ANIMATION SPIN
January 5, 2021 posted by Greg Ehrbar

Celebrating the 111th Birthday of “Mercer, the Popeye Man”

Within a few years of his January 1910 birth, artist/writer and “primo Popeye” voice actor Jack Mercer started his entertainment legacy. Let’s look at a few vintage Mercer grooves.

POPEYE’S ZOO
Animal Songs and Stories by Popeye and His Friends
Starring Jack Mercer
Vocalion Records (Decca) VL-73703 (Stereo) VL-3703 (Mono) (12” 33 1/3 rpm)
Issued on Noble Records in Canada, MCA in Australia and Ace of Hearts in the UK

Released in 1960. Producer: Lyle Kenyon Engel. Musical Direction: George Cole. Running Time: 36 minutes.

Songs: “I’m Popeye The Sailor Man” by Sammy Lerner; “Tiger! Tiger!” “The Camel Ride,” “The Hippo Song,” “The Tricky Monkey,” “Funny Giraffe,” “The Elephant Nose,” “Don’t Pet The Alligator,” “The Bouncy Kangaroo,” “It’s Time To Feed The Seal,” “The Penguin Song,” “Grumpy Grizzly Bear” by George Cole, Jim Cole, Pete Johnstone.

Popeye’s Zoo is one of several albums produced as King Features was releasing a massive number of made-for-TV Popeye cartoons—all with the voice of Jack Mercer–into a lucrative new market. This new library of Popeye shorts and the original Fleischer and Famous theatricals, plus other new-for-television cartoon series (like Felix the Cat and The Mighty Hercules), made Jack Mercer the most prolific voice actor in short cartoons at the time.

Mercer (1910-1984) is a legend, but his star status doesn’t always seem to reach as far into the firmament of his contemporaries. He is not often mentioned in the same context as Mel Blanc, Paul Frees, Daws Butler or June Foray. His decades-long work as a story artist is well-documented but it rarely puts alongside other story greats. The mercurial level of the work on which he was assigned could be a reason, but the same might be said for his more lauded peers. What cannot be denied is the volume of his work and the length of his service to the art form.

According to the fascinating biography He Am What He Am! Jack Mercer, The Voice of Popeye by Fred M. Grandinetti (and several other accounts), Mercer was not one for self-aggrandizing. The more volatile aspects of the studios that employed him may have taught him early to keep his head down and be grateful for the work. Around him, landmines of fame and fortune exploded, like those of his Popeye voice predecessor, Billy “Red Pepper Sam” Costello.

Mercer was already a show business veteran before he joined the Fleischer studio, a “born-in-a-trunk” child to vaudevillian parents. His drawing skills helped him getting in the door, eventually working in the story department. Meanwhile, the fame of being Popeye damaged Costello to such a degree that he was dismissed, leaving Paramount and the Fleischers seeking a replacement.

Jack Mercer

“I was imitating various characters in the inking department just out of my own amusement, and everybody seemed to get a laugh out of it,” he says in Grandinetti’s biography. “And a lot of people suggested I try out for the Popeye voice. I didn’t know they were looking for anyone. So I eventually went home, and tried to improve the voice I was doing. So I finally got the voice after I practiced a while. I thought I could really do the voice and got the quality I was after. I gave an audition over the phone to someone at Paramount. They heard it and from then on they said, ‘Why don’t you come over and do some voices.’ Which I did. Sort of a breaking-in period, I guess. They told me I was going to do the Popeye voice. That’s how it started. You know, fooling around while I was working at other jobs.”

For the collector of animation-related records, it was a pleasure that Jack Mercer was so accessible to most children’s record labels. It helped that he lived in New York, where most of the labels were either located or often recorded. There are more Popeye records with Mercer than there are without him.

Released on the Vocalion label (which Decca acquired in 1958, reserved for mostly children’s material, budget discs or reissues), Popeye’s Zoo benefits from a little more musical range than other Popeye discs of the time, which used smaller orchestras and library music. This album gets an extra boost from almost 20 musicians playing new arrangements in full stereo. No other Jack Mercer Popeye album offers original music with such productions values, especially enjoyable in full stereo.

As joyous as it is to hear Jack Mercer as Popeye singing and speaking for all the voices (including Olive Oyl) on this LP, it would have been nice if Mae Questel was also present to portray his “sweet patootie,” as she had on several Golden records during the same period. It would have been all the richer.

