Calling All Popeye Clubbers
Some of us used to meet on once-a-month Saturdays with a collecting old-timer in Concord, NC who’d lately been privy to 16mm prints being dumped out of nearby TV stations. Prior to our sharing in his bounty, we’d sit in a Shoney’s off I-85 and Bill would polish off a Slim Jim Special whilst regaling us with memories of film going in his youth. Many were references to The Popeye Club, of which he’d been a proud member fifty years prior. Anytown USA might have been the group’s address, for chapters sprung up everywhere once Popeye caught on in 1933. This was a craze born and reborn with succeeding generations. When the cartoon backlog went to television in 1956, what exploded in the thirties did so all over again, and even recently, we’ve had yet another Popeye boomlet with Warners’ much-anticipated release of the series on DVD. Bill’s gone now, and so I suspect are most members of the original Popeye clubs, the minimum age being (at least) eighty among those who survive. It began as a grass roots exhibiting phenomenon. Betty Boop introduced Popeye, but he quickly put her in the shade. Betty was more for adult consumption anyway, and enjoyed not the sailor man’s kid drawing power. Suddenly Paramount had their own Mickey Mouse, and as Disney’s rodent boasted matinee clubs in his name, why not Popeye? The Mouse meetings were models for weekly programs that would restore strength to Saturday ticket counters as surely as spinach did for Paramount’s animated star. Co-ops were a natural for Popeye. The Colfax Theatre’s Guy Martin wangled a sure bet when he tied up with South Bend (Indiana) News Times for mutual backscratching between comic strips in the daily and cartoons on the Colfax’s screen. Gratis three column ten inch ads (one shown here) in the Times trumpeted club meetings, and special trailers following each Popeye cartoon at the Colfax led child patrons back to the paper’s strip. These Saturday gatherings were no mere play-off for cheap rented screen fodder. Each was a down home extravaganza highlighting talent from neighborhoods and city blocks where kids with musical instruments and tap shoes were encouraged to parlay performance into cash/toy prizes.
Shows began with a call to order and the singing of The Star Spangled Banner, with organ accompaniment and a screen projected American flag. Popeye salutes and handshakes traveled along rows, front to back. Dad had Lions and Civitans, but this was Junior’s own fraternal order. I’m betting a lot of those youngsters made friends they’d never have met but for attending Popeye Club. There were three theme songs; lyrics geared to local people and events, and plugged into melodies of Hail, Hail (The Gang’s All Here) and East Side, West Side. The live portion continued with song and dance, imitations, recitations, magic acts, all performed by kids out of the audience trying their luck. In that era of child stars and stage mad moppets, interest (and talent) came in abundance. There was even a Popeye Club Band, with twelve members, and according to Colfax management, growing by the week. Within a short time, we will be presenting one of the finest musical aggregations of its kind in the city. Special mid-week Popeye Club Follies brought performers to the attention of adult patrons, and were greeted as important local events. Almost an afterthought were screen offerings in the wake of such entertainment, but these too were stellar as might be expected. The ad here promises, in addition to Popeye; a Terrytoon, Betty Boop, Charley Chase, plus news and sport reels, followed by Metro’s Trouble For Two, itself a red meat thriller with Robert Montgomery that’s still a pip to watch. Admission for all was one thin dime. Kids with birthdays falling that week got in free. Postcard updates went out regularly to the membership. Other theatres devised bally and ritual of their own. The Park Theatre in Roselle Park, New Jersey gave each child a pipe along with his/her member card (but did they comp tobacco as well?). Jingle contests, harmonica eliminations, and bring your (preferably tethered) dog promotions were staples as well. By way of gaining moral support from parents, local PTA and Police Departments were invited to provide weekly addresses on safety and citizenship. We can say on one hand that all of this was quaint and reflective of simple times when kids had not the amusement choices they enjoy (?) today, but who or what is bringing them together and filling thousand seat theatres in 2007? I’ve thought (and written) of how lucky I was growing up with vintage cartoons on fifties and sixties television, and yes, we can look at Popeye DVD’s and approximate our experience in discovering them, but even memories sweet as these would be hard pressed to compete with glories those Popeye Clubbers routinely enjoyed.