There are a number of elements in the Popeye cartoons produced by the Fleischer studio in the mid-to-late 1930s that one could point to as being reasons for their popularity. One might be the technical skill that resulted in the special backgrounds that gave the illusion of depth to many shorts. Another could be the writing, which produced many entertaining scenarios that in many ways rivaled the original Thimble Theatre comic strips for fleshing out the characters.
Yet a third would be the voice work that gave life to the characters. By the mid-1930s, the cartoons would feature the voices of Fleischer staffer Jack Mercer as Popeye, and Mae Questel as his “sweet patootie,” Olive Oyl. Certainly, the seemingly under-the-breath mumblings they gave their characters put many jokes over with punch. Both of these actors would go on (with some brief interludes) to portray Popeye and Olive Oyl for many decades to come; Mercer even appeared on the game show To Tell the Truth in 1974 (where he baffled some of the panel).
Another one of the vocal talents from the 1930s Fleischer cartoons, but one that has received less attention, is August (Gus) Wicke. Wicke only voiced the villainous Bluto (or analogues thereof) for a few years, from approximately 1935 to 1938, but to highly memorable effect, especially in Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936) and Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937). A New York-based singer, he did not go south with the Fleischer studio when it moved in 1938; furthermore, he died in 1947, long before the era in which animation historians began to gather first-hand information regarding the creative talents behind cartoons. Until recently, not much information was available on Wicke, and readily accessible photographs appear to have been nonexistent.
The advent of the Internet, and in particular the emergence of the ancestry.com website, has helped with access to hitherto unavailable materials. Recently, the author has been able to make contact with the well-known illustrator of children’s books, Diane deGroat. Ms. deGroat, aside from her professional accomplishments, also happens to be the grand-niece of Gus Wicke. She has very kindly made available to Cartoon Research a number of pictures from the family’s collection, which help to flesh out the career of the man behind the comically ominous basso (1) rumblings in many Popeye cartoons. (Unless otherwise noted, all pictures here are courtesy of Ms. deGroat.)
Wicke (which is pronounced in German as VICK-uh – the Americanized version is pronounced WICK-ee, according to Ms. deGroat) was born on May 7, 1885.(2) His birthplace was the Prussian town of Barmen (3), which at that time was its own entity; in the 20th century, it would merge with other communities to form the present-day North Rhine-Westphalian city of Wuppertal. He was the son of August Wicke, born February, 1858, and Bertha Wicke (nee Wirth), born June, 1848(4).
Records on ancestry.com indicate that the Wicke family, including parents August and Bertha, along with children Bertha, Clara and August, arrived in the United States, in the port of New York, on the Red Star Line vessel SS Waesland on November 19, 1887, having departed Europe from Antwerp.(5)
In the ship’s manifest, the elder Wicke’s profession was listed as “carpenter,” the same profession that he would give in the 1892 New York census, which continues to list his wife Bertha (then aged 44), and the children Bertha (then 13), Clara (11), August (7) and Lizzie (4), the last of whom is listed as having been born in the United States(6). At that point, the family lived in Long Island City, Queens(7).
Based on a ship’s manifest from August 31, 1897, from a voyage by the SS Friesland, the elder August Wicke appears to have been a US citizen by that time, based on a statement in the manifest.(8)
In the 1900 federal census, young August Wicke, then 15, is listed as living in Union, New Jersey, in Hudson County, along with his parents and his younger sister Louisa [sic]. His father’s profession is listed as “Loom Builder – Silk.”(9) The older sisters Bertha and Clara appear to have left the household by that point, as they are not listed with the others. (Family data shows that Bertha died in 1972, Clara in 1967, and Elizabeth “Lizzie” in 1972.)
A rather charming autograph book note, dated October 6, 1902, exists in family archives; in it, August composes a bit of doggerel addressed to younger sister Lizzie.
