Delighted mobs of smiling children regularly spilled into the street, blocking traffic on Saturday afternoons in 1935 in front of the Fairfax Theater in Oakland and the Oaks Theatre in Berkeley -- home to a couple of the first Popeye Cartoon Clubs in the nation. But the real folks with grins from ear to ear were undoubtedly the movie exhibitors who were cashing in on the animated sailor's popularity.
Earlier in the decade, Mickey Mouse Clubs were created to bring kids to the movies, claiming a million club members worldwide. Disney nurtured the clubs until 1935 when official sponsorship reportedly ended. Wasting no time, Paramount, the Fleischer Studios and Popeye set sail across America to fill the void. And fill the void they did. The Ames Theatre in Portland OR saw business increase 75% over previous matinees, and Manager David Glazer of the Sequoia Theatre in Mill Valley CA watched Saturday matinee crowds double after launching his Popeye Club.
A promotional staple of the clubs was the Popeye Kazoo Pipe giveaway. "Every kid needs a pipe to sing the song Popeye the Sailor Man and all the other songs the Club has in its repertory!" was Paramount's sales pitch to exhibitors. And at only $7.50 per gross in bulk, it's likely many theaters handed one out to every child who joined the club for 10 cents admission. "The Popeye Pipe is no pipe dream -- it's a proven money and friend-maker -- and it will be for you!" At 5.2 cents each, theater managers probably didn't need to consult a CPA to figure that one out. Using the musical pipe promo, Manager Charles Hayman of the American Theatre in San Jose claimed despite torrents of rain his Popeye Club opened to capacity business. Other movie houses like the Tower Theatre in Houston TX (pictured below), teamed up with then Popeye Radio Show sponsor Popsicle in 1938 to promote free prize giveaways and lure in the kids.
Paramount cautioned exhibitors in the Official Club Manual that it was highly important that all drawings from the Popeye Cartoons, wherever used, bear the credit line "By arrangement with King Features Syndicate Inc and Segar." (There, I've done my duty!) KFS and Segar were also obviously benefiting financially from club membership. And the clubs benefited kids as well -- in the form of the affordable, forget your worries and cares entertainment that Popeye gave to these young Saturday movie patrons during an otherwise economically depressing era. And if they were lucky, club members even got to see a few traffic jams before the show at no extra charge!
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Digital Images/Text Copyright 2009 by Bruce C. Shults / Popeye and All Other Characters are Properties of and Copyright King Features Syndicate and the Hearst Corp - World Rights Reserved