Without a doubt, Popeyes is a restaurant whose chicken, biscuits, and mashed potatoes are so deeply embedded in the culture of New Orleans that to speak against—or even question—its status as holy is downright blasphemous. This level of deep devotion means that there are plenty of tall tales and quirky tidbits buried in the chain’s vault, but none more fascinating than the fact that it once sponsored its own children’s television show, Popeye and Pals.
Popeye and Pals originally aired in New Orleans in 1957, one of several shows to crop up in the ’50s set around the spinach-guzzling sailor man. Every week for nearly four decades, Popeye and Pals featured roughly two dozen local kids who gathered for, more or less, three purposes: eating, watching cartoons, and announcing their names when prompted (or prodded) by the host.
Three-piece-box demi-god Al Copeland had yet to found Popeyes when the show first aired, but by the ’70s, when the chain became an official sponsor, it was a hand-in-glove fit (not to mention a primo branding opportunity). The show was a Saturday-morning routine for New Orleans children, who would watch for classmates to appear, chicken in hand, and earn fifteen minutes of grade-school fame.
“Even though it had a lot of segments where you had to watch little local kids do uninteresting things, such as answer questions about themselves and eat fried chicken, it was a show we all watched on Saturday mornings whether or not we were on it,” said Ann Glaviano, a New Orleans writer and dancer who appeared on the show in 1988. “The cartoons were worth watching.”
Organized bands of children, from Webelos to birthday parties, flocked to the show, where they indulged in the holy trinity of junk food: fried chicken (from Popeyes, naturally), candy (“sponsored by Beech-Nut!”), and soda (“provided by Pepsi!”). On each episode, the camera was never far from tiny teeth gnawing on drumsticks and hands digging—treasure-hunt style—into the golden ticket boxes of poultry.
There was also a ritual, call-and-response move that was the show’s trademark. After the host would count down, “One, two, three…,” the kids would shout, “Roll ‘em!” (often with mouths full of biscuits) to launch the start of the show’s cartoon segment. At the end of each episode, one child won a fluffy icing-peaked cake shaped like pretty much anything: a train, Bert and Ernie—whatever was relevant at the time. Popeye and Pals played into every child’s fantasy of a world without broccoli and glasses of milk at dinner. It was a dreamy Big Rock Candy Mountain of sorts, New Orleans-style.
The original set placed children on a barren soundstage with stadium-style seating surrounded by a fence feebly decorated to look like the bow of a ship. “Uncle” Henry Dupre, a local radio personality with a pencil-thin mustache and an always-sideways nautical cap, was the first and most beloved host. After Uncle Henry stepped down in 1964, hosts rotated fairly regularly, from a Tom Selleck doppelganger in knee-high athletic white socks to a Mother Goose-like woman in peacock-blue eye shadow.
By the late 1970s, the set had morphed from a boat into a Popeyes storefront, complete with whirling logo and a copycat version of the river-rock facade that is a hallmark of the chain’s architecture. Popeye continued to be the show’s thematic ghost in the machine, and a curious part of Popeyes overall marketing strategy for decades.
In the 1980s Popeye and Pals took a page from bigger variety shows (minus a huge degree of variety). During this decade, the host used a long, Bob Barker-style microphone to ask a sea of children with Mary Lou Retton haircuts and Peter Pan-collared party dresses their names. Toward the end of the ‘80s, the show even started to tackle real-world issues, with visits from police officers to discuss “good touch” versus “bad touch” and SPCA volunteers to talk about spaying and neutering while holding a squirmy kitten.
Through the changes, ads remained an integral part of Popeye and Pals and, in retrospect, a thing of oddball beauty. During any given episode, a commercial for Powdered Donutz cereal (featuring a quartet of animated, singing O’s) might back straight up into an ICEE giveaway, followed by an animatronic gorilla beckoning kids to visit Showbiz Pizza Place. Popeyes, of course, always kicked off any promotional loop.
Today, the former child guests on Popeye and Pals—now all grown up—almost unanimously say they remember very little about being on the show.
“I don’t remember much about it. There was some kind art contest where kids sent in pictures of dinosaurs and they picked some to be on the show. They picked my sister’s [picture] because it was actually good, and they picked mine because I was her brother—and I guess partly because it was the only entry made on a computer,” said Gerard Green, another 1980s guest. “Also, I was given ice cream backstage.”