Is Victoria, Texas, Popeye's Hometown? One Illinois City Begs to Differ

Jan 19, 2017

From Texas Standard:

Popeye – the spinach-swillin’, pipe-smokin’ cartoon sailor man who popped up in the 1920s – is surrounded by controversy in many a comic and cartoon. But to this day, one Popeye controversy is taking place off-screen: where Popeye’s hometown is located.

Some say he’s from Victoria, Texas. Others are not so sure.

The town’s claim on Popeye began on Jan. 17, 1929, the day when he first appeared in the comic strip “Thimble Theatre”, by E.C. Segar. The strip itself started ten years earlier with familiar characters like J. Wellington Wimpy and Olive Oyl, Popeye’s love interest.

When Popeye finally came on the scene in 1929, only a few papers ran “Thimble Theatre”. Originally, Segar meant to put him in just one storyline. But the sailor with the oversized forearms was a hit. Soon, the strip was rebranded as “Thimble Theater starring Popeye the Sailor”.

 

One of the few papers to pick up “Thimble Theatre” in syndication was the Victoria Advocate. If you ask folks from Victoria, they say the Advocate was the very first to pick it up.

Chris Cobler is the Advocate’s editor-in-chief.

“When his creator first tried to syndicate the strip, Victoria Advocate was the first newspaper to take a chance on it,” Cobler says. “The Victoria Advocate likes to proclaim that it recognized the talent right away.”

Segar was so grateful to the Advocate that he sent the paper a special comic made especially for its 88th anniversary edition in September 1934. It’s unclear both why the 88th anniversary was so special, and why Victoria would’ve been the first to run the strip. But the special Segar comic was a big deal. The paper ran it across seven of the nine columns on the front page. The Advocate still has a copy of it hanging in the newsroom.

“Popeye declares that ‘Victoria is the swellest town, and yorn is the best paper,’ is what he writes in this strip,” Cobler says. “He says ‘Victoria is me ol’ hometown on account of that’s where I got borned at.’”

 

Popeye creator, E.C. Segar sent the Victoria Advocate a special comic made especially for its 88th anniversary edition in September 1934.
Credit Michael Marks/Texas Standard

The strip shows Popeye, Wimpy and Olive Oyl driving to Victoria in an ox-drawn cart.

For most Victorians, that’s about it – a nice piece of local trivia to be proud of. But about 900 miles north of Victoria, the story of Popeye’s origin is told a little differently.

Mike Brooks does a pretty good Popeye impression.

“This is Popeye the sailor man speaking – and I can assure you that Chester, Illinois is my hometown,” he says.

In 1994, Brooks and his wife Debbie moved from Memphis to Chester, Ill. They bought an old opera house once owned by the man who inspired Wimpy and got into the Popeye business. Now they run the official fan club, produce a Popeye newsletter, and operate the world’s only store dedicated to Popeye memorabilia, Spinach Can Collectibles.

Chester – a town of about 8,500 people on the banks of the Mississippi River – is Segar’s birthplace. And, like Wimpy, many of the “Thimble Theatre” characters are supposedly based on the town’s citizens.

“Bill Shugert was actually the real life wimpy,” Brooks says. “The guy loved hamburgers, but he loved hamburgers and beer. I mean the beer obviously did not make the comic strip. There was a lady named Dora Pascal. Her and her family ran a general store here, she was tall like Olive Oyl, wore the button-up shoes, wore her hair in a bun. And there’s a local scrapper guy named Frank ‘Rocky’ Segal. He has the notoriety for being the physical model for Popeye.”

If possession is indeed nine-tenths of the law, then that’s in Chester’s corner too. There are signs coming into town that say “Welcome to Chester: Home of Popeye.” The characters are all over murals and advertisements in the city. Statues of the characters – both well-known and obscure – are scattered throughout Chester. The city hosts the annual Popeye picnic and parade. And the Chester Police Department wears patches featuring Popeye on its uniforms.

In Victoria, the Popeye history is an interesting piece of local lore. But the city hasn’t branded itself as a Popeye Mecca. In fact, Brooks even casts doubt on the significance of Segar’s special 1934 comic in the Advocate.

“He was famous for doing that,” Brooks says. “Obviously he wanted to be as positive about everything as he possibly could, and he wanted as many readers as he possibly could get because that made him more money, ultimately. He wanted them to welcome Popeye into their lives and he did a lot of fan art like that, and he would personalize it pretty much any way that people wanted.”

But is that true? To an untrained eye, the Advocate comic looked like more than just fan art. I needed to run this by an independent authority on all things Popeye. I found one in Watertown, Massachusetts. On cable access television.

Fred Grandinetti’s “Drawing With Fred” runs on local TV in Watertown and teaches kids how to draw Popeye and other cartoon characters. For Grandinetti, this has been a lifelong passion. As a kid, he could identify the cartoonist of specific Popeye episodes just by how the characters looked on screen. In 1983, he started writing about his favorite cartoon for newspapers and film magazines. He’s written five books on Popeye history. He sounds like the person with the right credentials to to ask about Popeye’s hometown.

“I mean, from all of the sources that I’ve read it’s always been Chester, Illinois,” Grandinetti says.

In fact, this Popeye expert had never even heard the Victoria story. Despite that, I wondered if maybe the Texas town was a better fit for Popeye. I mean, for a sailor man, isn’t gulf-adjacent Victoria a little more appropriate than southwestern Illinois? Could there ever be another hometown besides Chester?

“I would have to say no, only because that’s just been so identifiable with Segar and Popeye for so many years,” Grandinetti says.

But others say there’s plenty of Popeye to go around. Chris Cobler suggests maybe Chester can keep Segar, and Victoria can keep Popeye.

“We’ve got the comic strip right here to show what Popeye himself considers to be his hometown,” Cobler says. “Popeye seems to think Victoria is the swellest town, and yorn is the best paper. So we’ll hold on to that and I’ll hold on to this front page for another 88 years.”

Besides, Popeye wouldn't want people squabbling over him too much. After all, he did say “I yam what I yam, that’s all what I yam.”

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