Monday, September 21, 2009

The Triumph of Goodness and Canned Greens

I love the Internet; you can find so many offbeat things so quickly.

Now that I live in St. Louis, I’ve been trying to think of the kid’s shows that the St. Louis TV stations produced when I was little. In those pre-cable days, my hometown was close enough to St Louis to receive the ABC, CBS, and NBC stations (KTVI, KMOX, and KSD back then), and the independent station KPLR, channel 11. Well, in my stoking of childhood nostalgia, I soon found a website,, that provides background on several shows that I liked, especially “Cookie and the Captain,” “Corky’s Colorama,” and “Captain 11.”

Another show discussed there was Jack Miller’s "Mr. Patches" show. I don't recall that one (at 5 PM, my folks had turned on the news), but from a source at Google Books, I discovered that Miller was behind another show that I loved, "The World of Mr. Zoom," which ran on KMOX (now KMOV) in 1962-1964. I believe it came on at 7:30 in the morning, right before Captain Kangaroo. I remember sobbing uncontrollably when Mr. Zoom was preempted in 1962 (I was five) for coverage of John Glenn’s space launch. I also remember feeling crushed when the show was cancelled. The show featured Cecil the Dinosaur, Princess Moonbeam, and Norton Downey the Henpecked Duck [1]. The characters referred to Mr. Zoom but he rarely appeared. Even though I was the show’s faithful fan, I can’t now differentiate in my mind those puppets with the ones on “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie.”

I wouldn’t have remembered which show featured “Popeye” cartoons (it was “Cookie and the Captain” on KMOX), but I must’ve watched that show a lot. I remember bits of so many episodes: Olive Oyl getting into trouble about fifty million times; Popeye doing battle on a flying trapeze, Popeye slugging alligators so hard they turn into luggage; Popeye being worshiped by “savages” who chant “salami, salami, baloney”; and the appropriately named Wimpy, who’ll gladly pay you Tuesday.

Popeye cartoons were so violent! I looked online to remind myself about some of these old episodes. On one show, “Baby Wants a Battle” (1953), Bluto’s father beats Popeye’s father while baby Popeye watches helplessly. (That reminds me of an actual news story a few years ago.) In “A Job for a Gob” (1955), Bluto sets fire to Olive Oyl’s property because she scorns his advances. (Bluto the arsonist stalker…) In “Child Psykolojiky” (1941) Poopdeck Pappy wants to spank baby Swee’ Pea with his fist. Subsequently Pappy throws the baby out the upper story window, catches him, and then teaches him to use a shotgun, and even tries to shoot an apple off the baby’s head, all to make Swee’ Pea more “manly.” In “Goonland” (1938), Popeye hopes to save Poopdeck Pappy, who is held prisoner by these beings on their island (considering his parenting skills, Pappy was probably sent there by Child Protective Services!) but the Goons capture Popeye and try to kill him.

A typical plot of a Popeye cartoon is as follows. There is some competition for Olive's affections between Bluto and Popeye. Sometimes Olive responds to Bluto but realizes he is awful. Or she rejects Bluto outright. In either case, Bluto abuses her or tries to kill her. But Popeye (beaten or otherwise incapacitated in some way) eats his spinach, renews his strength, saves Olive, and defeats the villain. Goodness and canned greens triumph!

A few episodes featured Popeye’s nephews who were mean and out of control, not to mention ugly like Popeye. In various episodes the nephews throw Popeye and Olive around, toss them through windows, punch them, tie them up, and cause all kinds of havoc. You wouldn’t want these kids in your day care!

The cartoons were sexist by modern standards and some were also racist. In the World War II-era show “Jolly Good Furlough” (1943), one of Popeye’s nephews slants his eyes with his fingers while another nephew mimics shooting him. I clearly remember this episode broadcast on television in the early 1960s (though I don't recall the specific kids' show), as was “Pop-pie a la Mode” (1945) which features Popeye being fattened up and then beaten into a steak by minstrel-show black cannibals. In other episodes, Native Americans are depicted as dim “wild Injuns.” However, I don’t recall other war-era shorts like “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap” (1942) on TV.

When I was little, I overanalyzed the show's great deus ex machina: spinach. Why didn’t Popeye eat his spinach before he got in trouble? (He kept a can down his shirt, after all.) Why didn’t Olive have her own stash of spinach so she could handle matters herself? (We should give Olive credit, that when she tells Bluto, "No," she means it, and otherwise she acts resourcefully in some of the cartoons, though in others she seems fickle and/or helpless.) Also: why didn’t Bluto get the hint and eat spinach, too? Each episode was, as we'd now say, a reboot; no one learned, from show to show, how to avoid peril.

I’ve made “Popeye” cartoons sound awful! Some did frighten me (tenderhearted as I was), and I was too young to grasp their stereotyping. But I actually loved the shows and remember them fondly. Of course, Popeye still has many fans. E. G. Segar originated the comic strip "Thimble Theatre" in 1919 but Popeye didn't become a character therein until 1929. He soon became the strip's centerpiece. Fleischer Studios made numerous Popeye theatrical cartoons in 1933-1942, followed by Famous Studios in 1942-1957. King Features made cartoons for television in the early 1960s.

I recall that the King Features shows seemed gentler; Bluto became the pot-bellied Brutus, who always looked like he just got up. Characters like Alice the Goon, Eugene the Jeep, and Sea Hag appeared in these 60s shows. As I recall, Sea Hag had a "thing" for Popeye and used evil magic to get her way, but Popeye would never hit a woman, so Olive Oyl became more resourceful.

My last two blog entries had to do with violence and then with cartoons, so I thought … violence in cartoons! … But as I enjoy nostalgia about childhood TV, I haven’t even mentioned the live-action “Three Stooges“ shorts, which I loved as a little kid. The “Captain 11” show ran those in the afternoon. Hours of face-slapping, eye-poking, crowbar-up-the-nose entertainment!

[1] Tim Hollis, “Hey, There, Boys and Girls!": America’s Local Children’s TV Shows, University Press of Mississippi, 2001, page 169.

Some of this entry originally appeared in my Southern Illinois-related essay for "Springhouse," titled, “The Sailor Man from Chester, Illinois.” The annual Popeye Picnic is held at the Segar Memorial Park in Chester (

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