Day: July 19, 2011

Popeye host Tom Hatten taught LA kids the magic of drawing comics

Tom Hatten, circa 1956

After living here for just over ten years, I’m still learning about Los Angeles and its surprisingly rich history. From the 1950s and into the mid-’60s, local station KTLA, then owned by Paramount, ran The Pier Point 5 Club, later renamed The Popeye Show. Both shows aired live segments between episodes of the Popeye cartoon, which had been licensed to Paramount in 1941. To compete with other children’s programming, KTLA needed a host for the live segments, and so they hired Tom Hatten.

Dressed as a skipper to resemble Popeye, what made Tom Hatten unique from the other kids show hosts was his abilities as an artist, in addition to being a classically trained actor. Tom Hatten would draw Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto live on the show. For many LA area kids, this was probably the first time they’d ever seen someone draw seemingly random lines on a page and bring them together to create something familiar. The show was so popular that it was brought back in the ’70s and ’80s.

That magical experience was expanded when Tom Hatten started holding contests on the show where random “squiggle” as he would call them, would be made by a local kid, and then he would turn it into a whale or funny looking character. If he couldn’t turn the squiggle into something, the kid would win a free bike.

This kind of local programming is unheard of these days, so naturally this kind of improvised drawing is almost impossible to find. Fortunately I know of one live performance happening this week that is an absolute joy to watch. At Comic-Con International: San Diego, one my favorite panels is Quick Draw, where master cartoonists Sergio Aragonés (Groo the Wanderer, Mad Magazine) and Scott Shaw! (Captain Carrot & His Amazing Zoo Crew, Simpsons Comics) improvise their way through a flurry of cartoon drawings. This year they’ll be joined by cartoonist Mike Kazaleh (The Adventures of Captain Jack, Futurama). The show is hosted by comics historian/animation director Mark Evanier and there are usually some guest appearances by popular comics creators. It’s a hilarious hour and change, and really shows just how brilliant these people are to be able to create identifiable objects with personality and style using free association and random audience suggestions.

But back to Tom Hatten. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any videos on YouTube of Tom drawing from the original show itself, but I found this two-part interview from 2004 where he was a guest on the local talk show Marty’s Corner. He demonstrated the squiggles game and his drawing Olive Oyl to get the job, along with other great anecdotes.