Thimble Theatre is 100 years old too


And here’s one more spot of comic strip news. Thimble Theatre reached its centennial on the 19th of December. This is the comic strip normal people know as Popeye. The Daily Cartoonist posted for the day Elzie Segar’s first-ever Thimble Theatre strip, which, when you look at it, makes you realize … uh … huh.

It started with a weird premise that I’m not sure couldn’t work. The gimmick was that there was a regular cast of actors, people like Olive Oyl and Harold Hamgravy and all. But for each day they’d play characters in some very short melodrama. Doing short melodramas, often mocking the moving pictures, was not a new idea. I don’t know whether the frame of having the same characters acting in different roles was original to Segar, though.

I could imagine this working in much the way SCTV or various Muppets projects works. Establish your characters and then put them in to play parts. The earliest Thimble Theatre strips, though? Not to brag but I’ve seen almost twelve of them, so am clearly the expert here. They don’t work for me, though. I think because there isn’t the behind-the-scenes stuff that establish who the actors are. It’s just spot jokes without Segar having to design new characters each day.

I don’t know whether the premise could work if we got more behind-the-scenes action. SCTV or the Muppets did, brilliantly, but in part because they had so much more time. Comic strips were long and wordy back then, compared to today, but that’s nothing compared to how long we could get to know Miss Piggy, and have that inform us how she’s playing Madame Defarge or whoever.

Early on the strip did a new premise, a new “play”, every day. This was unworkable, ultimately, although I can’t work out when the strip went to open-ended stories. And it sure seems like an influence on how the cartoons would start with the characters in whatever setting, and with whatever relationships, worked for the plot. But that could be coincidence too; it’s not as though every Betty Boop cartoon can be fit into one continuity.

Anyway things puttered on for about nine years with stories that included some nice fantastical bits such as the Whiffle Hen. And then — finally, it feels like — Segar discovered Popeye. The effect was like those first-season episodes of Happy Days, when it was a single-camera sitcom and the stories putter on with an amiable dullness and then suddenly Fonzie is on-screen and it’s interesting. Or, if you want a higher-brow reference, to the bit in Pickwick Papers where Sam Weller gives the reader a reason to keep reading. Popeye took over right away and, though Segar tried to give him a send-off after his first story, came right back because he was just that good. (Very like Sam Weller, at that.) But you all know my feelings there; I’m the guy paying attention even to the 60s cartoons for some reason.

So, it’s a fun strip. Or became, at least. The strip has, in dailies, been in reruns since the first Bush was president. The Sunday strips are new, drawn by Hy Eisman, who incidentally was also drawing the Sunday Katzenjammer Kids when that strip reached its centennial. It’s hard to imagine there’ll ever be another cartoonist who’s drawing two centennial comic strips. Eisman is, by the way, as far as I can tell the second credited artist on Thimble Theatre/Popeye to actually be younger than the comic strip is. (Bobby London, the one fired from the dailies in 1992, was the first.) Eisman was born in 1927, though, so he’s still older than Popeye.

D D Degg, writing for The Daily Cartoonist, makes this out as the fifth United States comic strip to reach 100 without lapsing into eternal reruns: The Katzenjammer Kids (in rerun since 2006), Gasoline Alley, Ripley’s Belive It Or Not, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, and now Thimble Theatre. The next that should make the centennial, if Olivia Jaimes’s pen holds out through October 2022, is Nancy. That is we accept Nancy as the continuation of Fritzi Ritz. This is a question very interesting to people like me, who are not interesting.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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