While the author has not been able to locate the younger August Wicke in the 1910 census, the father, along with his wife and youngest child Elizabeth, is shown in that census as living in Passaic, where he was employed as a shuttle maker in a silk mill.(10) The 1940 census states that the highest level of education that Gus Wicke received was the 8th grade.(11)
It is possible that August Wicke married Mary Sullivan in New Jersey in 1913, as the information in the database for New Jersey marriages is consistent with the marriage information listed for the couple in the 1930 federal census.(12) His wife was born in New York State, in approximately 1892.
There is an entry in the 1915 New York State census for a Gustave [sic] Wicke, actor, living with his wife Mae, actress, at 55 Main Street in Long Island City, Queens. It also, curiously, lists his place of birth as the United States, and has an age for Mae that is in conflict with known data. It is not clear whether this is a garbled entry, or represents a different Wicke – though another Wicke married to a woman named May, and who is a New York City-based actor, must surely be a longshot!
As of the fall of 1916, Wicke was appearing in one of producer Charles Dillingham’s Hippodrome Theatre revue-spectacles, The Big Show. The Billboard, in its September 9, 1916 edition (in a story dated September 2nd) references Wicke.(13) (The author has not identified Wicke in the cast postcard shown here, which is taken from the Internet.)
At the time the United States entered into the First World War, Wicke was an actor, living in the Hudson County, New Jersey city of West New York.(14) His employer is listed as “Shanley” at 43rd Street and Broadway. This is a possible reference to one of the locations of the Shanley’s “lobster palace” chain; it is known that they operated a restaurant at 43rd and Broadway.(15)
In his 1917 draft registration documentation, Wicke is listed as being tall, of slender build, and with brown eyes and brown hair. An injury to his right eye resulting in its loss, noted in his draft registration, appears to have kept him out of the service.
In the 1920 federal census, Wicke is listed as still living in West New York, along with his wife May. His profession is listed as “theatrical entertainer.”
By 1921, Wicke formed part of a group known as the “Texas Four.” He can be seen in this photograph from the family archive, taken in Tampa, Florida; he is standing at far right in the shot.
The “Texas Four” quartet was no longer in existence by 1926, when Billboard noted that Wicke, “late of the Texas Four, which recently broke up,” was now part of a group known as “The Westerners,” a five-part harmony, singing and comedy group.(16) Wicke also received notices in 1929 for his role in R.H. Burnside’s production of Here and There(17), and in the short-lived production of Ballyhoo (a/k/a Ballyhoo of 1930) in 1930-1, where he was in the cast as a “Mr. Pidgeon.”(18) The latter production was notorious for being a rare flop for W.C. Fields, and closed quickly, a victim of the Depression, it has been suggested, not because of the show itself.(19) Given that Fields played a “gyp artist” that “fleeced the natives,” and that Wicke’s character’s name was “Pidgeon,” one might hazard a guess as to his role.(20)
During the 1930s, Wicke appears to have had a very active career in the New York City area as a singer. A prominent venue where he appeared was “Bill’s Gay Nineties,” which for many years was at 57 East 54th Street in Manhattan. Boxer, jockey and Broadway bon vivant Bill Hardy was its impresario. The first floor featured period sports memorabilia, with the second floor liberally decorated with posters and photos from the 19th century; the third floor was a private-party space, the Tenderloin Room.(21) Wicke is cited as performing there in 1936,(22) and a photo spread in a 1941 article in the Akron Beacon-Journal shows him performing there. The New York Herald-Tribune, on February 21, 1940, noted that Bill Hardy honored Wicke for five years of service to the restaurant.(23) Wicke’s World War II draft card continues to refer to his employment by Bill’s Gay Nineties, and notes that he lived with his wife in East Rockaway, Nassau County, New York, which is where he had been living at the time of the 1930 census, which listed his occupation as a performer in a theatrical company.(24) Significantly, the 1940 census (which has him at the same address as his later, 1942 draft card) lists him as a “restaurant entertainer,” suggesting that Bill’s was his major venue.(25)
