ED BLACK'S CARTOON FLASHBACK
THE LITTLE MAN AND THE
Although Segar shunned the limelight, he did manage to make a few public appearances. Here he is (on the right) on an unidentified radio show as Popeye defeats Lucifer Gorgonzola Butts, the Rube Goldberg comic strip character behind those famous inventions. The others in the photo are unidentified.
by Ed Black
Some, it seems, are meant to be syndicated cartoonists. The genes are there, the imagination kicks in, their characters are embraced by editors and readers alike, they draw a single feature for years, earn bushels of money and in many cases their characters are adapted by such media as movies, radio (in days gone by), TV, greeting cards, comic books and their images grace countless consumer products. They can do no wrong!
One in that elite category was a man who isn't as well-known as his characters, but who is revered by cartoonists: Elzie Crisler Segar (why not? His father's name was Amzie).
2004 marked the anniversary of the creation of Segar's most renowned character: Popeye the Sailor. Segar grew up in an out-of-the-way place, but the inspiration for his most successful graphic creations came out of that place.
Segar was born December 8, 1894, in the Mississippi River town of Chester, Illinois. His father was a house painter/wall paper hanger and all-around handyman who young Elzie would help when he wasn't in school. Segar lived a typical river town boy's life, swimming in and rafting on the great waterway. He also learned to play pool and cards, shoot a rifle, and hunt, skills which did not wane in adulthood.
He also learned to play a trap drum, a skill which earned him a position next to the piano player at the Chester Opera House to accompany silent movies and the vaudeville acts which passed through town. Segar started working at the Opera House at age 12 and after a time became the projectionist, cranking the film through the projector by hand.
What separated Segar from his peers was his interest in cartooning. The owner of the Opera House, a stout, tall mustachioed gent, Bill Schuchert, took a liking to his teenaged charge and when Segar expressed an interest in the W.L. Evans correspondence course in cartooning, Schuchert paid the $20 cost.
Segar attacked the course with wanton abandon, often falling asleep in his makeshift studio in his room at home practicing the lessons. During this time he sent a cartoon to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch with a note: "You should print this cartoon because my uncle works in your press room." The cartoon was rejected.
Segar completed the course in a year and a half and when he received his certificate in the mail, as far as he was concerned, he was a bona fide cartoonist. He headed for Chicago to seek his fortune.
In the Windy-City, he made contact with Richard Felton Outcault, creator of The Yellow Kid in 1895 for the New York World and who, since 1902, was drawing the famed Buster Brown Sunday page. Outcault had founded an advertising agency with an office in Chicago. Outcault steered 21-year-old Segar to the Chicago Herald and its flamboyant editor James Keeley. Segar was hired as a staff artist and the timing could not have been more perfect. Keeley had just negotiated a contract to syndicate a strip starring Charlie Chaplin. He called upon his newest employee to draw it. Charlie Chaplin's Comic Capers began March 12, 1916. It didn't last long, though. Readers would only accept Chaplin in one venue: films. The strip ended September 16, 1917.
A week later, Segar created a Sad Sack-type of strip: Barry the Boob. It was the era of World War I.
In mid-1918, William Randolph Hearst, who owned the Chicago American, bought the Herald and shut it down. Segar was transferred to the American where he created yet another strip, one that caught the attention of both readers -- and Hearst. Looping the Loop debuted June 1, 1918. Its subject matter was the nightlife in Chicago's nightclubs, restaurants and theaters. It was printed vertically. During this time Segar met and married a secretary, Myrtle Johnson.
Later in 1919, Hearst lost cartoonist Ed Wheelan who had been doing the Midget Movies panel, to the George Matthew Adams Service where he did essentially the same panel, but now entitled Minute Movies. To fill the gap in his comics roster, Hearst transferred Segar to New York and ordered him to create a strip in the same motif to be called Thimble Theater.
Segar's new strip began December 19, 1919, with the villain Willie Wormwood. The heroine was Olive Oyl and the hero was Harold Hamgravy. This format was short-lived. Out went Willie Wormwood; Harold Hamgravy became Ham Gravy and Segar created a short, bald brother of Olive he named Castor Oyl. With the parents Cole Oyl and Nana Oyl making occasional appearances, this was the Thimble Theater cast for ten years. Segar's drawing ability was borderline amateurish and mediocre, but Hearst, his director of comic art Rudolph Block, editors and readers never faulted him for that shortcoming. Segar shored up his drawing and storytelling abilities by just doing it, eight hours a day, six days a week so when the time came for his fame to take off, he was ready.
Left: Frank "Rocky" Fiegle, a man who was handy with his fists during Segar's youth in Chester, Illinois, is said to have been the inspiration for Popeye. It was said Segar sent Fiegle checks in the 1930s. Fiegle died in 1948 at age 79.
Right: Segar apparently possessed an innate mechanical ability. He is shown here in his home with a large camera device he used to reproduce drawings he would send to fans. It was featured in Popular Mechanics magazine in 1935 or 1936. Could this have been the predecessor of the modern-day photocopier?
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Segar did another strip in the 1920s, but not on his own volition. One of his friends at the New York Journal was Walter Berndt who would in 1922 create the daily and Sunday Smitty strip for the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate (under the aegis of the legendary Capt. Joseph Patterson), a feature destined to run for years. Both liked fishing. Berndt was doing a two-column strip called Then The Fun Began, inherited from Milt Gross. Both Segar and Berndt would finish their work by noon then steal away to an old pier on the Jersey side and spend the afternoon fishing and thinking up ideas. "We'd finish the day with a bunch of fish and about 15 or 20 ideas each," Berndt once said.
But as soon as Block caught on to what was going on, he approached Segar and sternly said, ''If you have time to go fishing, you have time to create another strip."
The result was The 5:15, about a commuter named Sappo and his wife, Myrtle. The strip debuted the last week of 1921, and was later changed to Sappo. It ran until February 17, 1925 as a daily, but Segar revived it on February 28, 1926 as the topper for the Thimble Theater Sunday page.
Segar moved his family to California in 1923 and lived in Hollywood at first while a new house on 17th St. in Santa Monica was built. It included an adjacent studio, but he also had a studio in a hotel at Fourth and Broadway in Santa Monica. It was in Santa Monica that Segar crossed paths with a teenaged Bud Sagendorf.
Sagendorf had been a resident of Santa Monica since age 3, living with his widowed mother and older sister. The mother had moved there from Washington state after her husband died. She opened a beauty shop. Sagendorf's sister worked at a stationery store and guess where Segar bought his supplies? When she told Segar of her brother's interest in cartooning, Segar invited him over to the house. Soon he hired Sagendorf as his assistant doing lettering and backgrounds. He asked Sagendorf only two questions before he was hired: Did he like fishing, and what type of books did he read? Sagendorf's answer to the first question was yes and 'science fiction' to the latter, and Segar enjoyed both -- probably the fastest job interview in history (Segar had already seen the young man's drawings, so he knew he could draw).
According to Sagendorf Segar 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. Sagendorf had to accompany him to take notes by the light of a Coleman lantern (could this have been a throwback to those New York days when he and Walter Berndt would fish off of that New Jersey pier, thinking up ideas?).
All was not constant work for Segar. He built a cabin and joined a duck hunting club in Oxnard, north of L.A. and also joined a skeet shooting club in Santa Monica where he hung out with the likes of Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. Segar taught Gable to skeet shoot.
Segar created Popeye in late 1928. He went to work that day with a bad cold, and later told Sagendorf if he had not worked that day, he may never have created Popeye. Some other character would have emerged from his imagination in that hotel studio.
Popeye debuted in newspapers January 17, 1929. Segar's intent was for Popeye to be a supporting character, intended to bow out when the sequence ended.
Segar turned to his youth for inspiration. There was a man in Chester named Rocky Feigle, who had a reputation for being handy with his fists. Thugs thought he'd be a pushover because of his short stature, but Feigle held his own. He worked in George Gozney's bar, sweeping out and straightening up the bar. He usually sat in a chair just outside the establishment. One day a group of five teen-aged toughs decided to lure Feigle to the woods behind the bar with the intent of robbing him. They did so, but when they tried to jump him, Feigle took care of three of them in short order. The other two, anticipating a similar fate, ran away. Feigle returned to his chair outside the bar, lit his corncob pipe and relaxed. Feigle died in 1947 at age 79. It's been strongly rumored over the years that Segar sent Feigle checks in appreciation.
