By Fred Grandinetti
On January 17, 1929, cartoonist E.C. Segar created a sailor to help Castor Oyl and Ham Gravy in an adventure at sea. Castor Oyl is the brother of Olive Oyl and Ham Gravy her original boyfriend. The sailor was named Popeye who was only intended for one story in Segar’s Thimble Theatre comic strip. However, the sailor’s comedic personality, his heroic stature and values won over depression-era audiences. Castor Oyl became a secondary character and Popeye replaced Ham Gravy as Olive’s boyfriend.
The sailor’s popularity was carried to overwhelming heights of fame when animation producer Max Fleischer began the Popeye the Sailor short subject series in 1933. While Segar used spinach sparingly in the strip, the sailor ate it regularly on film to keep Bluto in line. When the 234 theatrical films debuted on television in September of 1956, they were a smashing success. A new generation discovered Popeye the Sailor and his passion for the green vegetable. Thousands of children were told to eat their spinach by their parents to become healthy.
Popeye’s association with spinach was later strengthened by a series of 220 television cartoons produced by King Features Syndicate in 1960. The sailor continued to promote good nutritional habits for an additional series of television cartoons produced by Hanna Barbera beginning in 1978. Today over 500 Popeye the Sailor cartoons air internationally and have become a favorite viewing habit on You Tube.
In 1965, Popeye brand spinach, produced by Allen Canning, appeared on supermarket shelves and remains to this day. A study in 2010 revealed that children increased their vegetable consumption after watching Popeye cartoons.
Segar passed away in 1938 but the strip has been continued by others including Tom Sims, Bela Zaboly, Bud Sagendorf, Bobby London and Hy Eisman. Eisman produces a new Sunday page each week and spinach continues to remain Popeye’s favorite food to promote a healthy lifestyle.
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Courtesy of Fred Grandinetti, Ed Black’s Cartoon Flashback (Segar with hat), Wikipedia (1929 Popeye & Segar with glasses), Keith Badowski (Fleischer cartoon)