Composer/conductor George Cole is listed on the album cover as having “scored many Hollywood movies,” yet tracking down examples is a challenge. He provided music for several classic RCA children’s records. He also arranged and conducted the Golden LP versions of songs from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Doctor Dolittle. Credits do not always provide complete (or necessarily accurate) accounts of every person who contributed to creative projects, so many composers have worked on films without recognition (even Carl Stalling was not originally known to have contributed mightily to the 1953 1945 Jack Benny comedy The Horn Blows at Midnight). Another way for hundreds of Hollywood TV shows and movies is to create library music, especially if Cole was either based in New York or London.

The front cover album art should be of special interest to fans of the original Segar Popeye comic strip. In addition to the presence of Popeye, Olive and Swee’ Pea, such fellow denizens of Thimble Theater as Oscar, Geezil Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle and Rough House are enjoying a day at the zoo as well.

GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“Popeye’s Zoo”

Each tune starts with a short narrative set-up by Popeye the zoo keeper. Sometimes he recalls adventures with Olive Oyl or Brutus (the name King Features was using for Bluto in the ‘60s cartoons) but most of the time he offers “edjamacaysh-kinnul” information about the animals.


THE ADVENTURES OF
BUZZY BEAR AND PEGGY PENGUIN

Narrated by Glenda Farrell
Willida Records Album #1 (2 Discs 10” 78 RPM) / Mono)

Released in 1946. Producer: W.F. Martens. Director: Irving E. Bizman. Writer: Julie Marvin. Music: Emil Velazco. Technical Director: Stanley Roth. Running Time: 12 minutes.

Voices: Glenda Farrell (Narrator); Jack Mercer (Buzzy Bear); Marjorie Mercer (Peggy Penguin).

Little Buzzy is a plushy, teddy-like bear who watches planes fly overhead and yearns to fly, kind of like Donald Duck in 1942’s Sky Trooper. His friend little Peggy Penguin helps him stowaway at the North Pole airport so he can join the Air Force. Reaching the city, they visit relatives at the Central Park Zoo. Unlike the Popeye’s Zoo LP, this recording does not present zoo living as a preferable choice. Their escape and pursuit creates a worldwide sensation, but they are torn between homesickness and fear of being in trouble for running away until all ends just as happy as it could be.

This was one of several Willida children’s 78 RPM record sets narrated by famous film stars of the day. Glenda Farrell had a long, successful career as a leading lady and character actor in movies and television. At the time of this album, Farrell was well known as the star of nine “Torchy Blane” detective movies for Warner Bros.

The Torchy Blane films have the witty, fast-talking gait of the era. The twist was in the gender switch. While there were two male detectives in the original book, the films made the partners male and female, giving the stories a fresh dynamic (for its era) as well as a romantic angle. The same thing was done afterward when The Front Page became His Girl Friday.

Farrell was determined to make sure Torchy was a “real” character instead of a caricature, with wit instead of witlessness. New York and LA newswomen shared their experiences with Farrell to help give Torchy Blane an edge that, according to Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, inspired the character of Lois Lane. (The Torchy Blane Complete Movie Collection is available from Warner Archive video.

Jack Mercer and Margie Hines (under the name of Marjorie Mercer) recorded the voices of Buzzy and Peggy in New York amid their complicated marriage, a saga that seems too serpentine for the scope of Animation Spin.

In the early New York days of the Fleischer studio, Hines voiced Betty Boop, but Mae Questel soon became Betty as well as Olive. Questel would not relocate to Miami, Florida with the Fleischers, so Hines resumed the roles. She married Jack Mercer after they both had moved to Florida, but sources differ as to ages and the length of the marriage. Apparently, another wedding ceremony was held in New York.

Grandinetti writes, “Virginia (Carroll) Mercer, who married Jack in the summer of 1953, recalled many years later, ‘The National Enquirer asked if Jack had ever been married before and he turned white. I explained that it was a painful part of his life and we’d appreciate it if they not mention it in their article and they obliged.’ Virginia Mercer remembered the marriage [to Hines] took place after the Fleischer Studios moved to Florida and ended immediately after Jack’s return from the Army, October 1945.”

According to The Complete Guide to Children’s Records, Willida Records was a small, short-lived children’s label that also owned the “Kiddie Land” label. Like Buzzy, most of their records featured early Broadway and Hollywood actors including Paul Anderson (Brigadoon); Kenneth Utt (Carousel) and Joseph Boley (later playing Woody Guthrie in 1970’s Alice’s Restaurant). Buzzy author Julie Marvin was one of the executives of Willida Records.

GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“Adventures of Buzzy Bear and Peggy Penguin”

As Buzzy, Jack Mercer chose a younger, gruffer version of his Popeye voice, in the manner of one of the sailor’s little nephews. Peggy is, quite naturally, given an Olive/Betty tone by Margie Hines.


