The Malta Independent 24 January 2020, Friday

Robert Altman’s ‘Popeye’ – Then and now

Malta Independent Monday, 4 December 2006, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

Just hours after the news was out that film director Robert Altman had passed away, I was approached by Leli Bonnici, co-owner of the Popeye film-set in Anchor Bay, Mellieha: since Mr Altman had directed the Popeye movie, was it possible to pay tribute to him as Popeye Village remains a monument on our island?

Robert Altman was born on 20 February 1925 in Kansas City. He was married three times, and had five children, one of whom was adopted at birth. He was also step-father to a daughter of his last wife, Kathryn Reed, to whom he had been married since 1959 until his passing away on 20 November.

The Delinquents (1957) was his big-screen directorial debut, but it was M.A.S.H (1970) which gave him his first success. When he received an honorary Oscar at the 2006 Academy Awards, Altman said, “I can’t think of a better award – to me it’s better for all of my work than for just a couple of things.”

Among his successes, Altman had a few flops too. Many claim it was because his alternative ideas and methods were misunderstood. Popeye, a high-budget movie starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall, which was filmed entirely in Malta, was one of them, although it did actually make a profit.

Interestingly, decades after Popeye was released, slashed by most critics and ignored by the public, internet reviews by the general public today are less harsh. It may not boast the best acting or the best songs for a musical, but it comes across as simple and sweet in its own way. The set and the wardrobe are extraordinary, while Olive and Popeye play particularly true-to-comic-strip, if you allow. It might be worth pointing out that more than 12 directors had turned down this tough project, but Altman was up for the challenge of bringing the world-famous cartoon character to life. In 1981 Popeye was nominated for the Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, USA.

Leli organised a dinner with ex-members of the Popeye film crew, who had met Robert Altman in person: Albert Galea, who is now retired, was Accountant for the then Malta Film Facilities; Rita Galea, a freelancer who usually handles administrative roles, was Publicity Assistant for Popeye; while Yvonne Zarb Cousin, who always works in the Wardrobe department, was Wardrobe Mistress, preparing the clothes for the stars.

The dinner turned out to be an informal reunion as during the late 1980s, Leli had handled the catering for various commercials and film productions, and then ran the bar at Popeye Village. In between jokes and laughter I learnt a little more about the Popeye experience under the direction of Bob Altman, as they called him.

Albert recalled how they had taken Wolf Kroeger, the Production Designer, to various locations but when he saw Anchor Bay, he sat all day just staring down at the place. That night he drew and made a model of Sweet Haven, and when Altman arrived to inspect his choice, Kroeger told him, “Here – or no place!”

Albert chuckled as he recalled another episode, once the decision had been made, when Altman was summoned to London for an urgent meeting. Flights were limited then, so the airline was pressed to get somebody off the plane so Altman could take their place!

Leli explained how a crew of 165 people were engaged in constructing the set, where they consumed eight tons of nails and 2,000 gallons of paint! Most of the workers were Maltese or Italian, and Alvaro Belsole from Italy was Construction Manager. It took the last seven months of 1979 to build 20 wooden structures, and most of the original set still stands today.

Yvonne, a very outgoing woman, told us how Altman and much of the crew were present at her daughter’s wedding. “The set was finally ready after some delays due to bad weather, which caused some damage. Filming began just a week after Luciana’s wedding, at the end of January 1980.”

“The filming lasted six months and three weeks until the end of July,” added Albert.

Yvonne met Altman on the set on a day-to-day basis. “He would come to the wardrobe section first thing in the morning to check out the costumes, and he would have a coffee with us. He was a very friendly person,” she piped proudly, so I smiled.

A very familiar teasing was going on between her and Albert, whose wife Therese was also present at the dinner. Leli too joked about how everybody came to know Yvonne due to her out-going character, while Rita quietly told me that she and Albert preferred to take background roles and not be seen much.

Yvonne spoke loudly, with good humour in her eyes, “Most of the cast were circus people – that is why they perform so many tricks!”

Rita, soft by comparison, added, “Many of Robert Altman’s own family were involved in the film too… the boy playing Sweet Pea was his grandson, and his son was the Art Director. Others too, but I don’t remember – it’s a long time ago…” Indeed it is almost 27 years since.

Yvonne continued, “Bob Altman was always very happy on the set – and most of all, he respected his crew – disciplined but respectful. He must have been nice, otherwise he could not have had much of the same crew always work for him!” She giggled.

