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.
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.“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.
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.
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.