Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Happy birthday, E.C. Segar!

One hundred and sixteen years ago on this date in Chester, IL one of the greatest and most influential of comic strip artists/cartoonists was born Elzie Crisler Segar—though in later years he would simply sign his work “Segar” (above a drawing of a stogie, since the name was pronounced SEE-gar).  As a boy, he would often assist his handyman father in house painting and paper hanging but his love of music (he was a drummer) gradually led to employment in movie house providing musical accompaniment for the “flickers”…and eventually employment as a projectionist.

Segar decided at the age of 18 that he wanted to try his hand at being a cartoonist—and after taking a correspondence course from a Cleveland, OH instructor named W.L. Evans, he made his way to the Windy City where he met Richard F. Outcault, the creator of The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown.  Outcault encouraged Segar by introducing him around the Chicago Herald, which soon employed him to draw a strip based on film comedian Charlie Chaplin.  Segar then moved on to the Chicago Evening American, a William Randolph Hearst newspaper, and the managing editor for the Evening American convinced E.C. to move to New York for a job with the prestigious King Features Syndicate.  It was there that Segar would create the comic strip that made him famous: Thimble Theatre, first published in the New York Journal on December 19, 1919.

In its earliest incarnation, Thimble Theatre told of the illustrated adventures of skinny heroine Olive Oyl, her brother Castor Oyl and her boyfriend Horace Hamgravy—which was soon shortened to just “Ham Gravy.”  The strip was a spoof of the popular movie serials of its day, but Thimble wouldn’t really kick into high gear until about ten years after its debut when Segar created a salty sailor named Popeye, who was hired to captain a ship Castor wanted to navigate to a place called Dice Island.  Popeye was originally only going to be featured for the purpose of that story arc but readers took to the cantankerous mariner and before long, Popeye became the “Fonzie” of his day—not only becoming a Thimble regular but eventually taking over the strip from its original cast (save for Olive, who was smart enough to become his girlfriend).  Popeye became a pop culture icon—he starred in a long-running series of theatrical cartoons, was the subject of a popular song (I’m Popeye the Sailor Man) and appeared in video games, comic books and advertisements from orange juice to spinach (natch).

Segar’s strip—which has been reprinted in various forms since the cartoonist’s passing in 1938—is hands down one of the true classics of the form; the story arcs were masterful storytelling, expertly blending humor and adventure, and the colorful characters (including the Sea Hag, Alice the Goon and Eugene the Jeep) were right out of Charles Dickens’ playbook.  In 1971, the National Cartoonists Society created the Elzie Segar Award in his honor, “presented to a person who has made a unique and outstanding contribution to the profession of cartooning.”  Sadly, the award was discontinued in 1989—but here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, Segar holds a special place in our hearts…a man whose outstanding body of work continues to impress the hell out of me with each passing year.  So instead of a birthday cake, let’s heat up a can of spinach while honoring these fellow birthday celebrants as well:

Eli Whitney (1765-1825) – Inventor famous for saying “Keep your cotton pickin’ hands off my gin”*

Paul Cavanagh (1888-1964) – English stage, screen and television character actor whose vehicles include A Bill of Divorcement, Tarzan and His Mate, Goin’ to Town, Maisie Goes to Reno, The Woman in Green and TV’s Jungle Jim

James Thurber (1894-1961) – Author, cartoonist and humorist

Bryan Foy (1896-1977) – Motion picture director-producer who headed up Warner Bros.’ B-picture unit and was known as “the keeper of the B’s”

John Qualen (1899-1987) – Stage, screen and television character actor whose vehicles include Counsellor at Law, His Girl Friday, The Grapes of Wrath, Out of the Fog, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Frank Faylen (1905-1985) – TDOY character actor fave best remembered here as The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis patriarch Herbert T. Gillis, a father who most assuredly did not know best

Lee J. Cobb (1911-1976) – TDOY character actor fave whose vehicles include Call Northside 777, Thieves’ Highway, On the Waterfront, 12 Angry Men, Man of the West, The Exorcist and TV’s The Virginian and The Young Lawyers

Floyd Tillman (1914-2003) – Country music great who helped popularize Western swing and the “honky tonk” sound

Ernest Lehman (1915-2005) – Academy Award-winning motion picture screenwriter-director-producer whose cinematic contributions include Sabrina, Sweet Smell of Success, North by Northwest, West Side Story, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Hello, Dolly

Richard Fleischer (1916-2006) – Academy Award-winning motion picture director-writer-producer whose oeuvre includes Follow Me Quietly, Armored Car Robbery, The Narrow Margin, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Compulsion and Fantastic Voyage

Johnny Otis (1921-     ) – Is it possible to be able to continue doing “the hand jive” when you turn eighty-nine?

