Know Thy History: Thimble Theatre

Elzie Crisler Segar grew up in the small town of Chester, Illinois, where he worked at a theater. This being the silent era, he helped out with the musical accompaniment to the films by playing on the drums. Eventually, he got a job as a projectionist. Cartoons eventually caught his fancy, and he took a correspondence course from a fellow in Cleveland, OH.

After Segar moved to Chicago, he met up with Richard F. Outcault, who was a bit of a cartooning pioneer and superstar after creating The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown. Outcault helped Segar network, where he bounced from one comic to another. Eventually, he ended up at the New York Journal, where he debuted his new comic, Thimble Theatre.

The comic seems to draw experiences from Segar’s theater days. There was a regular cast of characters. The main one was Harold Hamgravy (later just known as “Ham Gravy”), a sort of clueless everyman with a fondness for drink. There was Bondo Bitter, a Dirk Dastardly sort of fellow with all the accoutrements, such as the fiendish little mustache that wants stroking. And then there was Ham and Bondo’s love interest, a rail-thin gal that you may recognize as the one-and-only Olive Oyl.

So while these were characters with names and all, they acted more like actors in a play. The title is structured like a playbill. In one strip, Olive Oyl may be credited as “Lizzie Lampshade,” and Harold Hamgravy would be “Jed Simpson.” In the next strip, Harold would be “Percy Pieface,” Olive would be “The Fair Maiden,” and Bondo would be “The Willian.” Then there’s my favorite, where “Ezra” is played by Harold, “The Female” is played by Olive, and “The Vamp” is played by … Winnie Woogle.

“Oogle oogle oogle”! Because that’s totally how vampires talk.

Poor Winnie. Had she waited a hundred years, sexy vampires would be the total hotness. I’m sure ol’ Harold Hamgravy would’ve been clawing at his neck approvingly so you could have a clear shot at his arteries.

Eventually, the story would dispose of the theater setting, and it would settle down into “Ham and Olive and their crazy courtship hijinx.” Numerous relatives would be introduced, most notably Olive’s enterprising brother, Castor. (Because Castor Oyl. GET IT? Incidentally, I tried to determine if there was a Canadian member of the Oyl family named Canola, but came up zilch.) Ham would be a well-meaning yet unambitious fellow would would be constantly harangued by Olive. Olive, meanwhile … well, anyone who’s familiar at all with her character will notice that she’s exactly the same. Quite independent, a little opportunistic, and prone to the wildest of mood swings. Why Ham stuck around her for as long as he did is pretty much a mystery. I blame the booze.

And yet, Ham’s days were numbered. The strip has some popularity in its time. If it had, however, remained the “Ham and Olive” comedy fun time, it probably would have remained in the dustbin of memories, forgotten like … that one strip … people can’t remember. Things all changed as of January 1929, a little more than nine years after the strip’s debut, with the introduction of THIS GUY:

That’s right. POPEYE THE ******* SAILOR MAN. It’s a moment so momentous that King Features Syndicate has an entire page devoted to reprinting the 250 strips chronicling Popeye’s debut. It all starts with Olive and her family, the Oyl’s, chilling while her brother Castor ponders over a package he just received, which contains a mysterious Whiffle Bird. (Incidentally, weird creatures from far off lands was going to be one of the hallmarks of Thimble Theatre.)

If you notice, the title still retains that old time movie feel, this time giving each strip it’s own title card. It even had a sort of “Next on…” title, too, which revealed what sort of adventures awaited our her- … wait a minute. “A Sex Problem Solved”?

Sorta gives new meaning to “Well, blow me down,” huh? (Har, har, har.)

Anyway, it turns out that the Whiffle Bird can escape anything. Boxes. Being buried alive. Death. It also grants anyone luck if you rub its head. The bird had taken a liking to the chagrined Castor. However, he’s not blind to the bird’s multiple benefits, so he does what any right-thinking man would do: he’s gonna go gambling!

Booze, gambling, sex problems: see this is why classic Thimble Theatre is so great.

Castor ropes Ham into his little scheme. His plan is to make it to Dice Island, for a profitable day of gambling and riches beyond his wild imagination. (I should point out that the Great Depression would officially kick off October of 1929, so Castor’s easy get-rich-quick scheme is a fantasy story ahead of its time.) After ditching Olive (or so he thinks), Castor gets a boat and hires a sailor to run a boat to get there. You know what comes next. Cue the hornpipes!

Almost immediately, Popeye establishes himself as the alpha male, especially where Olive is involved. She snipes at him about his looks. (And yes, for all those hacky jokes by two-bit comedians about how malformed Popeye looks, he’s pretty much intended to be that way.) Popeye don’t care. It rolls off his back (and he makes a similar observation about Olive’s feet, though more innocently).

But this is what Popeye is: he is the baddest mofo on the Seven Seas.

See that? He gets shot sixteen times — SIXTEEN TIMES! — and Popeye shrugs it off like it were no deal. It’s one of the most stone-cold moments in comic strips ever. Storywise, it’s because Popeye’s been hogging up the Whiffle Bird’s luck, stroking its head so much that he’s been granted nigh invincibility. Eventually, though, Popeye and his superhuman strength would be integral to his character, which would be augmented by a greeen, fiber-rich vegetable.

This is pretty much where Olive’s attraction to Popeye begins, where she muses that she’d kiss him is he weren’t so darned ugly. Ham might as well send his bags packing now. I imagine he’s hanging out with Bondo over at the bar filled with Olive’s former beaus.

Seriously, what the heck is it about Olive that makes men want to crawl back to her? I can’t be the looks … or the personality. At least with a salty sailor like Popeye, you know the dude is going to be faithful… but he ain’t going to get all mopey, neither.

I always figured the guy deserved way better than Olive, though.

That was supposed to be the end of Popeye … but readers had taken such a liking to the character that Segar brought him back. From that point on, Thimble Theatre became a new strip. We were introduced to Swee’Pea (Popeye’s adopted baby), Popeye’s rival Bluto, hamburger-lover J. Wellington Wimpy, Poopdeck Pappy, The Sea Hag, Alice the Goon, and Eugene the Jeep … the latter being the likely origins for the name of the motor vehicle called the “jeep“.

A lot of comic strip and cartoon characters have starred in movies. However, how many can claim the legendary Robert Altman as director? Because that’s who directed the (really weird) Popeye movie.

And, as if you need any further reason as to why Popeye is awesome, I direct you to this Fleischer cartoon:

So let’s overlook the casual racism for a second, which is something you have to deal with for any cartoon of the era anyway. This is a cartoon where Olive Oyl dances with pots on her feet. This is also a cartoon where Popeye punches Bluto so hard he LAUNCHES HIM INTO ORBIT … and then, for good measure, wallops him when he gets back to Earth.

Michael Bay only wishes that his fight scenes were this over the top.

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on May 22, 2012, in comics, Know Thy History. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. “Incidentally, I tried to determine if there was a Canadian member of the Oyl family named Canola, but came up zilch.”

    Well the euphemism ‘canola’ (“Canadian oil, low acid”) was only coined in 1978 so the contemporaneous Oyl sibling would have been Rapeseed. Bit dark for Thimble Theatre.

  2. “At least with a salty sailor like Popeye, you know the dude is going to be faithful…”

    Not quite. Having just read the first five volumes of the Fantagraphics Segar Popeye collection I was kind of surprised to see how fickle Popeye was to Olive back in those early years of the strip (after Popeye joined the cast). Several story lines saw Popeye in the arms of another woman (usually much more attractive than Olive, though it wouldn’t be too hard to be prettier than Olive.)

    • Ah! I’m more familiar with Popeye from the later runs, where there’d be other women trying to tempt him away, and he’d be sort of steadfastly sticking by Olive no matter what. Wikipedia was more or less confirming my suspicions on this part. (“Another is his (near-saintly) perseverance to overcome any obstacle to please Olive – who, quite often, renounces Popeye for Bluto’s dime-store advances. She is the only character Popeye will permit to give him a thumping.”) I guess that would’ve been a later development; admittedly I do not nearly have as comprehensive a knowledge of Popeye as I would like. :)

      • If you ever get a chance to read any of those over-sized Popeye collections (there’s 6 in the set) I think you’d enjoy them. Especially with Segar’s supporting cast. Wimpy (and at times) Geezil steal every scene they’re in.

  3. Kevin Martinez

    I actually did a chance to thumb through the first two collections. While I appreciate the comic for what it is, I couldn’t really get “into” it the way I did with the Fleischer B/W shorts (there are others even better than the one El Santo linked to). Maybe I should go through em again.

    I’m enjoying these Know Thy history posts. Hope you keep doing em (would love to see your take on Floyd Gottfredson

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