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Illinois Country Living

Popeye’s Adventures in Little Egypt

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Chester’s community of fans celebrate an American icon Sept. 11-13.

by Jen Danzinger

A cartoon legend has his origin in a small southern Illinois city. Cartoonist Elzie Crisler Segar was born in Chester in 1894. His King Features comic strip, “Thimble Theater,” began in 1919.

Segar based several of his characters on members of the community. Olive Oyl was modeled after store owner Dora Paskel. Opera house owner and former employer of Segar, William “Windy Bill” Schuchert was the inspiration for hamburger-munching Wimpy. Segar patterened Popeye, the show-stealing sailor who debuted in 1929 and went on to have his own series of comics and Fleicher Studios animated shorts, after Chester’s own Frank Fiegle.

The community of Chester is proud of its Popeye past and continues to celebrate with an eye toward its future.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Chester’s Popeye Picnic. The three-day festival’s theme, “Popeye’s Adventures in Little Egypt,” refers to both a previous animated Popeye short, “Egypt Us,” and southern Illinois’ nickname for its geographic similarity to Egypt’s Nile delta.

The picnic has been a community-building experience. According to Debbie Brooks, Popeye Picnic committee chairperson, “The Popeye Picnic is the culmination of the efforts of not only the committee, but the entire town. Businesses, organizations, and individuals come together to support the picnic in many ways. It really takes everyone’s contribution to make it a success.”

The annual festival is just one part of the overall long-term tourism goals of the city. In 1977 the Xi Upsilon Chapter of Beta Sigma Phi built a bronze statue of Popeye in the Elzie C. Segar Memorial Park. The city of Chester plans to open a new vistor center near the original statue. The picnic committee, with the support of the community, is developing a Popeye & Friends Character Trail with additional statues placed to create a walking tour through town. Current statues include Olive Oyl, Wimpy, and Bluto. This year a new statue of Castor Oyl will be unveiled. More statues will be added to the trail through 2043.

Chester’s ties to Popeye have had a positive economic effect. Local businesses have capitalized on the connection to Popeye, and cartoon murals have been painted on many buildings in the downtown area, offering tourists photo opportunities throughout the year. Spinach Can Collectibles has an impressive museum of memorabilia and a gift shop filled with souveniers.

According to Popeye Picnic trustee and Egyptian Electric Cooperative member, Cathy Rinne, “Popeye and the picnic have drawn visitors from all over the world to Chester. Our local hotel is booked full for the next year’s picnic weekend before the current one is even over. These folks not only come to Chester, but they visit neighboring communities as well, so the economic impact is really regional.”

The tourism isn’t limited to the weekend of the picnic. Rinne says, “It was once common for visitors to come only for the picnic weekend, but many have expanded their stays well into the week before and the week following the picnic. They have obviously chosen to make Chester their vacation destination and we are grateful to be able to provide them with fun, quality family entertainment.”

“The picnic is non-profit, so we rely on donations to meet our financial obligations,” says Brooks. “Through the generosity of our supporters, we have been able to expand the events that we offer each year and we have been able to make many of them free of charge.”

Visitors to this year’s event will enjoy carnival rides, a Popeye-themed parade, fair food, musical entertainment, a film festival and more. There are many free activities for children, including a petting zoo, pony rides, and inflatable bounce houses.

This year’s festival highlights include a live-broadcast radio show performed by a cast of players (including Rinne as the Sea Hag).

For those interested in drawing, Cartooning with the Pros will offer participants lessons. This years professional artists are Hy Eisman, currrent Popeye comic strip artist, and George Wildman, former Popeye comic book artist. After the lessons, attendees can compete for prizes in a cartooning contest.

“There is really something for everyone at the picnic,” says Rinne.

30th Annual Popeye Picnic:
Popeye’s Adventures in Little Egypt
Chester, Ill.
Sept. 11-13, 2009

For more information, visit

Additional Notes:

"Segar was not directly involved in the creative design of the cartoons, although he gave them permission to use his characters. Segar's only actual creations were comic strips...He did the Thimble Theater Daily
strip, The Thimble Theater Sunday strip and the top piece for the main comic "Thimble Theater Sunday strip" which was called Sappo. He was never directly involved with any of the animations. He did not live
long enough or he may have played an active role in all of the other genres."
- Cathy Rinne

© 2016 Illinois Country Living Magazine.
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