ANIMATION SPIN
January 23, 2024 posted by Greg Ehrbar

Jack Mercer, the Recording Star

Jack Mercer at Hanna Barbera in the 1970s

One of animation’s most prolific voice actor/story artists is celebrated with a selection of vinyl and shellac records from his stellar career.

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.

Jack Mercer and Margie Hines at Fleischer Studios Miami in 1942.

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.

18 Comments

  • A few months ago, Jerry Beck said he watched cartoons religiously until The Great Grape Ape Show in 1975.

    I have always considered the All-New Popeye in 1978 as my turning point.

    Curiously Jerry is only 4 years older than I – was it the show, or turning 40?

    • I’m pretty sure that Jerry Beck didn’t turn 40 in 1975.

    • Had I done my arithmetic correctly – I would have said 20 years old.

      At 40 in 1998 I was subjected to Disney’s PB and J Otter – which is a WHOLE different story.

  • Hey Jackson, get a load of the snazzy threads Mercer’s wearing in that Miami pic! Pipe them two-tone stompers, and the reet baggy rips with a yard of wallet chain! Mercer must have taken off the jacket of his zoot suit in the sweltering Florida heat. They would have had to turn off the air conditioning in the studio when they were recording.

    Jack Mercer never failed to give 100% in his performances. He was able to rise above his material even on those occasions when said material wasn’t worth rising above. In the early 1980s I bought a Popeye album starring Jack Mercer and Mae Questel purely on the strength of its cast. Unfortunately, the only song from it that has remained stuck in my memory is an embarrassingly bad one called “Every State is a Great State”:

    “Every state is a great state if it’s in the U.S.A.!
    Skidda ba dee do di dow!
    Every state is a great state if it’s in the U.S.A.!
    Oh, I wants to go to New Jersey!
    I wants to see the view!
    And when I gets to New Jersey,
    I’ll finds out what makes it so new!”

    In other verses Popeye expresses a desire to travel to Ohio (“with buildings high as the sky-o”) and Grand Rapids (“to finds out what makes it so grand”), even though Grand Rapids isn’t a state, but let’s not split hairs. The only other state he mentions is in an alleged “comedy” bit between verses:

    “I wants to goes to Tennessee. I sure loves the seashore.”
    “But Popeye, Tennessee is a landlocked state! It’s nowhere near the ocean!”
    “Ug ug ug ug ug! I thought they called it Tennes-SEA, because it was by the SEA! Ug ug ug ug ug!”

    Ugh ugh ugh ugh ugh.

  • The second story on the Felix album is actually remade from a Messmer comic book story, “Jigsore” from FELIX THE CAT #41 (1953). One can still see Messmer’s art in many of the images, though much has been redrawn to use Felix’s TV design and eliminate his pig sidekick. Interesting that someone thought this, of all stories, deserved to be adapted.

    https://comics.ha.com/itm/original-comic-art/panel-pages/otto-messmer-felix-the-cat-41-page-original-art-group-of-8-toby-press-1953-felix-s-talent-with-puzzles-comes-in-hand-total-8/a/16064-16403.s?ic4=GalleryView-ShortDescription-071515

  • Someone should send the “Shake Hands” song to Howie Mandel.

  • Jack Mercer was no Mel Blanc, and had maybe three or four good voices in his repertoire. But he sure was loyal to that sailor man. Mae Questel, conversely, evidently had had enough of Olive Oyl by the 1970s and became known as Aunt Bluebell in the paper towel commercials.

    • “Jack Mercer was no Mel Blanc, and had maybe three or four good voices in his repertoire. But he sure was loyal to that sailor man. Mae Questel, conversely, evidently had had enough of Olive Oyl by the 1970s and became known as Aunt Bluebell in the paper towel commercials.”

      Hogwash. Mercer could do LOTS of different voices, not just 3 or 4. Not only Popeye, Wimpy and the many incidental voices he did for Popeye toons, but every character in Felix the Cat (Felix, Vavoom, Poindexter and the rest are all distinctly different). Not to mention the dozens of voices he performed for Paramount, many of them one shot characters. Unlike Mel Blanc, Jack Mercer didn’t need help from a variable speed oscillator to create certain voices (as Mel did for Tweety, Daffy, Speedy, Porky and other Looney Tunes stars).

  • This post reminded me of a 45 that I had when I was a kid and hadn’t thought about in at least 50 years: “Popeye on Parade”/”Strike Me Pink, But I See Red” on the Cricket label. I looked it up on YouTube and was surprised to learn that the singer was someone named Captain Paul, who made no attempt to sound like Popeye even though it’s supposed to be him singing. I never noticed that when I was a kid.

    In addition to Aunt Bluebell, Mae Questel also played Woody Allen’s mother in “New York Stories” and the senile aunt who gift-wraps her cat in “Christmas Vacation.”

  • Virginia Mercer told me that her husband didn’t like doing the “Felix” voice in the cartoons and records, but that’s what the producers wanted – so Jack was stuck doing those voices all those years!

