The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Elzie Segar, the pioneering cartoonist who created Popeye, will be inducted into the 2018 class of honorees.
Elzie Crisler Segar was born in Chester in 1894. He was the youngest son of Amzi Segar, a local house painter. His early jobs included work at Chester’s Opera House, where he played drums to accompany silent films, ran the movie projector, and drew cartoon slides to play between reels. Early encouragement from the theater’s owner, Bill Schuchert, helped him complete a correspondence course in cartooning.
Elzie’s earliest professional work came in Chicago, where he worked for two newspapers in the midst of World War I. One of his unusual early assignments involved drawing comic-style highlights of the games during the infamous 1919 World Series. His work gained the attention of King Features Syndicates, a company producing and syndicating comic content to papers all over the country. He and his wife, Myrtle, moved to New York, where he developed his most famous comic strip, Thimble Theatre, for the company. Several of the characters in the strip, including Olive Oyl and Wimpy, were inspired by residents of Chester.
As Elzie’s cartooning career continued to flourish, he and his young family moved to California, settling in Santa Monica. In 1929, an unexpected inspiration took his comic strip to new heights of popularity. While developing a new storyline for Thimble Theatre, he dreamed up a sailor character based on a Chester man, Rocky Feigle. The supporting character, Popeye, soon became one of the most popular parts of the comic strip, and readers clamored for more. Popeye was soon the leading character of the strip, and Olive Oyl was his new sweetheart. The success of Popeye meant increased syndication for Thimble Theatre, and even in the middle of the Depression, Elzie became a wealthy man.
Unfortunately, less than a decade after dreaming up his most famous creation, Elzie died in California after a lengthy illness. He was only 43 years old. Popeye and the rest of the Thimble Theatre gang have lived on through the work of other cartoonists, and new Popeye strips are still being published every Sunday. Popeye and his friends have been featured in numerous television shows, films, games, and marketing campaigns. Memorials to Elzie’s work are found all over the country, but nowhere is he celebrated more than in his native Chester. The town’s annual Popeye Parade is a local fixture, and tourists can now also visit the Popeye & Friends Character Trail, a series of character statues placed near various Chester businesses and landmarks.
It’s particularly appropriate that Elzie’s characters remain his greatest legacy. For Elzie, Popeye and his friends were beloved companions, as real as any of the people in his life. One obituary notes that Elzie “lived with his characters, and talked about them as he would about any near acquaintance. He insisted that he could not manipulate his characters, but ‘just let them do what they wanted to do.'” The life that he breathed into those madcap creations, generated simply by paper, pencil, and the power of the artistic mind, continues to provide joy and laughter to countless people both around the world and in his hometown today.