“When the day’s filming was about done, he would hold a plastic cup in hand and we would know… He would call, ‘It’s a wrap’ and reach out to have his glass filled with whisky. Then he invited everybody to see the film rushes…”

Observing the puzzled expression on my face, Albert interceded, “They are called rushes because the film reels were rushed to the airport, onto a plane to a laboratory, and then rushed back for the director to see...”

Rita added, “Apart from that, he organised matinees on Sundays, and drinks and so on – he really liked to see us all together as a family.” She continued, “I spent more time with the Publicity Director actually, but Robert Altman’s room was next door so I would see him sometimes. My contact was more with Robin Williams, as he would come outside our window practising his Popeye accent, and I would ask him to please help me transcribe recordings of his speech as I could not understand it!”

The conversation led to reminiscing about other personalities from the Popeye set, until I asked more information about how Popeye Village came to be as we know it today.

Leli and Albert explained how the set should have been demolished at the end of the production, but instead they painted it grey and left. Lino Cassar, who was then involved in the Malta Film Facility, was instrumental in convincing Dom Mintoff, the Prime Minister at the time, not to demolish it, with the pretext that it could be a source of income of some sort. For 10 years it was run as a tourist attraction by the Malta Film Facility.

Leli continued, “In 1987 a change in government led to the Malta Film Facility becoming the Mediterranean Film Studios, while Popeye Village was separated and became Anchor Bay Leisures Ltd. In November 1989 several state companies were privatised and we Bonnici brothers bought its shares in 1990.

“We invested a lot of money to maintain it – the set was built to last two years yet it is already 26 years old! Much of the work had to be done during the night, so as not to disturb visitors. At closing time a bridge might be dismantled, and by 9.30am it would have been rebuilt for none to be the wiser.

“We have five maintenance people and five animators working full-time. We continued to employ anybody who worked there before we took over, so one woman has been at Popeye Village since 1983.

“Many of the houses were just shells, so we fixed them to house glass-blowers, silver-smiths, wine-tasting, life-sized models and so on...” There is an educational cinema about the making of Popeye too, and the opportunity to participate in a Take-Two raw Popeye clip.

In fact, while I was touring the 1920s fishing village, I was impressed. Apparently, only the “Roughouse” and Olive Oyl’s family house at opposite ends of the village had had an interior originally. The “Roughouse” and the church surrounding the gun-post had suffered a fire and the original church no longer remains. Meanwhile the Oyls’ house has been rebuilt and transformed into the newer section of Santa’s Toy Town, forming part of the magical world where all the year round the elves are making toys for the children to be distributed at Christmas time.

Mark, Leli’s son, and Stephen, Leli’s nephew, explained that Popeye Village was very run-down when they first took over. Initially there was only the village, a souvenir shop and a restaurant. However, local people did not appreciate or visit the village, so they decided that, not only did they want to preserve it, they also wanted to do something innovative.

A fun park with various rides was introduced 12 years ago, and then a three-storey jump-around was added to the fun. Five years ago, Santa’s toy town came to life. The back ends of the post-office, the baker and the shoe-maker now host a number of brightly coloured mechanical elves, home-made to spec on location, from the good and bad children’s letters-sorting section, wood-workshop, paint section and soft-toy section to quality control. Audio explanations are given as a section is highlighted and you move from room to room.

It is truly a delight for adults and children alike to observe the individual personality of each elf, who does not work all the time but has the opportunity to relax in the rest quarters, or have a treat in the health and fitness area. Genius! The newer section involves the production of mechanical and digital toys for the more technologically-minded modern kids… while the modern Santa is keeping up with the times with a new rocket-powered sleigh!

Moreover, there are animation shows, a splash pool with slides for kiddies, a swimming pool and a sunbathing area for adults… A family could easily enjoy an entire day. Furthermore, Popeye Village is used as an educational attraction for school-children, locals and tourists, welcomes conference and incentive business through lunches, dinners and team-building events, and organises parties of all kinds.

One of Altman’s famous quotes: “What is an ending? There’s no such thing. Death is the only ending.”

Robert Altman was a creator; and the man behind the Popeye movie, the film set and its story… and that story goes on.

In this way we like to think that it is not really the end of Robert Altman.

Popeye Village, Anchor Bay, Mellieha

Tel: 2152-4782-4

Email: [email protected]


Opening hours 9.30am-5pm

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