January marks both the birthdays of both Popeye and the individual considered to be the finest interpreter of the character, Jack Mercer. Few, if any, spent so much of their working life both in the role of a character and as one of its story artists.
Mercer wasn’t even the first voice of Popeye. That was Billy Costello, also known as “Red Pepper Sam.” The enormous success of Fleischer’s Popeye cartoons sent his ego into hyperdrive, ending what could have been the gig of a lifetime. Instead, a low-key, unassuming story artist made the role his own. His quick wit enabled him to add those unforgettable mumbles, allowing for amusing exchanges between various Blutos and Olive Oyls. Mercer survived numerous internal studio changes. voicing Popeye for over five decades in cartoons and on records.
Jack married one of the Olives: Margie Hines. According to Keith Scott’s indispensable volumes, Cartoon Voices of the Golden Age, 1930-70, Hines was the first Betty Boop, beginning in 1930 when the sultry animated songstress was still a somewhat canine companion to Bimbo. Bonnie Poe was the first Olive, but Mae Questel became the definitive Ms. Oyl, though Poe and Hines did the voice when Questel was unavailable.
After Questel declined to move to Florida with the Fleischer studio, Hines did the voice full-time in Miami.
Popeye is nowhere to be heard on two of Mercer’s earliest records. 1946’s The Adventures of Buzzy Bear and Peggy Penguin was one of two 78 rpm record sets he recorded for the tiny Willida Records company. Margie Hines plays Penny, with narration by golden-age Hollywood star Glenda Farrell, whose numerous films include the “Torchy Blane” series.
Mercer plays the title role in another Willida album called Joey the Jeep (WR-1), narrated this time by silent screen siren Gloria Swanson, four years before she would be ready for her close-up, and an Academy Award, for Sunset Boulevard.
Sammy Lerner’s “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man” had been recorded by Costello and other artists before Mercer finally sang his own version in 1951. This Little Golden Records rendition was used as the template for Robin Williams’ performance of the song in the 1980 live-action Popeye feature.
There was a period when a kid could switch from station to station, particularly in the afternoon, and hear Jack Mercer’s voice on one cartoon or another, in The Mighty Hercules (“That’s meee! That’s meee!”), hundreds of Popeye cartoons, made-for-TV versions of Felix the Cat and Out of the Inkwell, and even syndicated reruns of Gulliver’s Travels and Mr. Bug Goes to Town.
He did pretty much every voice on Felix the Cat (1958-1960), which became a soundtrack album on Cricket Records in 1959. Narrated by Mason Adams (Lou Grant, Smucker’s commercials), the LP contains six stories from the Trans-Lux series. (See this Animation Spin for more details.)
Mercer’s most unique recordings were his two 1960 “Movie Wheels” sets. Each consisted of a seven-inch flexidisc and an LP-sized cardboard sleeve with a round illustrated disc inside. The disc, also cardboard, was printed with cartoon scenes along its perimeter. Kids could rotate the disc in the sleeve and see individual scenes in small windows, prompted by the signal on the record. Mercer recorded two Felix stories especially for Movie Wheels.
Perhaps Mercer’s most bizarre recording was the other Movie Wheels set, in which he did his best to imitate Daws Butler as Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound on another Movie-Wheels set. The Huckleberry Hound Show was going strong in 1960, and Golden had also done “cover versions” of Hanna-Barbera characters on their records with Gilbert Mack. (See this Animation Spin for more details.)
There was a made-for-TV Popeye cartoon explosion in 1960s detonated by King Features, which hired numerous studios worldwide to produce hundreds of five-minute shorts. To tie in with the programming, several record labels created new albums. Popeye’s Zoo (VL-73703) presented Popeye in his stereophonic debut. Vocalion Records, a division of Decca, starred Mercer as a zoo keeper in a series of songs about various animals. (See this Animation Spin for more details.)
Mae Questel joined Jack Mercer for two LPs that year, giving listeners the treat of hearing them do multiple voices. Six original stories were created for Popeye’s Favorite Stories (CAL-1046), narrated by Mercer in his own voice on RCA Camden Records. (See this Animation Spin for more details.)
Questel and Mercer performed songs and short skits on the especially delightful Golden LP, Popeye the Sailorman and His Friends (LP-56). This is one of the best Popeye records in that it includes Mercer’s Wimpy voice and Questel’s Swee’ Pea, with bright musical direction by Jimmy Carroll, who arranged most of the early Golden Records. (See this Animation Spin for more details.) Here’s an excerpt:
Sometime during this era, the “Steve and Eydie” of Thimble Theater also recorded “I’m a Little Teapot” for Golden (R-615), which appeared on various singles and albums.
A year later, Questel and Mercer recorded an educational album for Golden called Popeye’s Songs about Health, Safety, Friendship, and Manners (LP-73). This disc reflects the Golden recordings of the early sixties, as Jim Timmens added a mellow light jazz combo with vibraphone that became the signature sound for several years. (See this Animation Spin for more details.)
Popeye and pals would inspire more original stories for vinyl in the seventies and eighties, all on Peter Pan Records. The first LP was Popeye the Sailor Man: 4 Exciting Stories #8097, 1971). This was the first Popeye material also made available as read-along book and recording sets.
One of Mercer’s most entertaining and sharply written albums is 1977’s Christmas with Popeye(#8215). Voicing Olive Oyl in this case was Peter Pan stock company regular Ruth Edinburg, who played countless female and child roles for the label. (See this Animation Spin for more details.)
Hanna-Barbera brought high ratings to CBS with 1978’s All-New Popeye Hour on Saturday mornings. Mercer relocated to the West Coast to voice and write new adventures. Marilyn Schreffler (Fatal Attraction) won the role of Olive Oyl this time around.
Peter Pan Records released another LP In the wake of the hit TV series and the Robin Williams Popeye: Four Stories (#1113) features Mercer and possibly an uncredited Schreffler. Two of these stories were also issued on the only LP and book set starring Popeye (BR-523). (See this Animation Spin for more details).
As Megan Camponovo of WMTV ABC Channel 8 in Portland reported, Popeye’s 95th anniversary this year was commemorated by designating January 17 as National Popeye the Sailor Man Day. In addition to Mercer’s own birthday this month, Good Housekeeping magazine awarded Popeye with its Nutritionist Approved Emblem in its January issue, because of his healthy diet of spinach (or Wheatena, for radio fans). You can’t keep a great character down for very long.