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Sammy Lerner: Popeye's forgotten lyricist

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

© 2024 WBEI

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," Lerner said in a 1977 interview with The Los Angeles Times. "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," Lerner said. "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, estimated that Lerner may have earned more than $500,000 for just that one song alone. 

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