Spotlight on the Popeye School of Cartooning

 
1934 Popeye's Cartoon Club Lesson No. 1On Sunday April 8, 1934, Popeye's creator E.C. Segar, his art teacher W.L. Evans, and a young boy from Cheltenham PA would begin a procession where their lives would intersect, however briefly. On that early Spring morning, Dave Kenner -- like millions of children of the day -- undoubtedly rushed to grab the Sunday funny papers and then settled down to be entertained by the great King Feature Syndicate comic characters in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It appears that the boy also harbored a desire to draw comics himself, and he likely studied his favorite cartoonists as he read and enjoyed the adventures of Flash Gordon, Popeye, Little Orphan Annie, Captain & the Kids, Smitty, and the other colorful characters in the funnies.

On this particular Sunday, he was in for a welcome surprise.
Thimble Theatre had entertained kids with comic stamps, play money and Funny Films in the corner of the Sappo topper for a couple of years when Segar launched the Cartoon Club. The new feature was like a Popeye School of Cartooning for budding young comic artists. The first 11 weeks of the panel were numbered lessons, and Dave Kenner faithfully followed Popeye's instructions to practice his art. "Ahoy, pals! If ya wants to belong to this club all ya got to do is draw like we show ya," Popeye told his fans. Dave cut out every lesson and carefully glued them into a homemade tablet. Then the boy dutifully redrew each and every exercise.

Segar stuck with the Cartoon Club project for 57 weeks. In addition to artistic guidance, Popeye also presented morality messages and safety tips. Then the first week in August, the sailor invited kids to join his Cartoon Club and implied that readers should submit their ideas and drawings. "If ya kin get a idea, try to draw one of these cartoons." Popeye neglected to give instructions for mailing in these creations nor did he give any details of what benefits membership in the club might entail. Many ambitious young artists likely sent their submissions to their local newspaper and at least some of the papers forwarded this mail to King Features who routed it on to Segar in Santa Monica CA. On 9/9/34, Popeye's Cartoon Club reproduced a lesson on virtue drawn by Kitty Bell of West Philadelphia. But apparently, a limited number of letters reached the artist, because over the course of the feature, Segar only used kid's cartoons on eight separate occasions, and he illustrated ideas submitted by readers eight other times. His own children enjoyed an insider advantage. One of the 12 amateur drawings Segar ran was by his daughter Marie, and he also worked in an idea from his eight year old son Tom.

1934 Popeye's Cartoon Club Membership Card

Undeterred, Dave Kenner soon came up with an idea and mailed in a drawing. His work was rewarded in early December 1934. Arriving home from school, Dave found a small envelope waiting on him, with his name and address penned neatly like the lettering in a comic strip word balloon. The mailing was postmarked Santa Monica and the return address said simply "From Popeye." Inside was a printed membership card to Popeye's Cartoon Club. By virtue of the scarcity of this piece of Segar memorabilia today, it is safe to say that Dave Kenner was one of the lucky few to be bestowed the honor of official selection to this special club.

D. Kenner's Popeye Cartoon Club Drawing 3/24/35

While receiving the membership card in the mail from Popeye must have been one of the most exciting things that ever happened in this youngster's life, it paled in comparison of what was to come. Because on March 24, 1935, D. Kenner's cartoon appeared on the
Thimble Theatre Sunday page. One can only imagine what pride and delight the young artist felt as a result of this recognition. His cartoon extolled as Popeye put it, "Don't feel discontented jus' because some kid has sumpin' you ain't got." The irony is that Dave now had, in a manner of speaking, the very thing that made others say "I wish I was him." He possessed all the fame and notoriety of being singled out and published in the funny pages by the world's most famous sailor. No doubt his friends were incredibly envious, while Dave must have achieved new stature beyond belief.

