The True Face of Mario

Everybody knows Mario–Super Mario. And how: an oft-cited 1991 poll found that more American children recognized Nintendo’s cheerful mascot than they did Mickey Mouse. Almost two decades later, the famous cartoon plumber, forever clad in blue overalls, regularly stars in blockbuster games for the Wii and DS.

[Also see: Inside Nintendo's Classic Game Console and A Brief History of Game Consoles, as Seen in Old TV Ads]

Regarding Mario’s origins, it’s common knowledge among game fans that legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto created him for 1981's Donkey Kong arcade game. But few know that Nintendo borrowed Mario’s name and Italian heritage from a real man.

That man’s name is Mario Segale, and he’s not a plumber. He’s a wealthy real estate developer in Tukwila, Washington. Segale unwittingly stepped into video game history by renting out a warehouse that served as Nintendo’s U.S. headquarters in the early 1980s. At that time, a financially struggling Nintendo of America (NOA) was preparing the U.S. launch of Donkey Kong. Legend has it that NOA President Minoru Arakawa noticed physical similarities between Donkey Kong’s short, dark-haired protagonist and the landlord. So the crew at NOA nicknamed the character Mario, and it stuck.

Of Mario Obscured

Knowing the story above, it’s natural for video game enthusiasts to be curious about Segale. Does he look anything like Nintendo’s famous mascot? How does he feel about inspiring key traits of a cartoon video game character? We’ve been largely unable to answer those questions. Segale himself is hard to reach. Partly because of his association with Nintendo’s character–which friends and colleagues say he doesn’t appreciate–Segale stays quiet. Very quiet. His profile is so low, in fact, that you are about to see the first picture of him ever published on the Internet.

I’ve attempted to make contact with Segale a few times over the years, but all my queries have remained unanswered. In the course of researching the man, I’ve instead come in contact with a few associates of Segale who are willing to discuss Segale on condition of anonymity. Revealing their names might jeopardize their relationships with Segale, and I’m not keen to do that. The stakes are too low to be ruining lives over a tangential figure in video game history.

Tangential or not, we still want to see him — and here he is. This photo of Mario Segale appeared in the 1952 Pirates’ Log, the annual yearbook of Highline High School in Burien, Washington. It is Segale’s senior year photograph, and it was accompanied by the quote: “The hum of his car’s motor was his symphony.”

I’ve checked with people who personally know Segale, and they confirmed that the young man seen in the picture above is indeed the same Mario Segale that lent his name to Nintendo’s mascot. Assuming he was 18 years old in 1952, that would put Segale at about 76 today. A recent Seattle Times article cites Segale’s age as 75, so that, in combination with the school’s location and personal testimony, confirm this is who we think it is.

But who is he, really?

On Mario, the Man

Over the past four years, I’ve learned some tidbits from friends and associates of Mario Segale. Nothing too deep–just little things here or there that form an interesting picture of the man. First of all, Segale is an avid duck hunter who rarely misses a season. No joke. Memories of the Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt cartridge might be floating through your head right now, and I don’t blame you: it’s a very entertaining coincidence.

If there’s one thing that’s consistent about the man, it’s his aversion to publicity. Below, I’ve quoted some thoughts on Segale’s secretive nature from someone close to him. From everything I know about the man (which is admittedly not very much), this explains him well:

"Mario is, as you know, very private, also very Italian. He values loyalty, respect and trust. Mario has a close knit family circle. From my understanding, Mario wants nothing to do with being related to the “Super Mario” character in fear it might interfere with his business, financial, political and private relationships…Obviously from his standpoint it wouldn’t benefit him and could possibly publicize him."

In some respects, the author is correct about Segale’s concerns: his relationship to Nintendo’s character does publicize him. After all, Exhibit A is the article you’re reading now. But I’ve not felt too bad probing lightly into Segale’s character: he gets significantly more scrutiny as a developer in the Seattle Times, which has been covering his adventures in real estate for decades.