On June 27, 1929, the sequence involving Popeye ended. Popeye left the strip and Segar moved on to the next sequence. At King Features headquarters in New York, however, the complaints began to roll in and never relented. "Bring back Popeye!" editors and readers demanded. Hearst editor/columnist/right-hand-man, Arthur Brisbane eventually dispatched a telegram to Segar: "Bring back Popeye!" he demanded. Segar obliged and Popeye returned August 5, 1929, and, as the old cliche goes, the rest was history. There was no looking back. Popeye became so popular that the two veteran characters, Castor Oyl and Ham Gravy, were written out of the strip. Olive was saved by her gender, becoming Popeye's girlfriend. By the mid-1930s Segar was earning $100,000 a year!
Another character Segar added to the strip, J. Wellington Wimpy, in the early '30s, was based on two real persons: one was his old boss at the Chester Opera House, Bill Schuchert, who had an insatiable desire for hamburgers. The other was a recalcitrant referee at the fights Segar, his wife and young Sagendorf frequented at the sports arena in Ocean Park, California. Fans would not only boo the ref, but also toss things at him in the ring -- including Myrtle Segar who pitched a shoe at him one night!
Over time, Segar's health began to suffer to the point when, in June 1938, his spleen had to be removed. He regained some strength, but went into a relapse.
He died at home on October 12, 938, at age 43. His death certificate, on file at the Los Angeles County Hall of records, lists the cause of death as portal cirrhosis, a liver disease. More than likely it was a form of cancer. Segar left his wife and daughter, Marie, 15, and son Tommy, age 11.
Popeye is perhaps the only non-Disney character to have more than one statue erected in his honor. The people in the spinach-growing area of Crystal City, Texas, erected a statue of the one-eyed sailor there in 1937, grateful that mothers all over the country bought spinach so their kids could ''grow to be big and strong like Popeye." Spinach sold as fast as the farmers could harvest it. Witnesseth the power of a cartoon character.
There is Elzie Segar Park in Chester, Illinois, Segar's hometown. Not only did residents honor their hometown boy with a park, a six-foot bronze statue of the one-eyed sailor was unveiled in the park June 25, 1977.
Both comics historian Bill Blackbeard and cartoonist/playwright/screenwriter Jules Feiffer consider Segar an unabashed genius.
"Basically, how you arrive at the existence of genius ... is the extent to which the creator's characters live beyond the creator's lifetime," Blackbeard said. "This is evident of Shakespeare and of Charles Dickens. Everyone knows who Ebeneezer Scrooge is; the same with Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear. With Segar you had characters who will live for a long time to come. You don't develop these universally appealing figures unless you have this quality."
"The stories," Feiffer said succinctly. ''It's the way he told those stories. He knew how to keep the readers coming back each day."
Feiffer is right. Segar's story-telling ability was not intermittent. He created storylines filled with both mystery and comedy, and unsavory and funny characters. Segar also had an innate mechanical ability. He invented a camera device which did not require film. He used it to reproduce drawings he sent to fans. The device was featured in Popular Mechanics magazine in 1937. Could it have been the forerunner of the photocopy machine?
Segar died at the height of his career, but became one of the top syndicated cartoonists in the history of the profession.
A King Features publicity photo of Elzie Segar in 1937 complete with autograph. In the late 1950s disc jockeys would finish their radio shifts, head for the TV studio and don similar headwear to host the Popeye cartoons for local television.
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Segar's death certificate on file at the Los Angeles Couny Hall of Records shows he died of portal cirrhosis, a liver disease, at 9:35 pm, October 13, 1938. He was only 43 years old.
When Segar died at his Santa Monica, California, home that evening in 1938, the news of his demise was dispatched by the wire services to newspapers throughout the world. This report was prepared and sent by United Press.
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