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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Jack Mercer (1909-84)

Jack Mercer was born January 14, 1909, in New York City. His parents were actors and, unlike some of the other performers in this 'blog, encouraged him to go into acting. But Jack had other ideas. His plan was to go into art. So, after graduating from high school in 1927 (De Witt Clinton High School) he went to a two year art school. When he got out, he got a job with the Fleischer Brothers Cartoon Studio in New York City as an in-betweener. In animation, an in-betweener is an entry level job in which the mistakes of the more advanced artists are corrected. In the old days (and this was the old days) in-betweeners were hardly paid anything. But it was the only way to get anywhere in the animation business.

Billy Costello (1898-1971) was the original voice of Popeye, the chief product of the Fleischer Brothers, who were Max, Dave, and Lou Fleischer, three brothers whose parents came to the United States from Austria-Hungary (actually, the area they came from is located in Poland). Max was born in the "old country," so he, too, was an immigrant. Billy had a very difficult attitude. But he was the only one the brothers knew who could pull off the Popeye voice. Dave hated Billy. He literally hated him. His arguments with Dave were known throughout the studio. The only one of the brothers who seemed to like him was Lou. And Lou really didn't do that much for the studio. After one of Dave and Billy's legendary rows in 1935, the artists in the studio began teasing Billy. Jack, imitating Billy, made up a song about what was going on, using some off color words, to the tune of the Popeye theme song. Dave left the room but Lou, who was always quiet, spoke up.

"Young man," Lou said, "Can you sing that song for me again?"

Jack was embarrassed. He knew someone was going to be fired for what was going on. With the Depression going on it was terrible to be back on the streets of New York looking for work. He really didn't want to do it.

"Come on, young man. I'm waiting..."

He repeated the song.

"Mr. Costello," Lou told Billy, "This in-betweener sings better than you. He sounds more like I think Popeye should sound. What's more... You're fired and I'm hiring him to take your place."

William A. Costello never worked in show business again. He moved to California and became a lumberjack.

Jack was one of the Fleischers' most loyal employees. When the studio moved from New York to Miami, he never complained about moving. He did many of the voices for their Superman cartoon series (which borrowed Bud Collyer from the radio series). He also did cartoons for the Famous Studios division of Paramount Pictures. They would continue doing Popeye cartoons through the 1950s.

While the program was still new, a Popeye radio series was aired over a handful of stations throughout the country. The radio program was a little different than the cartoons. In the cartoons, Popeye ate spinach to get strong. In the radio series, the sponsor was Wheatena hot cereal. So Popeye ate Wheatena to get strong.

His last regular work in cartoons was a revamping of Felix the Cat, which was done by the Trans Lux Company in New York City (early 1960s). All of the voices on that series were done by Jack... Felix, Poindexter, the Professor, Rock Bottom, Vavoom, and all of the other voices heard.

After this, he did some cartoons for CBS Television a few years before his death. During that time, he lived in Los Angeles. For most of his life he lived in New York City, except for the brief periods when he worked at the Fleischer Brothers Studios in Florida and for CBS in California.

Jack was married twice. The first time, he was married Margie Hines, the original voice of Olive Oyl, Popeye's girlfriend. His second wife was named Virginia. Jack died in Queens, New York, on December 4, 1984, at the age of 75.

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