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80 Years of Bluto!

80 Years of Bluto! – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – May 2012

by Fred Grandinetti

Who would have thought a character that is fat, covered in facial hair, overbearing, a perennial girl-stealer, rude and money hungry would become an enduring and sought after collectible. Bluto, Popeye’s eternal rival for the affections of Olive Oyl, celebrates his 80th birthday in 2012.

Bluto’s Beginning

It was in 1932 when Popeye’s creator, E.C. Segar, introduced Bluto into his [amazon_link id=”0883556626″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Thimble Theatre[/amazon_link] comic strip. He was originally billed as “The only man living who might lick Popeye.” The brute was not portrayed as the comedic bully best known in the animated films. His first battle with Popeye, in the comic strip, did not go easy for the sailor man although he eventually defeated him. The first Popeye cartoon, which was an entry in the popular Betty Boop series, was in development at the time Bluto was appearing in the comic strip. The Fleischer Studios, the originators of the Popeye animated series, plucked Bluto from the funny pages and into the world of animated films. In the cartoons Bluto originally wore a short sleeved black shirt, with one button and a captain’s hat. With the advent of World War II he switched to Navy whites and a sailor’s hat. During the period the Popeye theatrical films were in production (1933 to 1957) Bluto became popular with movie going audiences. By 1957 Bluto returned to the Thimble Theatre comic strip when it was being written by Ralph Stein. Stein’s version depicted him as a pirate of the seas but without the monstrous menace Segar gave the character.

Losing His Name

The theatrical Popeye cartoon series debuted on television in September 1956. The films, syndicated by Associated Artist Productions, were a huge success. Products featuring Popeye and his pals lined store shelves. King Features Syndicate, who distributed the [amazon_link id=”0883556626″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Thimble Theatre[/amazon_link] comic strip, decided to produce a new series of Popeye cartoons for television. It was at this time Paramount Pictures, who distributed the theatrical films, informed King Features they owned the rights to the name Bluto. However, Paramount was incorrect as the brute first appeared in the comic strip. Unfortunately, King Features did not properly research the origins of the bully’s name. As a result, there was a period of time when the character was referred by descriptive names in merchandise and comic books. Beginning with Popeye #40 (1957) Bluto became known either as “The Big Guy That Hates Popeye,” “Olive’s New Boyfriend” and eventually “Sonny Boy” in the popular comic book series. Oddly enough the name Bluto was still being used on merchandise bearing a 1957 copyright but eventually the descriptive name became prevalent.

The Collectibles

Many people believe there is a mystery surrounding an early collectible item. It is called a Dippy Dumper manufactured by Marx in 1935. Despite the figure in the vehicle looking like Bluto (and a Popeye Dippy Dumper was produced) the name is not used on the packaging. Many in the collector’s marketplace refer to this as a Bluto Dippy Dumper. He could be one of the many unnamed bearded brutes Popeye encountered during the 1930s.

Bluto began appearing on merchandise after the theatrical films were becoming a hot children’s property on television. These items include:

(1957) Popeye Cartoon Kit by Colorforms. This early colorforms set featured Bluto in his sailor’s uniform worn in the theatrical cartoons produced by Famous Studios. Famous succeeded Fleischer Studios in the production of the films.
(1957) Popeye Color and Re-Color Book by Jack Built Toys. This children’s book featured pictures which could be colored, wiped, and recolored. One page featured a sailor suited Bluto alongside Popeye and Olive Oyl illustrated by Bill Zaboly. Zaboly was the illustrator of both the daily and Sunday comic strip for several years.
(1957) Adventures of Popeye Game by Transogram. Popeye slugs a shirtless Bluto on the cover. The British version of this game by Bell also depicted a shirtless Bluto on the box cover.
(Unknown possibly late 1950s) Bluto The Sportcar Driver by Elm Toys (Louis Marx). A miniature sports car featuring the brute in the driver’s seat. The box art clearly identifies the figure as Bluto. This same company produced a figure of the bearded bully on wheels holding a bat. This was part of the Fun on Wheels figure collection.
Samuel Lowe’s Coloring Books. From approximately 1958 to 1964 Lowe produced a series of Popeye coloring books, sticker and activity books. Some of the coloring books featured a daily comic strip sequence from 1957, illustrating Bluto holding Popeye at gun point while the sailor was chained to a tree. These pages were illustrated by Bill Zaboly. Another often reprinted page had the Famous Studios design of Bluto’s head popping out of a jack-in-the box.
(Unknown possibly 1959) Popeye and the Mean Man Mechanical Fighters by Linemar. The fighting figure depicts Bluto as he appeared in the animated films produced by Famous Studios. The box art shows the character wearing a Navy uniform and his facial design resembles his appearances in the color theatrical cartoons. Despite the fact he is dubbed “Mean Man” this is clearly meant to be Bluto.

