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Popeye celebrates his birthday in Rimini

Popeye statue in Crystal city

Popeye statue in Crystal city

As if you needed proof that eating spinach is good for you, Popeye – the world-famous cartoon character who’s better known in Italian as braccio di ferro (literally iron arm) – celebrates his 80th birthday this year, and as part of the festivities there’ll be a special show dedicated to the character today at Rimini’s international cartoon festival.

Popeye was created by the American cartoonist Elzie Crisler Segar for thimble theatre, a daily strip syndicated by King Features (the giant syndication service founded by media magnate Randolph Hearst). Popeye made his first appearance in January 17, 1929 as a minor character. He was initially hired by Castor Oyl and Ham to crew a ship for a voyage to Dice Island, the location of a casino owned by the crooked gambler Fadewell.

Due to popular demand the character returned and became a regular in the strip, which expanded dramatically throughout the 1930s. Eventually the strip’s name was changed to Popeye (in the 1970s) to reflect his central role and popularity.

Since Segar’s death in 1937 Popeye has been drawn by several different artists including Segar’s assistant Bud Sagendorf, and the current illustrator Hy Eisman (who first read Popeye as a child of six,while in a state orphanage).

Popeye the sailor - 80 years old this year

Popeye the sailor - 80 years old this year

Popeye’s worldwide success, though, is equally built on the series of animated cartoons which started with a humble debut in a Betty Boo cartoon titled Popeye the Sailor in 1933 (although in actual fact it’s more like Betty has the cameo role). It was, of course, through the cartoons that the famous ‘I’m Popeye the sailor man’ song came to the attention of playgrounds across the globe – written by Romanian born songwriter Sammy Lerner and based loosely around a Gilbert & Sullivan piece from The Pirates of Penzance. Ironically, the introduction of the Hays code in 1934 saw the quick demise of swimsuited Betty Boo and paved the way for the celebration of a tattooed, one-eyed, pipe-smoking strongman like Popeye! Prtrayal of drug-use was forbidden, but spinach-eating was acceptable!

The Popeye films made by Fleischer studios from the 1930s onwards proved to be a huge hit – more popular even than Mickey Mouse according to one theatre-owners’ poll.

Of course any 80 year old has some skeletons in their closet – best not make any mention of the 1980 Robert Altman directed disaster Popeye starring Robin Williams!

The birthday party will be celebrated in the Musei Comunali di Rimini (via Tonini, 1) on Tuesday 28th July – admission is free.


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