Wicke was also noted for appearing at the opening of the Radio Franks Club in February, 1938.(26) (The accompanying, undated photo, courtesy Diane deGroat, identifies the figures as the following, via annotations on the rear: Danny La Vera, Gus Wicke, Teddy Burns, Joe (Rubberface) Gallagher and Fred Bishop, at a Radio Franks outing.) An article from later in February, 1938, also citing Wicke’s work at Radio Franks, may be the origin of the occasionally seen misspelling of his surname as Wickie.(27)
On February 19, 1944, Billboard noted that Wicke was involved in entertaining the troops as part of the “American Theatre Wing.”(28)
Variety, in its January 8, 1947 edition, carried Wicke’s obituary, noting that he died on January 3rd in Belleville, New Jersey, and had been a member of the quartet at Bill’s Gay Nineties for twelve years.(29) Wicke and his wife do not appear to have had any children.As David Gerstein notes, Wicke appears to have been a highly popular entertainer with a following in the same city where the Popeye cartoons were made. Cabarga identifies Wicke’s predecessor in the role of Bluto as William Pennell (1888-1956), a member of a “Paramount Quartette,” and an actor who had started playing heavies in the cartoons in 1931.(30) Keith Scott has suggested to the author bass singer Charles Carver as a possibility, based on an AFI publication that notes he was a bass singer heard in Max Fleischer cartoons. The precise circumstances under which Wicke was recruited to succeed Pennell (and/or Carver) in the role of Bluto in the cartoons remains unknown owing to a lack of on-screen credits and the simultaneous lack of surviving studio records, though there are some suggestions Wicke’s vocal group may have been used by Paramount, the studio that released the Popeye shorts, in some capacity. Voice actor and animation historian Keith Scott has suggested to the author that Louis Fleischer, the musical director of the cartoons, might have known of Wicke as well. As noted above, Wicke appears to have essayed the role of Bluto from approximately 1935 (starting with Choose Yer Weppins, or possibly The Hyp-Nut-Ist) until the Fleischer Studio moved to Florida in 1938 (ending with Big Chief Ugh-a-Mug-Ugh).(31) A reluctance to move, rather than death, seems to have been the reason for Wicke not continuing in the role; it is noteworthy that Mae Questel was replaced by Margie Hines (the future spouse of Jack Mercer) between 1938 and 1944, for apparently similar reasons. Vance (Pinto) Colvig, according to Keith Scott, was hired specifically to replace Wicke as Bluto, though he found a more comfortable metier in being a gag contributor instead.(32)
An interesting sidelight is revealed both by research undertaken by David Gerstein and from materials in the family archive. Gerstein notes that some of the articles discussing Wicke in the late 1930s refer to him by nickname as “Popeye.” Even more intriguing is that Wicke himself posed in a sailor suit next to a Popeye figure, and had sent out Christmas cards with a “Popeye” nickname. Publicity for an appearance at Bill’s also lists him as “Popeye.” (While a handwritten notation on the publicity sheet lists it as 1934, June 21st fell on a Wednesday in 1933 and in 1939; as the first Popeye cartoon was not released until July, 1933, a 1939 date for the publicity seems more likely.) Wicke’s grand-niece Diane deGroat has told the author that growing up, she was told by her grandmother, Wicke’s younger sister, that Wicke had done the voice for Popeye, and that the grandmother preserved a rubber/plastic figurine of Popeye, which reinforced the connection. The author knows of no direct connection between Wicke and the Popeye role itself in the theatrical shorts, or on the radio, where Floyd Buckley and Detmar Poppen played the sailor man, with at least one source noting Jackson Beck as playing the role of Bluto in the 1935-1936 series, foreshadowing his later role in the Famous Studios-era Popeye cartoons.(33)
Wicke’s role as Bluto appears to be by far the most accessible surviving work from his career. Given the joy and laughter Bluto’s characterization has evoked, and continues to evoke, it is a fitting memorial to professional. One likes to think that Wicke would be pleased and proud.
1. There does appear to be some disagreement as to whether Wicke was a basso or a baritone. Leslie Cabarga and Charles Solomon, for example, identify him as a baritone. See The Fleischer Story (daCapo, 1988), page 90 and Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation (Wings Books, 1994), page 77, while, as will be seen, at least one article of publicity material for Wicke identifies him as a basso. Keith Scott, in responding to a query from the author, believes Wicke to be a basso profundo.