JOEY THE JEEP
Narrated by Gloria Swanson
Willida Records Album WR-2 (2 Discs 10” 78 RPM) / Mono)

Released in 1946. Producer: W.F. Martens. Director: Irving E. Bizman. Writer: Julie Marvin. Music: Dave Roberts. Running Time: 12 minutes.

Voices: Gloria Swanson (Narrator); Jack Mercer (Joey the Jeep); Frances Lynn (Frankie); Jeanne Ray (Suzy Convertible).

Anthropomorphic cars were nothing new in fiction, even in 1946, but none of the others boasted the grand presence of Gloria “I’m ready for my close-up” Swanson. who would soon be nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her role as Norma Desmond in the 1950 Billy Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard. Fairy tale blogger Gypsy Thornton describes a parallel between Sunset Boulevard and Snow White and Seven Dwarfs here.

While Buzzy Bear was a high-flying adventure, Joey the Jeep in a romantic tale about automobile relationships. Joey is a postwar jeep who is no longer needed by the army and is offered for sale. The family that buys him already has another vehicle, with whom Joey falls in love. She is Suzy the little blue convertible (this is six years before Walt Disney’s short cartoon, Susie the Little Blue Coupe, which we discussed in this Spin).

Joey feels he must prove himself worthy of Suzy by being brave and true. Along comes a more flashy rival, a pretentious red limousine named Archibald. It becomes a lover’s triangle until Suzy sees Archibald for the conceited cad(illac) he is and realizes her love for humble, hardworking Joey.

Instead of Margie Hines, Mercer and Swanson are accompanied in this production by big-screen leading lady Julie Haydon (of 1935’s The Scoundrel). As in Buzzy Bear, the narration and dialogue are in verse.

GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“Joey the Jeep”

For Joey’s character, Mercer’s voice suggests King Little from 1939’s Fleischer feature Gulliver’s Travels. Swanson does a lovely job as narrator, with a gentle voice not usually associated with her flamboyant persona. Please note that, when the happy couple drive off into the sunshine, they sing about how they’re as happy as “a puppy with a super special turkey bone.” Being cars, they have no idea how dangerous it is to give such bones to doggies.


For more of Greg Ehrbar’s Animation Spins about Jack Mercer and Popeye, please visit these previous posts:

Popeye Goes to the Movies – on Records

Jack Mercer as Himself – and Popeye – on Records

Felix, Huck, Yogi & Jack Mercer on Movie Wheel Records

Popeye on Golden Records

“Felix the Cat” on Records

27 Comments

  • Jack Mercer belongs to the very highest rank of cartoon voice actors, not only because of his body of work and the length of his career, but because so much of what he did was so difficult. Many of the voices he did — not only Popeye, but also the cat in “Hold It” and the spider in “The Cobweb Hotel” — are the kind that can tear your vocal cords to shreds if you’re not careful. Billy West, one of the greatest voice actors working today, said that voicing Popeye was one of the hardest things he ever did; and he could only do the scat singing by studying one of Mercer’s old cartoon soundtracks and painstakingly replicating it syllable by syllable. Yet Mercer did it spontaneously. He was also a great comic actor — his turn as the Mae West duck in “Chicken a la King” never fails to make me laugh — and he was able to rise above his material, enlivening even a mediocre cartoon like Pudgy in “The Foxy Hunter” with his vocal pyrotechnics as the angry mother duck. To borrow a term from music, Mercer was a true virtuoso.

    Thanks for those links to previous Popeye posts. I had a Popeye record album many years ago, but all I can remember about it was the song “Every State is a Great State”. My parents, who had grown up with Popeye, didn’t mind me watching his cartoons or listening to his records. I guess they figured the benefits of getting me to eat my spinach outweighed the potential risks of me getting into fights or picking up lousy grammar.

  • Terrific post — and happy new year!

    But THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT was released in 1945. [A television adaptation of the movie was presented on Omnibus in 1953.]

  • “Anthropomorphic cars were nothing new in fiction, even in 1946, but none of the others boasted the grand presence of Gloria ‘I’m ready for my close-up’ Swanson. who would soon win the Best Actress Oscar for her role as Norma Desmond in the 1950 Billy Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard.

    Swanson likely deserved the 1950 Academy Award for Best Actress, but she didn’t win the Oscar.

  • At the risk of sounding like a troll or a scold — seriously, I love this column, and look forward to each installment; I’ve learned a lot from it — I guess I need to respectfully point out that I don’t believe George W. Geezil is actually depicted on the cover of “Popeye’s Zoo.”

