Jack Mercer and the Vaudeville-Popeye Connection

Three cheers for Jack Mercer (Winfield Mercer 1910-84), one for each skill.  Jack Mercer was one of the few people in cartoon animation who worked in the three wildly different creative areas that make the magic happen: drawing. writing/story, and voiceover. Off the top of my head I can only think of a couple of other guys with that broad a skill set, and they both became kingpins: Walt Disney and Seth McFarlane. 

Mercer was the son of vaudeville performers Bennett (“B.K.”) Mercer and Nola St. Claire. And once again we are grateful to the intrepid Tralfaz for sniffing out the details on this. We cited Tralfaz only yesterday in another post. (This won’t be a habit, Tralfaz, we just happened to be paying tribute to particular voiceover artists two days in a row). B.K. and Nola appear to have performed both in vaudeville and with traveling stock companies. Both parents came from performing families from Indiana; at various times they performed with separate companies run by each of their siblings. When they were married in 1908, they were with the Guy Stock Company, run by B.K.’s brother Charles. Later they were with the Winifred St. Clair Company, run by Nola’s sister. During his early years, Jack performed onstage with his parents when a kid was needed and even learned to tap dance. It was clearly a hand-to-mouth existence. By the eve of America’s involvement in World War One, Bennett had left show business for the steadier job of car mechanic. Nola remained in vaudeville, toured the Keith circuit and appeared in musicals. The couple divorced in 1922 and Jack lived in New York with his mother and grandmother, who ran a theatrical boarding house.

Cautioned to find a steadier line of work, Mercer became an artist. Around 1930 he found employment at the Fleischer Studios in apprentice positions in the animation department (from opaquer, to inker, to in-betweener). He was already doing voice-overs for them by 1932 as well. While working there he had worked up impressions of the original guy who did Popeye’s voice Billy “Red Pepper Sam” Costello. Costello was sacked in 1935 for being difficult to work with, and Mercer took his place. It was thus Mercer, and not Costello, who became closely associated with Popeye for over four decades. It was also Mercer who had come up with what I think of as “Popeye Voice #2” — those moments when the salty sailor shifts from that gruff buzz saw voice, to the mild and mumbly ad libs (often ad libbed hilariously by Mercer on the spot). We recently gave the history of Popeye here; Mercer provided Popeye’s voice through all of it, all the way up to a short voiceover at the beginning of the 1980 Robert Altman film. He also provided the voices of many other Fleischer characters over the years, and also worked for other shops, e,g, Famous Studios where he voiced some of the other ghosts in Caspar cartoons, and Disney, where he provided background voices in movies like Dumbo, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book. 

In 1939, Mercer married Margie Hines, who provided the voices for Betty Boop, Olive Oyle and Swee’Pea in those years when Mae Questel wasn’t doing it (especially after 1938 when Fleischer studios moved to Miiami). So — true story — for a while the people who did the voices for Popeye and Olive Oyle were husband and wife. The pair were divorced in 1944.

Lastly, in 1942 he also began getting screen credit for writing animated shorts. He was to write, or co-write hundreds of them over the years, not just for Popeye but for other cartoons such as Deputy Dawg and one of the many incarnations of Felix the Cat. The last show he wrote for was Hanna-Barbera’s Dinky Dog (1978).

To find out more about  the history of vaudeville, and performers like Jack Mercer and his parents, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous