the only thing Crystal
City and Chicago have in common is that both places have a name
starting with "C."
Actually, there's at least one other thing. Chicago is where E.C.
"Elzie" Segar began his newspaper career. That was in 1914, when the
Illinois-born Segar went to work for the Chicago Herald after
taking a correspondence course in cartoon drawing. When the Herald
went out of business, he moved over to the American to do a
strip called "Looping the Loop."
Well-received in the Windy City, in 1919 Segar moved on to another
big city with a nickname, Gotham. There, on the staff of the New
York Evening Journal, Segar started a strip called "Thimble Theater."
It soon went into syndication. By 1924, it was running in color in
the Sunday comic pages.
Nicely alliterate as its name was, "Thimble Theater" still lacked
a strong protagonist - no one like Charlie Brown, though he was years
in the future in someone else's strip. But then, in early 1929, Segar
either had a good idea or a lucky accident.
In the strip he drew for Jan. 17 that year, Segar had Ham Gravy and
his brother-in-law Castor Oyl decide to engage the services of a crew
to sail in quest of the legendary Whiffle Hen. Approaching a tough-looking,
one-eyed seaman on the dock, Castor asks: "Are you a sailor?" To which
the character with oversized, tattooed forearms replies: "Ja think
I'm a cowboy?"
The sailor's name was Popeye. Oh, and Castor's sister was named Olive.
Olive Oyl. When their adventure ended, Segar figured he didn't need
a sailor any more. But not his readers, who demanded more of Popeye.
Soon, the stringbean Olive Oyl tossed Ham for the pipe-smoking Popeye.
And brother Castor was seen less and less.
Segar renamed his strip "Thimble Theater, Starring Popeye." Over time,
"Thimble Theater" was forgotten and the strip became universally known
as simply Popeye.
|The statue of
Popeye in front of Crystal City City Hall
TE photo, November 2001
Within eight years of his appearance in the newspapers, Popeye was
immortalized in a small town only 50 miles from the Mexican border,
Standing on a four-foot base, a six-foot concrete statue of the sailor
was dedicated in Crystal city on March 26, 1937. It was the first
statue of a comic character in the world.
But why Crystal
City, where "ja" would think cowboys would be more popular than
sailors, the closest port being Corpus
Christi? The one-word answer is spinach. Popeye, as any Baby Boomer
or older knows, drew his strength from spinach. So, too, does the
economy. Thanks to ample underground water and its sandy soil, Crystal
City produces 80 percent or more of the nation's spinach crop.
That's how Popeye happened to come to Texas, but it's not all of the
The Victoria Advocate was the first newspaper in the nation
to buy "Thimble Theater" when the strip went into syndication. When
the newspaper put out a special historical edition in 1934, it featured
a cartoon drawn exclusively for the Advocate. In it, Popeye said,
"Please assept me hearties bes' wishes an' felicitations on account
of yer paper's 88th Anniversity....Victoria is me ol' home town on
account of tha's where I got born'd at."
So there it is, in black-and-white: Popeye, the Sailor Man is a native
Texan. Now pass the spinach.
"Texas Tales" August
10, 2003 column