    The guy with the white beard to the left of Wimpy (apparently looking at a camel) is in fact Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle, who first appeared in Segar’s Sappo, the topper strip of the Sunday Thimble Theater page; the Professor later appeared in various Popeye comic books and strips and even turned up in some Popeye television cartoons.

  • If Jack Mercer’s only contribution to animation was Popeye mumbling, he’d still be at the pinnacle in the Hall Of Fame.

    “I can read writin’ when it’s wrote, but I can’t read writin’ when it’s writ. This writin’s wrote rotten, if ya asks me.”

  • Mercer was the voice of *every* character on Oriolo’s Felix the Cat tv cartoons. I don’t think even Mel Blanc was able to do that.

  • “His decades-long work as a story artist is well-documented but it rarely puts alongside other story greats.”

    Given the high number of unimaginative, repetitious, rubber-stamped cartoon storylines Mercer is credited with during his many years at Famous/Paramount in the 1940s and ’50s, it’s more than understandable why his work as a story artist isn’t highly regarded.

  • B. Baker — we’ll fix those things. Besides, back in Gloria’s day, they didn’t need Oscars, they had… “faces.”

  • B Baker — Thanks, just saw the Geezil note. Please never feel that a constructive correction is unwelcome. It’s just the opposite. These stories encompass a lot of disparate elements, and I sure don’t claim to know everything. It’s a lot to keep track of and I would be crazy to insist on keeping errors in just because I so “brilliantly” wrote them. That would be embarrasskin’ to me as well as Jerry! ACK-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack! (I had an Aunt Gertrude who used to laugh like Popeye.)

  • Jack Mercer didn’t ‘toot’ (pardon the pun) his own horn enough which is why he isn’t regarded as high as Mel Blanc and the others. Also a lot of people came out of the wood work claiming they were Popeye’s voice from the start and the media (as usual) didn’t fact check and published these lies. Jack’s second wife, when she spotted these stories, called them on the carpet but rarely was a retraction published. Mercer, in his Popeye scripts, tried to get away from the spinach gimmick. He also wrote several of the TV cartoons which were produced by Paramount Cartoon Studios.

  • And here’s another Mercer record entry– as Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound!

    https://www.newsfromme.com/2021/01/04/todays-video-link-3308/

  • Fred Grandinetti’s comment about Popeye pretenders calls to mind a TV commercial for a talk show that ran on one of the Detroit stations circa 1970. (This commercial aired several times a day for months, so I became very familiar with it and remember it well.) A clip from the talk show showed a youthful-looking middle-aged man, with the blow-dried hairstyle and wide-lapelled, patterned sport jacket fashionable in the early seventies, who cleared his throat and then sang: “I’m Popeye the sailor man! I’m Popeye the sai— I haven’t done that in thirty-five years!” Applause from the studio audience.

    Evidently this guest was passing himself off as the original voice of Popeye. Yet it couldn’t have been Billy Costello, who was in his seventies when he died in 1971; this guy looked maybe 50, 55 tops. It seems inescapable that this putative Popeye was nothing but an imposter.

    Do any of my fellow Michiganders remember this commercial? If so, does anybody know which talk show it was, or have any clues to the identity of this fraud?

  • Paul:
    Could it have been a spot for Lou Gordon’s ‘Hot Seat’on Channel 50? This was the ranking local talk show on Detroit TV in the ’60s and early ’70s; WKBD-TV ran spots for the show constantly. But I have no idea regarding the identity of the “Popeye pretender”…

  • Some time in the late 60’s or early 70’s Jack Mercer made a guest appearance on “To Tell the Truth” and was identified as the voice of Popeye. But which of the three contestants was the real Jack Mercer? My parents called me in to watch with them and pick out the right one. Just hearing his regular voice I was able to identify him correctly. When they asked, “will the real Jack Mercer please stand up?” my parents were delighted to discover that I was right.

    He had a very distinctive voice, whether playing the role of Popeye or one of his many other characters.

  • Mercer was a treasure . To go from Popeye to Felix the cat, in 1958, showed his vast range. I think Mercer was certainly underrated.

  • B. Baker: That may very well be. I watched an awful lot of Channel 50 when I was growing up (not least because they aired the old Fleischer and Famous Popeye cartoons in the seventies!), and I remember all those commercials for Lou Gordon. However, Lou was known for hard-hitting interviews with politicians, labour leaders and the like, for example the one with Governor Romney that put the kibosh on his presidential bid. I don’t think he had many guests from the world of entertainment. That commercial with the Popeye imposter may have been for the Dick Cavett Show; I also watched a lot of ABC, especially on Friday nights.