For the television cartoons produced by King Features Syndicate, Bluto was known as Brutus with an altered character design. Beginning in 1960 the name Brutus, was appearing on the majority of merchandise. On occasion the bully’s original name surfaced on products.

(1964) Popeye Booms Back by Kenner. This was one of several Give-A-Show Projector slides featuring Popeye. The sailor man thwarts Bluto’s efforts to defeat him.

(1966) One Track Mind by Kenner. Another Give-A-Show Projector slide featuring the bearded brute referred to as Bluto. Other Popeye slides in this series used the name, Brutus.

For the Saturday morning series, “The All New Popeye Hour” (1978-1981) and “The Popeye and Olive Comedy Show” (1981-83) the name Bluto was revived. The big brute wore a captain’s hat and a short sleeved striped shirt. A few items appeared utilizing publicity artwork from the series. These included both a pencil and paint by number set by Hasbro from 1979. That same year Zee Toys put the comic strip version of Brutus on a punching bag. However Zee labeled it a Bluto Bop Bag. This size 36 inch bag was put in a package with a separate Popeye inflatable.

In 1980 the motion picture[amazon_link id=”B000IB81JS” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Popeye[/amazon_link] appeared in theatres featuring the bearded giant, Bluto. He was portrayed by the sinister Paul L. Smith. The live action film generated new merchandise utilizing the comic strip design of Brutus dubbed, Bluto. This merchandise was:

(1980) Bluto spiral notebook by Mead. Bud Sagendorf produced the Popeye comic strip for years and it was his design of Brutus on the front of this notebook although called Bluto.

(1980) Bluto Muscle Builder by Carlin Playthings, Inc. This was a hand held toy which one squeezed to test hand strength. The strength level’s ranged from Sissy, Sick, Puny, Super and Ape

(1980) [amazon_link id=”0824105001″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Popeye and the Haunted House[/amazon_link] by Wonder Books. Bluto pretends he’s a ghost to scare Popeye and Swee’pea in this children’s book which saw several reprints.

(1981) [amazon_link id=”0394848667″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Popeye and the Spinach Burgers[/amazon_link] by Random House Books. Bluto decides to mess with Popeye’s spinach in this pop-up book.

(1981) Popeye and the Magic Flute by Random House Books. The Sea Hag, an old foe of Popeye, uses her magic flute to make Olive Oyl fall in love with Bluto!

The 1987-88 television season Popeye and Son aired on Saturday mornings. In this animated series Popeye was married to Olive Oyl and their union produced a spinach-hating son named Junior. Bluto was married to a dumpy looking gal named Lizzy. This incarnation of the brute’s facial design resembled the comic strip look of Brutus, wearing a loud business suit. In 1987 JA-RU produced several rack toys using publicity drawings from the series. Most featured Bluto on the packaging and included play money called Lots of Bills and toy Stamp set, Pop-Maker, Chalkboard and Grabber. Milton Bradley also produced jigsaw puzzles based on the program.

In 1989 Popeye became a spokesperson for Quaker Oatmeal. Bluto was included in the comic-booklets found in the packages.

By the mid 1990s King Features Syndicate produced new Popeye family artwork for licensees to use. The character designs harkened back to the theatrical films produced by the Fleischer Studios. Unfortunately the Fleischer Studio’s version of Bluto was dubbed, Brutus, on several items from this period. Some products were released using his original name.

(1999) Bluto Collectible Marquette by Cipriano Studios. A black and white rendition of Bluto which could be joined together with both a Popeye and Olive Oyl Marquette. The figure was inspired by the Fleischer Studios’ design of the character.

(2001) Bluto, Classic Comic Series by Dark Horse. Bluto was wearing a short sleeved red shirt.

(2001-2004) Bluto Action figures by Mezco. Bluto was included with several other characters from the Popeye family in this series of action figures by Mezco. Bluto figures included his look from the Fleischer and Famous Studios theatrical films, wearing scuba gear and donning a red striped shirt with white collar.

When Bobby London took over the Popeye strip he wrote a storyline called The Return of Bluto which began in 1991. Popeye became involved with every incarnation of his bearded foe over the years. Ocean Comics produced a special Popeye comic book in 1988 which revealed Bluto was the twin brother of Brutus! The current Sunday Popeye strip, by Hy Eisman, established the same relationship between the two bearded musclemen in 2009.

In 2004 the FOX network aired the special Popeye’s Voyage: Quest for Pappy. Bluto was utilized as the rival for Olive Oyl’s affections. In recent years, all parties involved with the production of Popeye items, feel comfortable calling the one-eyed sailor’s rival, Bluto. I would say the pendulum has swung back to 1932. Happy 80th birthday!

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