When Paul Holladay Puts on His Sailor Suit, He's Popeye from Pipestem to Stern

updated 12/02/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/02/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

His vessel was a 1931 Ford convertible, but there was no mistaking that grizzled mug. The steadfast chin, the battered nose, the seaman's cap at a rakish angle—Bluto's blood would have chilled at the sight. "Is that really Popeye?" chirped a little boy at the recent 15th Annual Buck-board Days Parade in the landlocked L.A. suburb of Rowland Heights. Paul Holladay was ready for him. "I yam who I yam and that's all I yam," he announced, ready to down a can of spinach at a single gulp. "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man."

In fact, the role of Bluto's nemesis, Wimpy's pal, Olive Oyl's lover and Swee'Pea's dad is a relatively new one for Holladay, 70, a retired maintenance worker for Rockwell International Corp. A onetime amateur boxer, partially deafened as a result of his service as a bomber tail gunner in World War II, he had been attending hearing-deficiency and lip-reading classes at a VA outpatient clinic three years ago, when a therapist noticed his resemblance to the cartoon character and suggested he start playing Popeye. Holladay, an Arkansas native who settled in L.A. in 1929, thought it over, then searched Army-Navy surplus stores for a sailor outfit. By the time he'd rounded up a corncob pipe and some sponges for "muskles," he was Popeye right down to the forearms.

Since then Holladay has appeared in more than two dozen parades and street festivals, county fairs and look-alike contests, spouting doggerel and mariners' wisdom. The work has brought him out of his shell. Never married ("I didn't think anyone would want to put up with my injuries from the war"), Holladay had struggled vainly to deal with his handicap. "With my hearing so bad, I didn't pick up on everything, and I just wanted to disappear," he explains. When he couldn't do that, he lashed out. Says his friend and manager, Rudy Salcedo: "Fifteen or 20 years ago I used to bail him out of jail. He was in competition with everyone. Now he's learning that by letting his inner self come out and giving, he makes other people happy. He feels useful." The freshly minted old salt agrees, especially after his visit last Christmas to two children's hospitals. "When I saw those kids' disabilities, I felt mine was nothing," he says. "It's something I have to cope with. This is my last duty in life, so I'm going to keep doing something worthwhile."

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