Sunday, January 18, 2004
Chester, Ill. Before Popeye the Sailor Man, Olive Oyl and Wimpy were the stars of a beloved comic strip, they walked the streets of this little town where their creator grew up.
Popeye's real-life alter ego, according to locals, was Frank Fiegel, a one-eyed, pipe-smoking man with a penchant for fistfights. Dora Paskel was unusually tall and thin and wore a bun at the nape of her neck. And theater owner J. William Schuchert so loved hamburgers that he would send his employees out between performances to buy them.
Popeye made his debut in the funny pages 75 years ago, walking onto Elzie Segar's "Thimble Theatre" comic strip on Jan. 17, 1929. The colorful locals from Segar's hometown had evolved into a pipe-tooting, spinach-chomping hero, the "goil" he was always rushing to save from danger, and a man with a paunch to prove his passion for burgers.
In honor of the 75th anniversary, New York's Empire State Building will shine its lights spinach-green this weekend. A 3-D animated movie will air before Christmas on Fox. And Chester, population 5,200, will hold its annual picnic for Popeye fans after Labor Day.
All for a character who humbly declares, "I yam what I yam," and who got his start when Segar cast his eyes around his hometown about 60 miles from St. Louis.
Locals say they don't know if Segar every acknowledged his inspiration, but they attribute that to his death nine years after Popeye's debut. Around town, it just seems obvious that Popeye, Wimpy and Olive Oyl got their start in Chester -- especially when you look at pictures of Fiegel's jutting chin, wiry frame and ever-present pipe.
Ernie Schuchert, 75, has spent his entire life in Chester, and remembers finding Fiegel kind of creepy when he would pass the man on his way to school.
"He'd sit on a stoop outside his house, which was really dilapidated," Schuchert said. "I don't know that he ever knew he was Popeye."
Fiegel was a little guy like Popeye. He would often get into fights at Wiebusch's tavern, and he didn't lose many.
Schuchert's great-great-uncle, J. William Schuchert, hired Segar to run the lights in his Chester Opera House. Like Wimpy, he was on the roly-poly side.
Dora Paskel looked like the character she inspired, but was otherwise unlike the daffy-yet-devoted Olive Oyl.
Children would watch her long, shadowy figure behind the counter at the general store she owned, but they would seldom go in, Schuchert said. And she would seldom come out. "We were kind of scared of her," he said.