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At 74, He Still Yam What He Yam : Voice of Popeye Likes Spinach, But Not Sailing

November 28, 1987|ETHAN RARICK | United Press International

CLACKAMAS, Ore. — At first, Bill Fraser sounds like any other retiree, but then the veteran vaudevillian's voice drops, and he utters those famous words: "I'm gonna get ya, Bluto. Skiddle-dee-dee."

"Anybody can do Popeye," said the man who invented the voices of the cartoon sailor, his lady-love Olive Oyl and his perennial rival Brutus (since renamed Bluto).

"I did them all," said Fraser, who for the last 25 years has lived in the small town of Clackamas southeast of Portland.

Fraser, 74, began recording Popeye's voice in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1927 when the character appeared only in comic strips.

A friend, who was both a policeman and a show business promoter, persuaded Fraser to record the voice, then sent the recordings to Hollywood, where black-and-white Popeye cartoons were just starting to be made.

'Toot, Toot'

"I used to put my head in the side of the horn and he would put pillows around the side of my head," Fraser said of the early recording sessions, adding that the pillows improved the recording quality.

Fraser recorded the cartoon sound tracks for three or four years, and sang the Popeye song when it came out in 1931. He can still sing it, sounding exactly like a Popeye cartoon, even with the "toot, toot" at the end.

Fraser even invented the stock Popeye phrases--"skiddle-dee-dee," "biddle-e-bee" and "whoa boy"--to cover himself when he forgot his lines.

"I used to do anything I could think of, and they said to leave that in," Fraser said.

He didn't invent Popeye's love of spinach, although he said he does like the vegetable.

"They said Popeye was brought up on spinach, and I went along with it," Fraser said. In later years, when he performed at schools, children would often give him cans of spinach.

"One day, I got about 35 cans."

No Sailing Man

But Fraser does not share Popeye's love of sailing. On a 17-day sea journey from Japan to San Francisco, he said he was seasick almost every day. "I had six meals a day--three up and three down."

As for the Popeye movie produced a few years ago, Fraser said he was disgusted with Robin Williams' portrayal of the title character.

"I liked the Olive Oyl," he said. "But, as Popeye, Williams didn't please me."

Fraser is still a little bitter that he never was paid residual fees for each showing of the cartoons, as performers are today. "They duped me out of the whole thing," he said.

Fraser began his show-business career at age 4, when he joined his family's vaudeville act. As a teen-ager, he played a girl in the act because child labor laws prohibited boys his age from performing.

"My father let my hair grow, and I had fake breasts and everything else," Fraser said. "I was pretty good-looking."

Part of the act also involved Fraser's "growing" from his normal height of 5 feet, 7 inches to 6 feet.

Longer Arms

"I'm the only man in the world who can actually grow. . . . I can elongate my arms and legs," Fraser said. "I make up my mind that I want to get taller, and I pressure my body, and up it goes."

Then there was an ill-fated comedy record featuring a voice that sounded like President John F. Kennedy. It was produced only a few days before Kennedy was assassinated and then pulled from the market.

A few years ago, Fraser starred in a beer commercial, and his last recordings of the voices of Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto were for a "Viewmaster" children's toy.

Even though he says anyone can do Popeye, Fraser maintains his version is still the best.

"And I still look like Popeye, too," he said.

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