- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Well, blow me down..

It’s Popeye’s 75th birthday. And a fat lot of respect the old tar gets, too.. Once, he was more popular than Mickey Mouse. Today, he’s relegated to a 2 a.m. Sunday time slot on the Cartoon Network.

“But they can run a ‘Scooby-Doo Marathon’ in prime time,” says Fred Grandinetti, co-founder of the Official Popeye Fan Club. “Isn’t it sad?”

Yes, that squinty-eyed, spinach-snarfing, pipe-smoking sailor first swaggered into the newspapers — and America’s hearts — on Jan. 17, 1929.

In his heyday, Popeye spawned an animated cartoon franchise that went head-to-head with the Disney studios. When repackaged for TV, these early black-and-white features gained a new generation of fans and ultimately inspired a live-action movie starring Robin Williams as the well-muscled mariner. When the film flopped, however, Popeye almost vanished from public view.

King Features Syndicate seems to be making a concerted effort to revive Popeye’s fortunes this year with loads of PR and a new animated feature on tap. But die-hard Popeye fans are still wondering whatever happened to all those classic cartoons they used to love.

It’s partly a matter for the lawyers. Warner Bros. owns most of the animated cartoons, according to Mr. Grandinetti. Yet King Features owns the rights to the actual character. “For years and years, nobody has been willing to do anything to rescue the cartoons from legal limbo” and issue a collectors’ DVD set, Mr. Grandinetti complains.

Jerry Beck, a noted expert on animated features and president of Cartoonresearch.com, also blames the demands of the contemporary marketplace. “There hasn’t been a lot of urgency. Most media companies today are interested in the latest marketable thing, like the Powerpuff Girls and SpongeBob,” he says.

Popeye first appeared as a bit character in “Thimble Theater,” a newspaper comic strip penned by cartoonist E.C. Segar. A native of Chester, Ill., Segar introduced the strip to the New York Evening Journal in 1919 and filled it with a cast of eccentrics largely based on people he had known while growing up.

Thimble Theater featured the picaresque adventures of spindly Olive Oyl, her brother Castor, and her hapless boyfriend, Ham Gravy. On Jan. 17, 1929, Segar introduced a plot twist that involved Ham and Castor hiring a ship and crew to set sail in search of the legendary Whiffle Hen. Serendipitously, one of the sailors they signed on was a grizzled mariner called Popeye. When asked if he was a sailor, Popeye shot back, “‘Ja think I’m a cowboy?” A working-class American hero was born.

Popeye grew in stature, soon learning he could derive super strength by rubbing the Whiffle Hen. But at the end of this episode, Segar retired the character. And readers howled. Segar was forced to bring Popeye back, and the feisty sailor replaced Ham as Olive’s love interest. He also got top billing in the strip, now retitled “Thimble Theater Starring Popeye.”

Popeye attracted the attention of Hollywood types, and King Features cut a one-shot deal with animator Max Fleischer’s studio to bring Popeye to the silver screen. The sailor-man made his debut in a 1933 Betty Boop cartoon titled “Betty Boop Presents Popeye the Sailor.” It scored a hit, and King Features gave Fleischer the go-ahead to do more Popeye cartoons.

Fleischer added a stock villain, Bluto, who had been only a minor character in Thimble Theater. And he dispensed with the inconvenient Whiffle Hen. Popeye now obtained his super strength by gobbling a can of spinach, winning the undying gratitude of Depression-era farmers. Crystal City, Texas, America’s unofficial “spinach capital,” even erected a statue honoring Popeye.

By 1938, Popeye was America’s most beloved cartoon character, but things were about to change for the Fleischer studio. The studio released two unrelated feature-length cartoons that tanked at the box office and it was forced to fold.

Other studios picked up the franchise, unnecessarily updating and softening Popeye’s gritty character. But the sailor-man got a big boost when his old black-and-white cartoon classics began appearing on children’s TV shows in the 1950s and 1960s, drawing in a new generation of fans who watched, laughed, ate their spinach and garbled their grammar.

But by the 1970s and 1980s, King had begun to neglect its franchise, according to Mr. Grandinetti. Content to reap profits from deals licensing Popeye’s image to products as disparate as canned spinach and fried chicken, King stood by as its once-popular Popeye comic strip ran in an ever-dwindling number of newspapers across the country while the vintage cartoons disappeared from public view.

Eager to arrest the slide of his favorite character, Mr. Grandinetti co-founded the Official Popeye Fan Club in 1989. It soon attracted a legion of vociferous fans, and it now includes a Web site (www.popeye-thesailor.com) and an online shop for purchasing memorabilia and souvenirs.

Due at least in part to the club’s constant pressure, the Cartoon Network has begun to air the “The Popeye Show,” which includes nicely restored black-and-white prints along with trivia quizzes and facts. Popeye also runs on the premium Boomerang network of vintage cartoons.

Things might be improving for Popeye’s beleaguered partisans. This past weekend, King Features brought a live Popeye character to New York City to press a button illuminating the Empire State Building in spinach green to celebrate the sailor’s 75th. They are also preparing a 3-D animated Popeye holiday special to air this fall on Fox. “It’s been in the works for quite a while,” says King Features president Rocky Shepherd, “and we’re all very excited about it.” A longer version of the half-hour program will be issued on a collectors’ DVD just before to the program’s airing.

How about a DVD of the original cartoon classics? The issue is still unresolved, Mr. Grandinetti says. Mr. Beck hints that peace talks between antagonists at Warner Bros. and King may be under way. Any agreement might include restored footage and the usual DVD goodies.

Mr. Shepherd confirms that “conversations are going on with Warner and King about doing some DVD releases” for the home-video market. The topic is touchy, however, and precise details remain hard to come by.

Meanwhile, Popeye fans can look forward to a revival of their character this fall. “There’s never been a better time” to put Popeye back in the limelight, Mr. Shepherd enthuses. “Popeye is an all-American good guy that everyone relates to. He helps the downtrodden.”

The revival can’t happen soon enough for downtrodden Popeye fans.

“It’s time to rescue the old cartoons,” says Mr. Grandinetti. “It’s time to give the people what they want.”

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