Popeye

By James Harris

In 1925 a retired sailor named Olaf Olsen settled on Santa Monica as his new home. It was perfect for a man whose entire life had been dedicated to the ocean. As a child he immigrated via ship to the United States from Norway, keeping with him a thick accent which accompanied him throughout his entire life. At the age of 14 he attempted to enlist in the US Navy, lying about his age in order to do so. When the lie didn’t work, he instead landed a job on an American troop transport until he was indeed of age to enlist, and from there his entire working life was spent at sea. An expert sailor, Olsen became famous amongst his peers as being, in his own words, the only man to best the dangerous Humbolt Bar off Oregon in a two-masted schooner in a howlin’ southeaster!” His Santa Monica retirement was short-lived, though, for soon after moving here he bought a boat and began taking passengers on half-day fishing trips. Then he bought another for full-day fares. And then he bought a fishing barge. Soon he was placed in charge of all fishing operations on the Santa Monica Pier. It was here, at the Pier, that his legend grew. When commercial net-fishing operators appealed for permission to troll the waters in the Santa Monica Bay, Olsen led the charge against them. And won! During the Great Depression he opened his big, generous heart and gave free passage on his fishing boats to persons registered in the Unemployed Citizens League. From his own daily catch, he donated 10% to needy families.

He was a favorite among children, for he loved to tell stories and, even though it was difficult to understand him through his still-thick Norwegian accent, the joy and energy that he conveyed when he spun his yarns was infectious. It is no wonder, then, that when cartoonist and Santa Monica Pier-regular Elzie C. Segar needed a sea captain to take his Thimble Theatre characters, the Oyl family, on a journey to Dice Island in 1929, he chose Olsen as his model. The 40-fathom hat, bulging sailor forearms, white sailor’s shirt and corncob pipe gave him unmistakable appeal. Hence, “Popeye” was born, and soon after became so popular that Segar renamed the comic strip after his Olseninspired creation. The rest, as they say, is history. So when you see Popeye’s image on the Pier, or perhaps see a film loop of an old Popeye cartoon while dining in The Albright, or maybe even see a Popeye impersonator wandering around the Pier, know that we are not exploiting a cartoon character. Nope. Instead, we are honoring one of our own – a true Santa Monica Pier legend.