Welcome to the battle for Popeye’s origin story. In the left corner, hailing from Illinois, a Polish saloon worker, the reigning champion, Frank “Rocky” Fiegel. And on the right, a fisherman, a bona fide sailorman from the Santa Monica Pier, the challenger, Olaf “Oli” Olsen.
Popeye, the cartoon character dreamed up by Elzie Crisler Segar in 1929, never shied from a fight and local businessman Greg Morena is emulating Popeye’s tenacity in his attempt to get the seaman’s birthplace officially recognized as the Santa Monica Pier.
Morena, an executive at The Albright restaurant on the pier and the CFO of The Hundreds apparel company, believes that Segar, who lived in Santa Monica when Popeye was introduced to America, was inspired by a sailor who spent his last decades in Santa Monica.
Morena himself was inspired by research of pier historian Jim Harris, author of “Santa Monica Pier: A Century of the Last Great Pleasure Pier.”
Harris presents compelling evidence that Oli Olsen was at least a physical inspiration for Popeye but he refuses to make a definitive declaration. Morena is even more confident.
“This IS Popeye,” he says, pointing at a photo of Olsen from Harris’ book. Olsen is dressed in a sailor suit with a corncob pipe and a scowl.
Olsen was a local character, a Norwegian immigrant, who fought net fishing in the Santa Monica Bay, rented boats off the end of the pier, and, before moving to Santa Monica, survived a wild storm off the Oregon Coast.
“He retired here in Santa Monica and promptly unretired seeing that there were boating operations happening at the end of the pier,” Harris said. “He opened up couple of day boats and fishing barges. It was a career after a career and he became a very recognizable and beloved fixture at the pier. He had a very thick accent but he loved to tell stories to children. As I understand it, the children could never understand the stories because of his accent but he was so funny telling them that they just loved visiting with him.”
Segar, Popeye’s creator, is listed in the city directory starting in 1928 until he died of Leukemia 10 years later.
Bud Sagendorf, who worked as Segar’s assistant and took over the strip after his death, notes in his biography that Segar would rent boats off the end of the pier and that the two of them, Segar and Sagendorf, would brainstorm plots for the strip out on the water. Olsen, a local legend at the time, was the most visible person renting boats to pier patrons.
When Olsen died in 1950, his obituary in the Evening Outlook notes that he was the physical inspiration for Popeye.
Popeye made his debut on a pier in January 1929 editions of “Thimble Theater,” Segar’s nationally syndicated comic strip. Popeye was a bit part at first but he became so popular that he was brought back and later became the center of the comic strip renamed “Popeye.”
Earlier iterations of Popeye’s official website, Popeye.com, included an official biography of the character. It noted that he was “born in a typhoon off Santa Monica, Calif.” The most recent version of the website does not include a biography, but it can be found through a search of The Wayback Machine, a website dedicated to archiving websites.
Morena even finds proof in Olsen’s character. Lee Storrs, a columnist for the Evening Outlook, told a story about Oli Olsen putting an end to a gas station robbery with his “pile-driver fists.” During the Great Depression, Olsen let one unemployed local fish for free each day, according to Harris. He’d donate 10 percent of his catch to needy families.
“He was loved,” Morena said. “To his own detriment, he was more into the people and taking care of the people and stopping crime than his own business.”
Morena is bending the ears of representatives at the Hearst Corporation, which owns the rights to Popeye, in hopes that they’ll definitively name the pier as Popeye’s home.
Standing in Morena’s way is the legend of Rocky Fiegel.
Fiegel was a local character in Segar’s hometown of Chester, Ill. He was known for using his quick fists to knock out criminal goons.
Fiegel, who died in 1947, also smoked a corncob pipe. His obituary, in the Chester Herald Tribune, also credits Fiegel as the inspiration for Popeye.
Sagendorf acknowledged Fiegel’s legend in his book but fails to discern “whether these beliefs are fact or fiction.”
In 1996, a Popeye fan club had Fiegel’s unmarked grave covered with a headstone declaring Rocky the “inspiration for ‘Popeye’ the sailor man.”
When asked for proof of Fiegel’s connection to Segar, Debbie Brooks, co-founder of the Official Popeye Fanclub, cited Sagendorf’s writing, which is simply a reiteration of the stories that are told around Chester.
“It has been proof here for years in Chester, Illinois,” she said in an email.
Brooks owns the opera house that Segar worked at for several years which was adjacent to the tavern (since torn down) where Fiegel worked as a “cleanup man.”
When asked if she could put the Daily Press in touch with anyone who knew Fiegel personally, she responded: “Not a lot of people still living.”
“I avoid getting into the argument of who Popeye was based upon,” Jim Harris said. “There’s no way we’re going to know for sure.”
Harris sees shades of gray in the inspiration for Popeye. It’s possible, he said, that one man inspired the character while the other inspired the look.
“I think there’s a certain amount of credit that needs to be given to Rocky Fiegel in Illinois — that that’s the character,” he said. “And I think there’s probably some truth to that. And I don’t want to take away from that. But it’s impossible to deny that the physical characteristics, and the hat, and the corncob pipe, and the white shirt Olaf Olsen is known for wearing, and even the character to a degree, but the physical model is certainly there.”
In the end, it may be Hearst that makes the call and, regardless of the murky facts, the internationally known Santa Monica Pier could be more enticing, from a branding standpoint, than the Illinois town with a population of less than 9,000 people.
Recently, the Santa Monica Pier laid claim to the end point of the most iconic American highways, Route 66. It originally ended in Downtown Los Angeles but was extended to Lincoln Boulevard at Olympic Boulevard in Santa Monica. In 2009, the Santa Monica Pier put up a Route 66 sign that reads: “End of the Trail.” It’s one more reason for tourists to make a stop at the pier.
“There are certainly parallels there,” Harris said. “The Route 66 was never that obscure. It’s not that hard to imagine how it came about. If you end your journey at Route 66, are you really going to end it on Lincoln and Olympic? No you’re going to drive to the ocean. And at the time, when 66 was commissioned, you could drive out to the end of the pier. Drive as far as you can. It’s really easy to put that together. The Popeye thing is a little harder to put together.”
Morena recently scored The Albright the licensing rights to Popeye, allowing them to print his image on their shirts and sign, and show Popeye cartoons in the restaurant.
“I think it’s necessary and I think it’s important,” Morena said of Popeye’s birthplace. “Santa Monica-bred and I hope it continues on with my family and for generations to come. This great statesmen. This person who loves his city. This person who loves the people in the city. Who takes care of those people. Who takes care of the business interests in the city.”