Jewish World Review
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) CHESTER, Ill. This Mississippi River city is the hometown of three institutions. Two are state penitentiaries. The third is a gnarly, one-eyed cartoon character who butchered the English language: Popeye.
The creator of the comic strip, Elzie Segar, was born and raised in Chester, as were the models for Popeye, Olive Oyl and Wimpy. The Popeye Fan Club and a Popeye museum are here. "Popeye" characters adorn walls. A 6-foot Popeye doll teeters in the library, and a bronze statue of Popeye overlooks the Mississippi at Segar Memorial Park.
But with the arrival of his 75th birthday Saturday, Popeye also is at the center of a tug of war in this community of 5,200 about 65 miles south of St. Louis.
Attendance at the annual Popeye Picnic, once as high as 30,000, has dropped to a few thousand. And as plans come together for the 25th festival, held in September, residents are squabbling over whether to move and consolidate it in an effort to salvage it.
"Everyone is extremely proud of the distinction" associated with Popeye, said Gwendy Garner, publicity chair of the Popeye Picnic Committee. "It gives us something to brag about because it has been such a national institution. Popeye's never been forgotten."
Yet she conceded the festival could use a little shot of, well, spinach.
"Certainly, we're searching for ways to revitalize the picnic and keep people interested," she said.
Tammi Schroeder, committee chair, is more blunt. "It's going to die where it is," she said.
For years, people were aware that Segar, the youngest son of eight children born to a house painter and homemaker, hailed from Chester.
Almost everybody knew that Frank "Rocky" Fiegel, a formidable brawler with a heart of gold for children, was the model for Popeye. William "Windy Bill" Schuchert, hamburger-loving owner of the local opera house and Segar's first boss, was the inspiration for Wimpy. Dora Paskel, who ran a general store, was the real Olive Oyl.
But there wasn't much interest in all that until the statue was erected, said Ernie Schuchert, Windy Bill's great-nephew. "Then they decided they'd have this festival and it just kind of mushroomed," he said.
The statue, a 6-foot, 900-pound bronze figure placed on a one-ton granite base, was dedicated June 25, 1977.
Two years later, Chester's sesquicentennial celebration prompted community leaders to call for an annual festival. Schoolteacher Anna Rittenhouse proposed a Popeye picnic, and the town held its first three-day festival in September 1980.
Lawn-mower races, a carnival, dances, parades, Popeye and Elvis look-alike contests were featured as the event grew in popularity through the 1980s and early 1990s.
But as years passed, organizers said, keeping the festival fresh became increasingly difficult. Attendance dwindled. This year some members of the picnic committee want to move the party, which traditionally has been spread over several locations, to a 130-acre park area about two miles north of downtown.
That suggestion has brought opposition from the VFW, Knights of Columbus halls and nearby bars.
Others said, at the very least, more planning is needed.
Bertha Mae Blechle, one of the founding members of the picnic committee, recommended building support for a move in 2005: "If you want my frank opinion, I have no objection to moving it," she said, "but we're doing this too fast."
Ruth Ann Welge, a greatniece of Elzie Segar, said: "It's not going to go over too well if they move it to the edge of town. It's just going to be way too hot out there."
So far, local sentiment sides with the status quo. The Park Board, which controls use of the park, rejected the move.
Recent acrimony notwithstanding, Chester's tributes to Popeye are grounded in the knowledge that the character who gulped spinach and pummeled Bluto or Brutus has exerted a powerful influence on American culture. His cartoons, the longest-running animated TV series in syndication history, outnumber Mickey Mouse cartoons by four to one.
He is credited with introducing the words goon and jeep to the English language, increasing spinach sales by one-third, popularizing the American hamburger and providing the creative foundation for Superman.
Segar never witnessed the extent of Popeye's popularity or reaped the wealth the sailor man created. He died of cancer Oct. 12, 1938, in Santa Monica, Calif., at 43. Since then, seven illustrators have taken turns with the strip. Five studios have produced about 500 Popeye cartoons.
Although it once ran in about 600 newspapers daily, the comic strip is published in only a fraction of those today. King Features, which owns the rights to Popeye's character, declined to say how many newspapers carry "Popeye." Cartoon Network and Boomerang still run the cartoon.
All of it started in Chester, where Segar began working at age 12 at the opera house. He drew show bills and advertisements, played the drums to accompany movies and eventually became a projectionist. He also worked as a house painter, photographer and window dresser.
Hearing that cartooning could be a lucrative career, Segar enrolled at 18 in a correspondence course, a $20 venture paid by William Schuchert, the model for Wimpy. About two years later, Segar left for Chicago, landed a job cartooning for the Chicago Herald and later for the Chicago Evening American.
He left in 1919 for a job as a syndicated cartoonist with King Features in New York, where Segar created the "Thimble Theatre" comic strip, which chronicled the lives of the Oyl family. On Jan. 17, 1929, while Olive Oyl's boyfriend searched the docks for a sailor to pilot their ship for a gambling excursion, he came across an odd-looking, one-eyed man with watermelon-size forearms.
"Hey there, are you a sailor?" the boyfriend asked.
"Ja think I'm a cowboy?" Popeye replied.
Segar acknowledged that Popeye was supposed to make a cameo appearance, but the character gained popularity so quickly that by 1931, the strip was renamed "Thimble Theatre starring Popeye."
Spinach was introduced about a year later, according to Fred Grandinetti, a Massachusetts Popeye enthusiast who has written three books and about 60 articles on the character. At the end of a Sunday strip, Popeye mentioned that he kept his strength by eating spinach, although it's unclear why Segar chose that particular vegetable, Grandinetti said.
The cartoonist rarely used spinach in the comic strip, and it wasn't exploited routinely until the Popeye cartoons were produced, Grandinetti said.
Segar seldom returned to Chester, although local Popeye historian Michael Brooks said he regularly mailed checks to Fiegel. Segar's boyhood home, a beige, two-story frame building about 100 yards up the bluff from the Mississippi, is abandoned and dilapidated.
Chester is making no plans to honor Popeye's 75th birthday. New York, however, marked the milestone by illuminating the Empire State Building's tower lights green, in honor of all that spinach.
Blechle hopes everyone on both sides of Chester's Popeye debate can resolve their differences soon. Planning the picnic takes several months.
"You know, what else besides Popeye have we got?" she said. "We're a little town here. You can't afford to have hard feelings in a small town.
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