Dewey Martin (1923-     ) – Stage, screen and television actor whose vehicles include The Thing from Another World, The Big Sky, Men of the Fighting Lady, Land of the Pharaohs and The Desperate Hours

Jean Porter (1925-     ) – Stage, screen and television actress ingénue whose vehicles include The Youngest Profession, Bathing Beauty, Thrill of a Romance, Till the End of Time, Cry Danger and The Left Hand of God

Sammy Davis, Jr. (1925-1990) – Stage, screen and television actor-singer-dancer whose vehicles include Porgy and Bess, Ocean’s Eleven, Convicts 4, Robin and the 7 Hoods, The Cannonball Run and Tap

Maximilian Schell (1930-     ) – Academy Award-winning stage, screen and television actor whose vehicles include The Young Lions, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Deadly Affair, Julia, The Freshman and Telling Lies in America

Clerow “Flip” Wilson (1933-1998) – Standup comic and actor whose 1970’s TV comedy-variety series was quite popular during its four-year run; also starred in the short-lived sitcom Charlie & Co.

David Carradine (1936-2009) – Thespian son of TDOY character actor god John (and brother of Keith and Robert) who’s best known for his role as Kwai Chang Caine in the TV series Kung Fu and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues

James MacArthur (1937-2010) – Actor son of The First Lady of the American Theater (Helen Hayes) who’s best known for his role as Danny Williams on TV’s long-running Hawaii Five-O (the good, original one)

Jerry Butler (1939-     ) – Impression

Mary Woronov (1943-      ) – Cult movie actress whose vehicles include Chelsea Girls, Death Race 2000, Hollywood Boulevard, Jackson County Jail, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Eating Raoul

Jim Morrison (1943-1971) – Door

Bertie Higgins (1944-     ) – One-hit wonder whose hit resonates with classic movie lovers

John Rubinstein (1946-     ) – Stage, screen and television actor-singer-composer whose vehicles include Getting Straight, Zachariah, The Boys from Brazil, Daniel and TV’s Family, Crazy Like a Fox and The Young and the Restless

Bruce Kimmel (1947-     ) – Stage, screen and television actor-director-writer whose vehicles include The First Nudie Musical and The Creature Wasn’t Nice

Belinda Balaski (1947-     ) – Stage, screen and television actress whose vehicles include Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, Piranha, The Howling, Gremlins, Amazon Women on the Moon and Matinee

Gregg Allman (1947-     ) – Allman brother and one-time husband of Cher

Laurence Marks (1948-     ) – British film and television comedy writer who with partner Maurice Gran created and wrote such Britcoms as Holding the Fort, The New Statesman, Birds of a Feather and Goodnight Sweetheart

Nancy Meyers (1949-     ) – Motion picture and television director-writer-producer whose directorial oeuvre includes The Parent Trap, What Woman Want, Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated

Dan Hartman (1950-     ) – Pop music singer-songwriter

Rick Baker (1950-     ) – Academy Award-winning makeup and special effects artist

Sam Kinison (1953-1992) – Former preacher turned standup comic who had a lot of lung power and who left us far too soon

Kim Basinger (1953-     ) – Academy Award-winning stage, screen and television actress (and Athens, GA native) whose vehicles include Never Say Never Again, The Natural, Nadine, Batman, L.A. Confidential and The Door in the Floor

Marty Raybon (1959-     ) – Country music artist who once was the front man for the group Shenandoah

Ann Coulter (1961-     ) – Author/syndicated columnist, conservative political commentator and demonic succubus from Hell

Teri Hatcher (1964-     ) – Stage, screen and television actress best known for her starring roles on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Desperate Housewives

Sinéad O'Connor (1966-     ) – Irish singer-songwriter

Matthew Laborteaux (1966-     ) – Film and television moppet actor best known as Albert Ingalls on TV’s Little House on the Prairie

*This is my father’s joke…not mine.

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Peggy said...

Ivan, thanks for the mini-bio of Segar, it was very interesting and I learned a lot. I've always loved Popeye and Olive Oyl, but I had completely forgotten about Sea Hag and Alice the Goon! Hope you don't mind that I'm sharing today's column with my FB friends.

Jeff Overturf said...

Segar is one of my top all time heroes. Unsurpassed in my book!

Scott C. said...

Lovely tribute to Segar, Ivan.

MSTies will remember Maximilian Schell from the Sci Fi Channel-era Hamlet, a West German television adaptation of the Shakespeare play that was dubbed back into English for sale to U.S.