Radio was a magical media for the children who heard it during its golden age. Just like the adults had their favorite programs, the small fry also had theirs. For the most part, these programs featured the children's favorite comic strip characters. Not only could they read about them in the Sunday newspaper, the children could also hear them live and in person over the airwaves. One of the comic strip characters is the subject of this article.
On Tuesday, September 3, 1935, the stations of NBC's Red Network debuted the first episode of Popeye the Sailor. It was a serial program heard three times a week (believed to be Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday) at 7:15 p.m.. It was the story of Popeye, who was all Navy from head to toe -- complete with the grizzled accent of an "Old Salt." His girlfriend (for the most part) was Olive Oyl, who adored Popeye, but also had something of a fickle nature. Popeye's friend was J. Wellington Wimpy, or "Wimpy" as he was referred to by his friends. His love was hamburgers--- and lots of them (too bad McDonald's didn't sponsor this program). Matey was a young boy who was adopted by Popeye. Swee' Pea was a baby left on Olive's doorstep. Last but certainly not least was Bluto, a big, rough, mean sailor who loved to stir up trouble -- and to beat the starch out of Popeye.
The characters and the stories on the radio program were similar in content to the comic strip -- with one noticeable exception. In the comic strip, when Popeye was completely out of gas, he always had a can of spinach in his shirt. He had enough strength to pop the can open and pour the contents into his mouth. In split-second speed, Popeye had the strength of 10 men (amazing stuff that spinach). In no time at all, Popeye whipped the daylights out of Bluto, won Olive's heart (for the moment), and everyone lived happily ever after -- until the start of a new story in next week's comic strip.
If spinach were the sponsor of the Popeye radio show, it would be the perfect fit. During the 1930s, there were makers of canned fruit and vegetables (including spinach), but none of them came forward. For a radio program to survive on the air, it was very important to have a sponsor. Wheatena wasn't spinach, but it was the sponsor of the Popeye radio program (if you're not familiar with Wheatena, it was a hot wheat cereal). As you already know, the sponsor called the shots on the radio program they sponsored, so the trick here was to involve Wheatena into the program. There was only one answer:
Wheatena replaced spinach as Popeye's strengthening food.
At the beginning and end of each broadcast, there were the usual Wheatena commercials narrated by announcer Kelvin Beech. While Beech made Wheatena sound so good, the small fry in the listening audience were wondering how it would be involved in the story.
In one episode, Olive, Wimpy, and Matey planned a picnic. They boarded a streetcar that was going to the city limits. This streetcar had a reputation of going fast. On this trip, it was a little too fast. With some sharp curves coming up, the streetcar operator tried to slow it down, but the brakes jammed. After the streetcar hit a truck in the tracks, the driver was thrown out. The conductor of the streetcar showed his bravery by voluntarily jumping off. It was Olive, Wimpy and Matey on the speeding streetcar by themselves. In a nutshell, it didn't look very good for the trio.
With the streetcar gathering more speed, Popeye came to the rescue. He stood in the middle of the tracks, bracing himself to stop the streetcar. This may not necessarily be the smartest thing Popeye or anyone else could do. The speeding streetcar continued its deadly pace. It appeared Popeye was headed to the ship in the sky. Miraculously, Popeye wasn't hit by the streetcar, but he was hanging on to the opposite end for dear life.
The streetcar was now approaching a busy area of the city. Something had to be done -- and fast. Matey started cooking some Wheatena. Popeye said that in order to stop a fast-moving streetcar, not to mention heavy, he needed three bowls full of Wheatena. Popeye devoured the Wheatena. In split-second speed, he had energy and strength. Popeye slowed down the streetcar. It took a few seconds, but Popeye managed to completely derail the streetcar before it approached the busy intersection. It was a scary moment, but the good news was nobody was hurt -- except Popeye's feet that felt the heat from the friction of slowing the streetcar down.
Although Wheatena gave Popeye superhuman strength on the program, the makers of the cereal don't promise the same result to everyone who eats it. Eating Wheatena at breakfast time supplied the energy needed to get the day off in the right direction. Wheatena worked out very well in Popeye's stories on the radio. Good thing the sponsor wasn't something that was not to be eaten. Working that into the story might be very interesting.
Danny Godwin in Return With Us Now, July 2009
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