INGLEWOOD — The mouth widens and droops downward, clenching a corncob pipe. The eyes crinkle and the nose seems almost to flatten. Add a white sailor cap, and you're looking at Popeye the Sailor Man.
"It's a military secret how I get my face to look like that," joked Paul Holladay, a World War II veteran who likes to exchange his own looks--he normally wears dark-rimmed glasses and hearing aids--for the disguise of the cartoon mariner.
"It's a hobby and I do it to please people and to stay active and healthy," said Holladay, who suffered a hearing loss when he was a wartime airman and has poor eyesight. "I have to keep my mind occupied. I can't sit around like some people."
Holladay said he has yet to "make a dime" out of Popeye and does not want to turn professional: "I only like to be Popeye when I feel like it. I don't want to have to do it."
Holladay twists his face into the Popeye grimace and dons his sailor garb five or six times a year. Most of his appearances are at celebrity look-alike contests, where he shares stages with impersonators of Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson and the like. He won a contest in March, 1984, at the Sheraton La Reina Hotel near Los Angeles International Airport.
But he said his greatest triumph so far came at the Hawthorne Community Fair parade on July 27, where he wowed the crowd, won a third-place trophy in the novelty category, and got his picture in a local newspaper.
"I went from one side of the street to the other saying, 'I am who I am, that's all I am, I'm Popeye the Sailor Man," recalled Holladay in his best gravelly Popeye voice. And he didn't forget Popeye's instant energizer, spinach, or his girlfriend, Olive Oyl.
"I pulled a can of spinach out of one pocket and a jar of olive oil out of the other and said, 'Popeye is never without his Olive Oyl,' " Holladay recounted.
A retired maintenance worker for Rockwell International Corp. who gives his age as "65 plus," Holladay has lived quietly in a pink bungalow near the San Diego Freeway for 24 years. He never gave a thought to impersonating anyone, much less Popeye, until three years ago, when he was in therapy for his hearing problem at a Veterans Administration outpatient clinic in downtown Los Angeles.
"A therapist suggested that I try to be Popeye because it would be good for me," said Holladay. "I guess she just studied my features and saw Popeye in there somewhere."
He visited a couple of surplus stores for sets of navy blues and whites and bought a bunch of corncob pipes at a drugstore. "I got a few, in case they break," he said. He dreamed up his Popeye routines while lying in bed: "You have to have things to say if you're going to perform. You can't be a deadbeat."
Holladay's Popeye first met the public at the annual UCLA Mardi Gras carnival in Westwood. "I just walked around and people wanted to take my picture," he said. He also has livened up the Street Scene festival in downtown Los Angeles: "I had someone stop their car, come back, and take my picture."
His first look-alike appearance was at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona and he's going back for the fourth time next month. He also plans to be in the hog-calling contest, but as Paul Holladay in a western outfit, not Popeye. "I was raised in the Ozarks, so I guess I'm qualified for that," he said.
Aerospace engineer Rudy Salcedo, a longtime friend of Holladay who serves as his manager, arranged for Popeye to entertain last Christmas at the county's MacLaren Children's Center in El Monte, and at the United Cerebral Palsy Spastic Children's Foundation residential facility in Sylmar.
Salcedo and Holladay are scouting around for other places for Popeye to visit--amateur night at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood is a possibility--but they both admit that they are novices in the entertainment world. "We're both amateurs and don't have the vaguest idea of what to do except to call around," said Salcedo.
Goal Is Rose Parade
After his success at the Hawthorne parade, Holladay said, he has his Popeye cap set on being in parades and is writing to chambers of commerce to find others. "I want to work my way up, maybe to the Hollywood Christmas parade," he said. "I want to make the Rose Parade, but I don't know how you can do that."
Holladay said he has no intention of letting Popeye infiltrate his life. He takes the bus to most of his Popeye appearances, carrying his costumes with him and finding someplace to change when he gets there. "I'm glad people don't recognize me when I'm not in my uniform," Holladay said. "I want to keep a low profile."
He still takes the bus almost every day to the Veterans Administration clinic downtown, where he plays pool and sometimes takes crafts classes.
But when he's not performing, Popeye stays home.