers put out a series of spinach recipes. There was even a ceremonial “official adoption” of the orphan sea waif Swee’ Pea, during National Adoption Month (November).
On December 8, 2009, Google featured the character to honor the birth of his creator, Elzie Crisler Segar. Google’s famous Doodle appeared along with the mouseover text, “E.C. Segar’s Birthday.”