Until recently only four episodes of the 204 Popeye Radio Shows broadcast from 1935 to 1937 and again in 1938 were known to survive. In the Fall of 2003, 16 lost episodes were rediscovered from the first season of the show. These shows were transcribed to disk for syndicated rebroadcast by RCA, then parent company of NBC Radio. In addition, a wealth of new details about the show from multiple sources of 30s trade publications has also come to light. As a result of all this previously undisclosed information, what is now known about the history of the broadcast has changed dramatically. The show was also much more successful than originally thought.
The lost shows have not yet been released to the public. The transcription disks were harshly treated during the last 70 years, and the sound was adversely affected. They have since undergone complete sound restoration which resulted in huge improvements in the quality of the audio. Though they are not perfect, the shows are now very listenable. Keep watching this space for more details regarding the availability of these rare lost Popeye old time radio programs along with a complete written history of the show in two to three years.
The Popeye radio program was broadcast over three different networks by two sponsors from 1935 to 1938. Wheatena hot cereal first sponsored the show on September 10, 1935 thru March 28, 1936. 87 episodes aired on the NBC Red Network on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights at 7:15pm. Wheatena reportedly paid King Features Syndicate $1,200 per week for the rights to the sailor. The show followed Amos & Andy, one of the most listened to programs in radio history. This desirable lead-in gave Popeye a ready-made audience in prime time. It was also quite unusual and more expensive for a kid's show to be programmed in an evening time slot. A majority of children's episodic programming of the day was broadcast in the cheaper late afternoon for the after-school crowd.
Detmar Poppen, a Broadway veteran of light musicals, played Popeye. On the surface, this appeared to be error in casting. Poppen's impression of the squint-eyed sailor was only vaguely reminiscent of the familiar cartoon voices of Billy Costello or Jack Mercer. But apparently, Wheatena put so much money into the broadcast rights paid to KFS and into leasing national airtime thru the NBC-WEAF Network that their remaining budget did not afford them enough money to contract with Mercer or Mae Questel who voiced Olive Oyl in the cartoons.
Olive Lamoy played Olive Oyl and Charles Lawrence voiced Wimpy in the shows. These Broadway veterans were also somewhat inept at recreating their screen counterparts. Child actor Jimmy Donnelly rounded out the cast as Matey the Newsboy. Matey was a non-Segar character who filled in as a poor substitute for Swee'pea (whose limited vocabulary tended not to work well on radio). One especially redeeming quality of the show was the wonderful music of Victor Erwin and his Cartoonland Band, whose orchestra also performed on the Fleischer cartoons. A live orchestra was also an extravagant expense for Wheatena and is virtually unheard of in typical children's radio programs.
A totally unforgivable, but admittedly necessary, aspect of the radio production was that Popeye was forced to abandon his trademark Spinach for the sponsor's bowls of hot Wheatena cereal to muster his strength and save the day at the end of each episode.
Apparently as a cost saving measure for the second season, Wheatena moved the broadcast to another network. CBS aired the program from August 31, 1936 to February 26, 1937 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings at 7:15pm. Floyd Buckley, a silent screen actor, replaced Detmar Poppen to voice Popeye in 78 episodes. Otherwise the cast was unchanged. Once again, reference to spinach was conspicuously absent. Popeye's familiar refrain from the Sammy Lerner theme song was altered to say: "Wheatena's me diet, I ax ya to try it, I'm Popeye the Sailor Man!"
Unlike other popular kids programming of the day like Little Orphan Annie and Jack Armstrong which pitched free mail-in offers regularly, Popeye radio premium offers were scarce. Wheatena did produce three nice enamel lapel pins of Popeye, Olive and Wimpy, available for boxtops mailed to their plant in Rahway NJ. The pins are relatively plentiful today, suggesting response to the offer was strong.
Wheatena decided that they would not renew their sponsorship for a third season of the Popeye Radio Show when King Features' asking price for the broadcast rights to the character was raised well beyond what the New Jersey-based company felt was fair and profitable.
But a year later in the Spring of 1938, Joe Lowe Corporation's Popsicle, Fudgsicle and Creamsicle advertising signs began springing up at retail outlets proclaiming "Listen for Popeye on the Radio after May 1st." CBS again aired the show from May 2, 1938 thru July 29, 1938 on three nights a week for 15 minutes at 6:15pm. Because of its brief run, references to who played Popeye and other enlightening background information is still elusive, outside of the fact Popsicle sponsored 39 episodes. Kids who saved Joe Lowe brand frozen confection product wrappers could exchange them for store items, such as the Popeye Pipe Toss game, the Bubble Pipe set, the harmonica, Jeep and Popeye figurines, as well as other neat toys.
The Popeye Radio Show was definitely targeted to young kids. While there is little to recommend the show to adult audiences today, just the idea of Popeye on the radio is extremely intriguing. As a result, Wheatena and Popsicle advertising items promoting the show are earnestly sought by collectors of both radio and comic character genres.
LEFT: Excerpt from the January 1937 edition of Radio Mirror magazine: Second radio Popeye Floyd Buckley poses in full uniform next to portrait of bandleader Vic Erwin.
RIGHT: When you mailed in enough bags to get a prize, Popsicle sent out prizes in specially produced boxes such as the one for the Popeye harmonica.
Learn more about the Popeye Radio Show: Buy John Dunning's incredible book "On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio" available at fine retail and on-line bookstores. It's pricey but worth every penny.
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