  • Mercer was on “To Tell the Truth” (a Goodson-Todman game show) in 1973 or 1974. Garry Moore was the host of the show at the time. As soon as Jack spoke in his own natural voice, I knew who it was. This episode is on youtube if you want to watch it.

  • Paul and B. Baker,
    I remember that commercial too! But unfortunately I don’t know what talk show it was from. I do remember the actor in question prefaced his Popeye imitation with something like “You dog, I’ll get you for this!” (giving the impression that whoever the host was, was coercing him to do Popeye) and then launched into the Popeye song. I’m wondering if possibly it was from the Mike Douglas show? (HIs show was a talk/variety show that aired in Detroit around 4 or 5 p.m. or so. I think maybe it was on Channel 2, which was then the local CBS affiliate.) Hopefully someone out there can come up with the answer to this one….?

  • I remember an HBO special with Rich Little in which he introduced his brother, who was a voice actor in Canada. He stood up briefly and imitated Popeye and some other characters. I don’t recall the other characters he imitated, and I also don’t remember him spouting the false modesty about the 35 years. All I recall is that, after he sat down, Rich Little said something like “My brother Don Little, the best in cartoon voices.”

  • Leslie: It could have been Mike Douglas. His show focused on entertainment and variety, wasn’t a public affairs program like Lou Gordon. Douglas used to sing in every show — he had provided the singing voice for Prince Charming in Walt Disney’s “Cinderella” — and I’ll never forget the time he attempted to sing “Proud Mary” and was so drunk that he couldn’t remember any of the lyrics except for “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river”. The orchestra director kept looking back over his shoulder at Douglas as the bibulous host wobbled unsteadily before the camera.

  • Margie Hines was the first “Betty Boop” voice, originally hired as a “cover” for the song “Lovin,” which was originally recorded by Helen Kane. She was originally hired as a “one time” impersonator. But as the character caught on, her continued development was encouraged by Paramount. She did NOT perform the voice of Olive Oyl in the early Popeye cartoons. Bonnie Poe, one of the three lead Betty Boop voice performers was the Olive Oyl voice in the first eight cartoons until Mae Questel took over the role using a sort of Zazu Pitts impersonation. Margie Hines was eased into the role of Olive Oyl in 1938 when Mae Questel left the business to have a family, and remained in New York when Fleischer Studios moved to Miami that same year. Miss Hines continued in the role of Olive Oyl for the next six years until Mae Questel returned in 1944. This may have been motivated by the marital breech between Jack and Margie with their divorce becoming final in 1945.

  • Mercer stated in an interview he briefly voiced Bluto (post Gus Wickie) but it was to difficult for him to switch back and forth. He provided Brutus’ voice for one TV cartoon, “Sea No Evil” and on the “Popeye’s Favorite Stories” album. The range he showed performing all of the characters on Felix the Cat (going from one to the other) displayed his outstanding talent. I kept in touch with his wife, Virginia, until she passed. Mercer certainly deserves wider praise for his contributions to animation.

  • Popeye aside, Jack Mercer had two or three good voices in his repertoire (he even attempted Yogi Bear once for the flip side of a Felix the Cat record), but he lacked the versatility of Daws Butler or Paul Frees. His screechy voices for Fleischer’s so-called Color Classics are pretty grating–not that he had much help from the unappealing character designs or uninteresting, unfocused stories. I bet he wrote the poems that The Professor occasionally recited:
    Money doesn’t grow on trees
    Nor does it breed like flies
    It falleth not as gentle rain
    from ever-smiling skies
    It’s not the route of all evil
    But were it only so
    We’d all be out from dawn to dusk
    The evil road to hoe

  • Incidentally, Mercer should never have been allowed as Popeye to roll his R’s, even in a parody of refined speech (e.g., “It’s the Natural Thing to do,” “Shakespearean Spinach”). It was as destructive to the character as the white sailor suit, the occasional scene where he had two good eyes, and the cartoons which portray him as a cowardly weakling until he eats the spinach.

  • Ray — thanks for taking the time to clarify the Hines / Questel work accurately. We’ll amend the sentence and your comment will fill in the additional details. It is important to have the facts right so that fewer bogus facts floats around the web.

  • Outside of Popeye, my favorite Mercer role is The Professor from Joe Oriolo’s Felix The Cat TV Show.

  • Small correction: There were nine Torchy Blane movies, but Farrell only did seven of them; Jane Wyman and Lola Lane spelled her in the other two. Also worth noting is that it’s widely believed she was assigned the role based on her performance as the nearly identical wise-cracking reporter in MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM.

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