“Segar grew up in an out-of-the way place but the inspiration for his most successful graphic creations came out of that place.”
“I’m strong to the finich
Cause I eats me spinach
I’m Popeye the Sailor Man ”
Popeye’s theme song written and composed by Sammy Lerner
Thanks to the Google Popeye doodle I saw last night I’ve discovered one more example of a big success coming from a small place. I’m not sure if any of the decades of comic strips or the 350+ TV shows that feature Popeye explain where he was from, but Popeye’s creator had solid small town Midwest roots.
E.C. Segar was born and raised in Chester, Illinois near the Mississippi River in Southern Illinois. According to Wikipedia Segar provided music to films and vaudeville acts in the local theater and for a while was a projectionist in the days before talking pictures.
When he was 18 he signed up for a correspondence course in cartooning that cost him $20. (Keep in mind this would have been before World War 1.) After work he would work on his courses where he said he, “lit up the oil lamps about midnight and worked on course until 3am.”
His skill and hard work took him to Chicago and New York were he succeeded creating comic strips. In the 1920s while working at the New York Journal he had an unusual way to come up with ideas. He and fellow cartoonist Walter Berndt (creator of Smitty) would finish their work in the morning and spend their afternoons fishing off a pier in New Jersey. Berndt was quoted as saying later, “We’d finish the day with a bunch of fish and about 15 or 20 ideas each.”
When Segar moved to Santa Monica in 1923 he carried on that idea fishing tradition along with his teenage assistant Bud Sagendorf. Ed Black wrote, “According to Sagendorf Seger had a rather unusual method of thinking up ideas. He’d sit in a rowboat twice or three times a week from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m off the Santa Monica breakwater, fishing and thinking. Segendorf had to accompany him to take notes by the light of a Coleman lantern.”
(That’s great imagery. If you’re stuck on a story idea you may want to give that a try.)
In 1928 Segar created Popeye in his Santa Monica studio though the inspiration appears to be a man from back in his hometown of Chester named Rocky Feigle. He was short, worked in a bar, smoked a corncob pipe and was known to use his fists a time or two. Popeye first appeared in 1929 and helped pave the way for Segar to earn $100,000 a year in the 1930s. (And Popeye not only found lasting fame, but helped promote the eating of spinach.)
Segar didn’t just create a great characters, he knew how to tell stories. But it is the Popeye the Sailor that is his lasting legacy. An odd character with a couple anchor tattoos on his forearms, one-eye, a corncob pipe, a slight speech impediment and a desire to eat spinach out of can which gave him super human strength who has earned his place on the iconic fictional shelf with Mickey Mouse, James Bond and Scrooge.
Back in Chester, Illinois they have a six-foot, 900 pound bronze statue of Popeye at Elzie C. Segar Memorial Park to honor their hometown boy who made good on his $20 correspondence course in cartooning. And though most people have probably never been to Chester, or even heard of it, legend has it that both literary giants Mark Twain and Charles Dickens stayed there.
As you drive around your town or city today think of the interesting characters there or that have crossed your path in the past and perhaps you’ll find your Rocky Feigle who will be the basis for your Popeye. And perhaps someday your hometown will create a bronze statue in honor of your creation.
Dream big, start small.
Bud Sagendof who took over the Popeye comic strip after Segar died had a book published in 1979 called Popeye:The First Fifty Year which you can find on Amazon.
Update: According to The Handbook of Texas Online Popeye said he was born in Victoria, Texas. Apparently Segar was grateful to the town’s paper for being the first to run the comic strip Popeye. In 1934 anniversary issue of the Advocate Segar wrote a note to the newspaper’s editor as Popeye saying, “Please assept me hearties bes’ wishes an’ felitcitations on account of yer paper’s 88th Anniversity….Victoria is me ol’ home town on account of tha’s where I got born’d at.”
And to add one more illustration into the persuasive means of the media, the Texas Handbook also declared that, “The spinach industry credited Popeye and Segar with the 33 percent increase in spinach consumption from 1931 to 1936, and in 1937 Crystal City, Texas, the Spinach Capital of the World, erected a statue to honor Segar and his sailor.”
Scott W. Smith
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