    “It’s the Pro-fes-sor and ROCK BOT-TOM!!!” and – of couse – “Right-eee-ooohh!”

  • It surprises me that Jack Mercer wasn’t more sought after for interviews and retrospectives during his lifetime outside of a rare interview and his appearance on To Tell the Truth. His story of transitioning from animator and occasional jazz musician to Popeye is a boilerplate American success story of the brand that people would have really appreciated in the 70s. Even if he was only the voice of Popeye for most of his life, that story should be attractive enough with the sheer unique quirkiness of his voice and the way he was able to convey both gritty toughness and wholesome purity depending on the story or situation. On top that, he was also the voice of Felix the Cat and almost all of the rest of the cast on that show.

    Does anyone have any information of what animation he worked on with the Fleischers and beyond? What did he in-between? Did he do backgrounds? Did he color and paint? Did he do keys? When I heard that he animated on the old To Tell the Truth, it was like hearing that Babe Ruth also crafted his own bats and designed his own uniforms or hearing that John Madden also coded the John Madden Football game. This information completely floors me.

  • When my old animation teacher Gordon Sheehan went to work for Max Fleischer, the first job he got was as an “opaquer” – learning how to make sure no light would go through the images that were traced on the animation “cels.” Gordon told me that Jack Mercer taught him how to do this task. I don’t know exactly when Mercer started as an animator at Fleischer’s. I know he was an “in-betweener,” – OR he may have already done some animation by the time he started to do “Popeye”‘s voice. I’ve heard that he gradually got into that by doing voices for other characters first. I BELIEVE the first full voice of “Popeye” he did was for KING OF THE MARDI GRAS (1935), but I’ve heard somewhere that he might actually have done a few lines as the character shortly before that. Maybe Keith Scott or Fred Grandinetti can fill in more details.

    Most of the material I got on Jack Mercer – outside of reading other sources and interviews with Mercer – was from his widow, Virginia, but she told me that husband didn’t talk a lot of “shop” at home. He was upset that he didn’t get “voice credit” – as Mel Blanc did in the middle ’40s, and he was upset when other voice actors would “stretch the truth” when they talked about thier own careers of doing the “Popeye” voice – Harry Foster Welch, etc. – but I suspect that the person who did the most complaing about this was Virginia herself, especially after she became Jack’s business manager. She was a FIESTY little lady, believe me! But, Virginia was a very kind person as well, as Steve Stanchfield and Fred Grandinetti can tell you!

    • I guess I didn’t totally answer your question, but Jack Mercer was NOT one to “blow his own horn.” If people recognized his voice and if a kid wanted an autograph – according to Virginia – he happily did so. However, unlike some old-time radio actors, he never made a big deal of his talents at restaurants or any place in public to get attention. So, because he was never credited in the Fleischer and Famous POPEYE cartoons as doing “voices,” the public generally didn’t know who he was. He DID get credit for writing scripts and doing record albums – but not much more than that. I’ve heard that the first “on-screen-credit” as POPEYE’s voice was for the 1980 Robin Williams movie, but I don’t know if that’s true.

      Mel Blanc wanted a raise from Warner Bros. but got “screen credit” from about the middle ’40s onwards. That – actually – was a “blessing in disguise” for Blanc, because then, people inside and outside the “industry” gradually knew who he was. On radio shows, he was suddenly referred to as “The Voice of Bugs Bunny,” etc. This didn’t happen for Jack Mercer and Co. on radio – at least not that I know of!

  • It’s tragic how many people have claimed to be the voice of Popeye and received press coverage for it.
    This demonstrates how the media does not do its homework before publishing individual’s claims.
    Mrs. Mercer was very pleased when I was able to get Jack in The Worlds Guinness Book of Records.

  • Gloria Swanson did not win the Oscar for Sunset Boulevard. That year it went to Judy Holiday.

  • “A few months ago, Jerry Beck said he watched cartoons religiously until The Great Grape Ape Show in 1975.”

    I’m 5 years younger than Jerry, but I stopped watching toons religiously before he did…about the time all those Scooby Doo clones came along. After that it was strictly Bandstand, Soul Train and Creature Double Feature for me.

  • Well, I have three younger brothers, so I had to put up with their watching stuff in the ’70s that I totally outgrew – as far as animation was concerned. I kept hoping that the stuff would get better! I had high hopes for Filmation’s FLASH GORDON, etc. BILL COSBY AND THE COSBY KIDS is probably some of the best animated shows that sudio did. More than I can say for GILLIGAN’S PLANET and (Urgghhh!) stuff like that. Thank goodness that THE BUGS BUNNY – ROAD RUNNER SHOW (or whatever it was called then) was still on TV!

  • Milton Knight recently posted a video highlighting the best of the crazy Jim Tyer animation in the 50’s Felix cartoon.

    https://youtu.be/yJAFn3ZYwk8?si=BdddGCcZ_Qv4EOvF

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *