An artist and writer who took inspiration from the small town where he grew up, Elzie Crisler Segar continues to entertain audiences around the world with his most famous creation, the spinach-loving sailor Popeye.
Elzie was born in Chester, Illinois, on December 8, 1894, to Amzi Segar and his second wife, Erma Crisler Segar. The family lived in a home on Harrison Street, near Chester’s steep City Steps. His father made a living painting houses and hanging wallpaper, a business he was eager to have his youngest son join. But although he did help his father in his interior work, Elzie was already drawn toward other kinds of artistic expression. He worked locally as a photographer, a window dresser, and even a musician. On top of all of that, he worked at the local movie theater, Bill Schuchert’s Opera House.
Elzie’s time at the Opera House provided valuable inspiration for his later artistic pursuits. One of his fellow employees, Jessie Huffstetler, who played the piano music for the silent films on show, remembered Elzie, who accompanied her on the drums: “Occasionally Elzie would have a rest period and go to the projection room and Red would permit him to operate the projector. At that time the reel had to be rewound before the next picture could be shown. Elzie used his creative ability by making slides to be thrown on the screen during this period. Often he used local people and events for this cartoon. For one such slide he used a local young man knocking on the door, calling on his girlfriend. Of course, everyone knew who the young man was because he made the face to look just like him.”
The cartoon slides that Elzie drew for the movie theater weren’t the only comic art pieces that he was working on. In a later profile, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that Elzie “had heard of the large salaries paid to popular cartoonists, and tried to break into the business himself. He drew a cartoon, a darn good one, he considered it, and sent it to a St. Louis newspaper. It came back, immediately.” (The paper that rejected Elzie was reportedly none other than the Post-Dispatch itself.) Undaunted, Elzie looked for ways to improve. With a $20 loan from Bill Schuchert, and more than a year of effort, he finished a correspondence course in cartooning. Diploma in hand, Elzie headed for Chicago, looking for a newspaper job. Although he was ambitious and goal-oriented, he remained a friend to the people in his hometown. Huffstetler remembered him as “shy, very quiet and frail. His eyes were large but soft and I could see kindness in them. He often smiled quietly when we played soft music. His spare time was spent in drawing, and I shall always remember the wide brimmed straw hat he wore in the summer.”
In Chicago, Elzie was quickly hired by the Chicago Herald. He inherited an existing comic strip, Charlie Chaplin’s Comedy Capers, that had been running in the Herald since 1915. Elzie’s first daily strip ran on Leap Day in 1916, and he made his Sunday strip debut in the paper on March 12, 1916. His first original success came about a year later. Barry the Boob, set during World War I, ran in the Herald from September 1917 until April 1918, when the paper was bought out by newspaper giant William Randolph Hearst. Elzie found work at another Hearst publication, the Chicago Evening American, where he created a locally-themed comic strip, Looping the Loop. He also worked as one of the paper’s drama critic and even contributed to the sports pages, drawing a series of comics during the infamous 1919 World Series.
As Elzie gained more and more confidence and prominence as an artist, he began offering lessons to young cartoonists-in-training. The extra money was surely helpful at home: in May 1917, he had married Myrtle Johnson, the Chicago-born daughter of Norwegian immigrants. By 1919, the Segars packed up and made a major move. On the recommendation of his Evening American editor, Elzie was hired by King Features Syndicate, a print syndication unit of the Hearst company. There, Elzie struck a comic gold mine. He dreamed up a third original strip, Thimble Theatre, which featured a cast of characters in daily vignettes. The earliest regular characters included Olive Oyl; her boyfriend, Harold “Ham” Gravy; and her brother, Castor Oyl. The strip debuted in a Hearst paper, the New York Journal, on December 19, 1919. The comic wasn’t an instant hit – instead, it slowly but surely built an audience. By 1925, people close to home were able to read Elzie’s new strip for the first time in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Those from Chester who did read Thimble Theatre may have recognized themselves within its panels. Just as he did when drawing slides for the local movie theater, Elzie turned to the residents of his childhood home for inspiration for the new strip. Jessie Huffstetler noted, “Segar loved his hometown and studied the characteristics of many of the people, and from these experiences, came ideas for some of his characters. I feel sure that Thimble Theatre was so named from memories of his associations and experiences at the Opera House.” Elzie’s old boss, the hamburger-loving Bill Schuchert, was reportedly an inspiration for Wimpy. A 2004 New York Times article named the local inspiration for Olive Oyl: Dora Paskel, who “looked like the character she inspired, but was otherwise unlike the daffy and devoted Olive Oyl. Children watched her long, shadowy figure behind the counter at the general store she owned, but they would seldom go in.” Olive Oyl’s father, Cole Oyl, was apparently named for local businessman C.B. Cole.
While writing Thimble Theatre, Elzie also found time to create another comic strip for King Features. The Five-Fifteen would prove to be as enduring as Thimble Theatre, running for nearly two decades. Later re-titled Sappo, the strip featured a character named “Myrtle” after Elzie’s wife. Although the husband and wife in Sappo were constantly at comedic odds, Elzie’s marriage was a much more contented union. In 1923, the Segars had moved once more, settling this time in California with their baby daughter, Marie. A son, Thomas, followed in 1927, and Elzie’s parents were also soon living near the young family. Elzie settled into life in Santa Monica, where his favorite hobbies included “swimming, sailing and fishing in the Pacific Ocean near his home.” He was also able to indulge in another pastime from his childhood: hunting and shooting. At the local shooting club in Santa Monica, Elzie even reportedly taught film star Clark Gable how to shoot skeet.
Elzie may have been happily settled in California, but his childhood home was never far from his thoughts. In 1929, as he was searching for inspiration for a new storyline for the Thimble Theatre, Elzie once again turned to his memories of Randolph County. This time, he remembered Chester resident Frank “Rocky” Feigle, whom Huffstetler described as “tall, strong, always ready for a fight, and always a winner.” The colorful Rocky worked in a local saloon, and after his shift had ended, “he would take a chair out front, seat himself, tilt the chair back, and, with pipe in his mouth, proceed to take a nap in the sunshine.” The character inspired by Rocky was, of course, Popeye. He was never intended to be a major character in the Thimble Theatre cast. Instead, Popeye was simply a sailor hired by Castor Oyl for a voyage to a nearby island, where the next big story was to take place. Seeing Popeye on the docks, Castor called out: “Hey, are you a sailor?” Popeye responded with his now-famous first line: “Ja, you think I’m a cowboy?” After the storyline ended, Popeye exited the cast, but when the public clamored for more of the swaggering sailor, Elzie worked him back in to the story. Before long, he became the main character of the entire comic strip, and Olive Oyl abandoned Ham Gravy in favor of a new maritime sweetheart. Readers wanted more Popeye, and Elzie obliged – and, as he had hoped during his childhood days in Chester, his cartooning career suddenly made him a very wealthy man.
Why, exactly, was Popeye so popular? A Post-Dispatch profile from 1932 took a decidedly psychoanalytic view: “You may not realize it, but Popeye is a suppressed desire. That is why the one-eyed sailor with the abnormally strong forearms is so popular, both with children and adults; he personifies the desire most of us have both to be strong, and to ‘sock’ and ‘lay among the swee’peas’ some of the unpleasant people we encounter; a desire suppressed because we lack Popeye’s muscles, and because it would be rather unsafe.” Elzie himself apparently concurred with this take, admitting that he’d “like to cut loose and knock the heck out of a lot of people, but my good judgment and size hold me back. So I use my imagination and let the sailor do the dirty work.”
Anthony Mostrom of the Los Angeles Times offers another explanation, one more rooted in the era of Popeye’s creation: “Popeye’s compelling combination of bizarre image, screwy lingo, ham-fisted violence and right-versus-wrong ethic proved irresistible to Depression-era Americans.” They weren’t the only ones who found Popeye easy to love. By the late 1930s, 500 newspapers were running Thimble Theatre, and the comic strip’s popularity exploded all around the world. In 1937, the readers of Fortune voted Elzie’s strip as their second favorite comic, trailing only Little Orphan Annie. When Benito Mussolini tried to ban all American comic strips in the 1930s, the Italians were so upset that he was forced to allow Popeye’s return. Elzie’s fans even included royalty: his comic strip was admired by King Gustaf V of Sweden, who received a special personalized Popeye panel from the artist in the summer of 1938.
Unfortunately, by 1938, special commissions were just about the only regular cartooning that Elzie was able to do. That spring, he was already suffering from a serious illness. In June of 1938, his spleen was removed, but he never fully recovered. After falling into a coma, he died on October 12, 1938, possibly of liver disease (the official cause on his death certificate) or a form of cancer. He was only 43. He was survived by his wife, Myrtle, their two children, his mother, and several siblings and other relatives.
Popeye and the other characters in his world have, of course, long outlived their creator. Elzie’s obituaries were quick to reassure his fans that Popeye would go on, explaining that “his condition had been so serious” for several months “that he did little actual drawing. Others carried on the whimsical adventures of his characters.” And they did: numerous writers and artists, including Tom Sims, Bela Zaboly, Doc Winner, Bud Sagendorf, and Bobby London, continued producing the comic in the decades after Elzie’s death. Although the production of new daily strips was discontinued in 1994, a new Popeye comic strip, written and drawn by cartoonist Hy Eisman, is still published every Sunday.
Popeye gained even greater popularity in animated form. During Elzie’s lifetime, King Features contracted with Fleischer Studios and Paramount Pictures to produce animated short films featuring Popeye as their main character. Popeye made his film debut in 1933, accompanied by his now classic theme song. The Thimble Theatre gang remained popular in short cartoon films through the late 1950s, and by the 1960s, new Popeye cartoons were airing on television. In the early 1970s, a revival of Elzie’s work caught the eye of film director Robert Altman, who produced a live-action Popeye film in 1980. The movie featured Robin Williams as Popeye and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl. Even more Popeye cartoons have since aired on various networks, and a new animated film is reportedly in development at Sony Pictures Animation.
The enduring popularity of his creations is perhaps Elzie’s greatest legacy, but his special talent has also been commemorated by his fellow artists. In 1972, the National Cartoonists Society began presenting the Segar Award, an annual prize which honored “outstanding contributions to the art of cartooning.” The first winner was Milton Caniff (Steve Canyon), and other notable recipients included Bil Keane (The Family Circus), Jim Davis (Garfield), and Charles Schulz (Peanuts). The award was presented for the final time in 1999; the last winner was Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois).
In June 1977, the residents of Chester recognized one of the town’s most famous sons with a new memorial. A bronze statue of Popeye, weighing in at 600 pounds and measuring nearly six feet tall, was placed in Segar Memorial Park near the Chester Bridge. The memorial was expensive, and members of the local Xi Upsilon chapter of the Beta Sigma Phi sorority were instrumental in raising the necessary funds. Robert Lee Walker, an artist who worked and lived in St. Louis, sculpted the statue. The Popeye statue may have been the first local tribute to Elzie’s work, but it certainly wasn’t the last. The town has celebrated the annual Popeye Picnic each September since the early 1980s, and local businesses like Spinach Can Collectibles, which is located in the old Opera House, keep Elzie’s memory alive all year round. More recently, the Popeye & Friends Character Trail has become a major tourist attraction. A new statue featuring a Popeye character has been unveiled each year since 2006. Many of these statues are placed in relevant locations around town; for example, the statue of Elzie’s academic inventor character, Professor Watasnozzle, stands in front of Chester High School, while Reid’s Harvest House is the location of the statue of Rough House, the cook who churns out Wimpy’s beloved hamburgers.
But Chester isn’t the only place in the world with a monument to Elzie’s most famous creation. In March 1937, the small town of Crystal City, Texas, dedicated a six-foot concrete statue of Popeye during the town’s second annual Spinach Festival. Elzie gave his blessing for the placement of the statue, which celebrates the cartoon’s connection to the town’s most famous crop. Crystal City bills itself as “the Spinach Capital of the World.” However, that title is contested by the small town of Alma, Arkansas, which also calls itself “the Spinach Capital of the World” – and has also featured several statues of Popeye. Their most recent, a bronze cast from 2007, sits in the middle of Popeye Park.
Without the genius of Elzie Segar’s imagination, Popeye and the beloved characters of the Thimble Theatre series wouldn’t be entertaining cartoon lovers and spinach enthusiasts alike. For Elzie, though, 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.
Elzie Crisler Segar was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2018.