2. Sources for birth date: World War II draft card, World War I draft card, reproduced herein and taken from ancestry.com.
3. Source: Social Security administration document retrieved from ancestry.com
4. Source: Social Security administration document retrieved from ancestry.com; note that the 1930 census lists the birthplaces of Wicke’s parents as Bremen, not Barmen. Birth month/year information for parents from the 1900 federal census.
5. Source: passenger and crew list retrieved from ancestry.com
6. Source: 1892 New York Census, retrieved from ancestry.com
8. Source: manifest of the SS Friesland, August 31, 1897 at ancestry.com. His wife is noted as having paid for his ticket.
9. Source 1900 federal census, retrieved from ancestry.com
10. Source: 1910 federal census.
11. Source: 1940 federal census.
12. Sources: Ancestry.com, New Jersey Marriage Index 1910-1914, Bride Index R-S, 1930 federal census
13. Gerstein, http://ramapithblog.blogspot.com/2013/11/out-of-vaults-from-binko-to-bluto.html, and the issue of The Billboard for September 9, 1916, page 67, available at archive.org
14. Source: World War I draft card on ancestry.com
15. Source: Wikipedia entry for Shanley’s; see also the postcard depicting the restaurant, taken from the Internet
16. Gerstein, op cit.
17. Gerstein, op cit. Burnside had also worked with Charles Dillingham on The Big Show; see The Billboard, 9/9/1916 18. Not a great deal of information is available for Here and There, though the New York Public Library online catalog lists designs for the show, noting that the music was by John Phillip Sousa, Irving Berlin and Raymond Hubbell, and the typescript, also at the NYPL, refers to it as a “skit.” Published reports indicated that it had tryouts in Atlantic City and in Boston, but it may not have played in New York City. Wicke’s role in the production is therefore obscure.
19. Gerstein, op cit. See also the cast list for Ballyhoo in Playbill.
20. https://travsd.wordpress.com/2016/11/18/w-c-fields-and-broadway/ However, cp. W.C. Fields: A Biography, by James Curtis (Knopf, 2003), pp. 226-232, where he suggests an overlong book and “slow and forgettable songs” may have been to blame.
21. Curtis, p. 226. Curtis’ account does not mention Wicke. The review in Variety, December 24th, 1930, page 54, does not mention Wicke except in the cast list, which is also the case with the (negative) review in The New York Times, December 23rd, 1930, page 24.
22. Source: http://www.bigapplesecrets.com/2013/06/bills-gay-nineties-retro-piano-bar-with.html
22. Gerstein, op. cit.
23. Gerstein, op. cit.
24. Source: 1930 federal census.
25. Source: 1940 federal census. East Rockaway, listed in the 1942 draft card, is a village within the town of Hempstead, listed in the 1940 census. The address, 101 Rhame Avenue, is the same in both sources.
26. Gerstein, op. cit., citing The New York Post, February 5, 1938.
27. Gerstein, op. cit., citing The New York Times, February 13, 1938.
28. Gerstein, op. cit.
29. Gerstein, op. cit.
30. Cabarga, op. cit.
31. Credits listed in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) should be viewed with caution; one credit listed there is for the Warner Bros. cartoon Sunday Go To Meetin’ Time (Freleng, 1936), which seems to the author to be unlikely.
32. Scott in an email to the author. Mark Evanier identifies Dave Barry as one of the voices of Bluto until 1944: https://www.newsfromme.com/2001/08/20/dave-barry-r-i-p/ Ted Pierce has also been cited as a substitute voice in various sources; while he is known for having done voice work at the Fleischer Studio, caveat lector.
33. Sources: https://www.oldtimeradiodownloads.com/kids/popeye-the-sailor and https://cartoonresearch.com/index.php/sing-me-a-cartoon-16-more-sailor-man-rhythm/
This article was reviewed prior to posting by Keith Scott and Devon Baxter; thanks also to David Gerstein for the use of his research. And, of course, thanks to Diane deGroat for her generous help.