Meanwhile, in Cleveland OH, the man who had helped in his own way to inspire the Popeye School of Cartooning was evidently struggling at the height of the Great Depression. He was doing all he could to make a living recruiting new clients to take his art correspondence course. Details about W.L. Evans are sketchy at best. Evans had been a successful and widely published editorial cartoonist for the
Cleveland Leader starting in around 1900. It appears he left the paper and opened his School of Cartooning and Caricaturing in about 1909. His motivation may have been that he saw the handwriting on the wall. The Leader, begun in 1854, was presumably losing readers and would ultimately be bought by the rival Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1917 and cease publication in 1921. Or maybe Evans just had an entrepreneurial spirit and was ready to make good on his own.

In 1935, Sappo received his cartooning diploma from W.L. EvansYours for results, W.L. EvansWhatever the case, it had been 20 years since Elzie Segar had completed Evans' course and gone on to start a productive comic artist career. While his student prospered, it is not unlikely -- considering the nature of his business -- that Evans' sales may have been languishing in the tough economic times of the 1930s.

Segar never forgot the contribution to his career by his mentor and acknowledged him in a June 1935 Sappo strip where the character proudly holds his diploma from the W.L.E. correspondence course in cartooning. Evans would write, "I never gave Segar a diploma, for the students' drawings are the best diploma they could ask for. But Segar put it in just to add humor to the strip."

After Dave Kenner's drawing appeared in
Thimble Theatre, Evans wasted little time dictating a two page personal recruiting letter to the boy. "I do not know whether you know it or not, but I am sure that you will be interested in knowing that Cartoonist Segar himself is a former student of mine." The art school director not only took the time to compose the lengthy letter, but he also embellished the outside of the envelope with a hand drawn sketch of Popeye and addressed D. Kenner as Cartoonist.

1935 W.L. Evans original sketch of Popeye sent to D. Kenner

In the sales pitch, Evans included a reprint of a full page advertisement that he ran in the celebrated, but short-lived, Cartoons magazine featuring Segar soon after he went to work for the Chicago Herald in 1916. In addition, he enclosed a copy of a letter of appreciation that Dick Tracy's Chester Gould wrote to him after completing the course and landing a job on the Tulsa Democrat. In his letter to Dave, Evans also recited an endorsement that Segar had sent after he moved to NYC in 1919 and began Thimble Theatre from the King Features bullpen: "Yes, Mr. Evans," Segar wrote, "I am getting along fine. NICE FAT CHECK EVERY WEEK. Thanks to you, old man: you certainly put me on the right road. I have had very few bumps. Your course is, without a doubt, a one way ticket to the Big Town -- SUCCESS." Evans slogan was "Yours for results," and Segar's statement surely affirmed that motto. 

A somewhat telling insight into Evans' business fortunes or misfortunes at the time is that he followed up the first letter with a second solicitation for the boy's patronage just a week later. In this pitch, he detailed a special tuition offer for monthly installment payments that might make taking the course more affordable. Tuition was $20 when paid in advance for the full course of 20 lessons and criticisms, or students could pay only $2.50 a month for 10 months. A dollar a lesson was all Segar had paid years earlier. Correspondence reveals that the boy's parents mailed Evans the $20 enrollment fee. Evans added a P.S. in his acknowledgment letter saying: "I am sure Cartoonist Segar will be glad to know that he has enrolled."

W.L. Evans art of Teddy Roosevelt from Lesson No. 5Hand-signed W.L. Evans office letterhead

Left: Evans illustrative talents in the editorial cartoon genre are displayed in his skilled rendering of Teddy Roosevelt from Lesson 5 of his course. Right: The businessman and artist hand-signed all his office letterheads.

Another Evans letter to the boy's mother and father a couple months later suggests that the young artist may have been losing interest in the work it took to complete the lessons. Evans letter begins: "For some time I have been intending to write asking how Dave is getting along with his cartoon lesson. If he is having any trouble with it, he should not hesitate to let me know." But the rest of this story has been lost as no further evidence exists to enlighten us of what became of D. Kenner or his relationship with W.L. Evans after this point.

But for a moment in time in the mid 1930s, the divergent paths of a genuine cartoon legend, a merchant of artistic dreams, and an eager unknown boy converged in the hallways of the Popeye School of Cartooning. No one knows the actual extent that one affected the other. But for Dave Kenner of Cheltenham PA, it had to be a gratifying memory that kept Popeye alive in his heart throughout his life.
 

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