Sammy Lerner: Popeye's forgotten lyricist

You know the words, but do you know who wrote them?

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I'm Popeye the sailor man
I'm Popeye the sailor man
I'm strong to the 'finich'
'Cause I eats me spinach
I'm Popeye the sailor man

By far, the most-remembered aspect of the October 1932 World Series is Babe Ruth's "called shot." This was game three, during the fifth inning. Ruth made a pointing gesture, seemingly predicting the home run that followed. Attendees of note included presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt and cartoon director Dave Fleischer. 

Fleischer Studios was planning a new animated series of shorts based on the Thimble Theater comic strips by E.C. Segar. Fleischer was joined at the World Series by songwriter Sammy Lerner, and on the car ride over, the director asked Lerner to write a theme song for the new Popeye cartoon. An agreement was met, the Yankees won the World Series, and Lerner promptly forgot about the whole thing.

A few months passed, according to Lerner, before he was summoned by Paramount Pictures executive Lou Diamond. Diamond was ready to hear the Popeye theme tune. Panicked, Lerner begged to reschedule the meeting. He hadn't yet written anything and requested a few days to "polish" the song. Diamond refused and demanded that Lerner be in his office by noon with the new music. 

In less than two hours, Lerner came up with the lyrics we recognize as the Popeye theme song. However, in his haste, Lerner wrote something he wasn't exactly proud of. "I knew the song had to be illiterate and not in the peak of melodic taste to be in character for the subject matter," he told The Los Angeles Times in 1977. "But when I saw that first cartoon, I wanted to crawl in a corner. 'Just do me a favor,' I said, 'don't put my name on the screen.'"

People — like Popeye's muscles — grow. And as people grow, their opinions change. Eventually, Sammy Lerner came to regret going uncredited for his most famous work. "One of my professional pains is that my name doesn't appear on the screen. I feel I've lost a great deal without the public and profession being aware I wrote this song. I'd like some kind of ointment to ease that lingering pain." 

Money, it seems, was not the salve Lerner was seeking, as royalty checks continued to accumulate. Sidney Herman, vice president of Famous Music, Lerner's publisher, estimated that Lerner may have earned more than $500,000 for just that one song alone. 

Tom Hatten, the host of a Popeye series on KTLA back in the '50s and '60s, was an expert on the subject. Hatten confirmed that, with a few exceptions from the '30s, like Popeye Meets Sinbad, Lerner went uncredited for his work. "So for all intents and purposes," said Hatten, "Sammy Lerner is the forgotten man in the Popeye story." 

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Cougar 12 months ago
Did you know that Popeye was a REAL sailor? They used his real face to draw the cartoon.
Ccook1956 Cougar 12 months ago
The sailor on which Segar based Popeye's features was known to be a brawler. Got into and started many fights. Segar would groom him to use his fists for the common good.
SammySetsuna Cougar 6 months ago
Dora Paskel was like the real life Olive Oyl.
JWF 12 months ago
Well, granted it may have been easy to come up with the song when you make up a lot of the words. " tough gazooka..."?
Ccook1956 12 months ago
Sammy Lerner would finally get a screen credit for the Popeye theme in 1978, on CBS's "All-New Popeye Hour."
Runeshaper 12 months ago
Sammy Lerner sounds like a smart man! I hope he gets some recognition now, even if he didn't want it at the time (-:
Bapa1 12 months ago
Those Popeye cartoons had a lot of songs during their tenure. Did he write them also?
justjeff 12 months ago
Even *with* screen credit, many songwriters for film and television go unnoticed by the general public because they are not "household names". To those of us who enjoy these talented folks, we make an effort to learn who they are.

From commissioned works to "stock" production music, many names are simply glossed over by viewers of production credits.

The average individual couldn't associate a composer with their work. Such names as Vic Mizzy, Sammy Lerner, Sammy Timberg, Carl Stalling, Bill Loos, William Lava, Alberto Colombo, Fred Steiner, Walter Schumann and dozens of others just rally a "who?" if you ask the uninitiated...

By the way, Alberto Colombo wrote or co-wrote a number of scores for Republic Pictures. A lot of Republic's "stock" music was used in the Lone Ranger TV show. Parts of "Perpetual Motion" by Colombo were used (with different arrangements) for fight and chase scenes.

Here's a link to one version on YouTube...
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