In fact, the Times recently examined the serious side of Segale more closely in an article that overviews his current development projects in the Tukwila area. Chief among them is “Tukwila South,” a 500 acre expanse of commercial land Segale has been buying up for decades and is now preparing to turn into an enormous office park. The article goes into Segale’s business and political background far more than a video game journalist would typically care to explore (including a list of all the gravel pits he owns–seriously), further reinforcing my point.

Here’s another e-mail I received from a close associate. This one mentions Segale’s appearance with some delight:

"Mario values his privacy over money, which is why he hasn’t accepted any for being “Mario.” He’s just a normal, wealthy (self-made), semi-grumpy old man. :) But we thought we’d let you know that he is really not particularly fascinating! You would probably be disappointed if you ever saw him. He doesn’t even wear coveralls! But he is not too tall and he does wear suspenders."

Suspenders? I’m beginning to see how Arakawa might think he resembled Miyamoto’s video game character if they were a regular part of Segale’s wardrobe. But this description left me wondering: does Segale ever wear a mustache? To find out, I checked with one of my contacts. According to him, Segale did not wear a mustache from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. He’s unsure of Segale’s ‘stache status before or after that.

That brings us to what Segale actually thinks about this whole thing. The only Segale quote about this topic we have on record comes from a 1993 Seattle Times article. I quote:

"So what does Segale think of his name being used for a game that has sold more than 100 million copies and made Nintendo one of the world’s most profitable companies, not to mention the Super Mario Bros. movie just released?

“You might say I’m still waiting for my royalty checks,” he quips."

As far as I know, Segale has not spoken on record to any member of the media on any topic since that time.

How We Know The Segale Story

Now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with Segale personally, let’s get back to basics. How do we know that Mario Segale was Nintendo’s landlord? And how did the world hear about the Mario naming story to begin with?

To clear up the landlord issue, we simply have to dig into historical records. Thanks to the online US Trademark database, we can easily find Nintendo of America’s address in the early 1980s, and guess what? It matches a building owned by Mario Segale. So Segale was definitely Nintendo’s landlord in 1981.

As for the story, we have to trace it back to its roots in our culture. It first gained wide attention thanks to journalist David Sheff’s provocatively-titled 1993 book Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children.

Yes, that’s really the title.

To explain the following passage, we must set the scene. It’s 1981, and Nintendo’s struggling American branch, Nintendo of America (NOA) has rented a warehouse in Washington as its headquarters. NOA is about to distribute Nintendo’s new Donkey Kong arcade game in the United States.

The game stars an enormous gorilla and a pudgy red and blue protagonist Nintendo nicknames “Jumpman,” who is a carpenter by trade (Mario did not become a plumber until the Mario Bros. Arcade game in 1983). Minoru Arakawa, President of NOA, badly needs a hit game to save his troubled American operation. It seems that Donkey Kong will do the trick.

Here is Sheff’s exact telling of how Mario got his name (I quote from page 109 of the 1994 edition):

"They were trying to decide what to call the rotund, red-capped carpenter, when there was a knock on the door. Arakawa answered it. Standing there was the owner of the warehouse. In front of everyone, he blasted Arakawa because the rent was late. Flustered, Arakawa promised that the money was forthcoming, and the man left.

The landlord’s name was Mario Segali. “Mario,” they decided. “Super Mario!”"

It should be noted that there are three problems with Sheff’s account: one, there’s a reference to “Super Mario,” a character power-up idea that only came about in relationship to 1985's Super Mario Bros. on the Famicom, so the entire NOA staff wouldn’t have spontaneously exclaimed “Super Mario!” in 1981.

More notably, Sheff misspells Segale’s name as “Segali.” In my mind, this was likely a transcription error from a verbal interview that Sheff conducted. Thanks to Sheff’s one-letter mistake, the Internet is littered with tens of thousands of erroneous instances of the “Mario Segali” spelling in Mario origin stories, further confusing the issue.

Third, Sheff’s story implies that Segale barged in just at the very moment when NOA was deciding what to call Mario. This is almost certainly a dramatic exaggeration, since later, less sensational accounts favor the “gradual nickname” version of events.

From Sheff’s work, the story eventually made its way into a popular video game history book, The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven L. Kent. Kent tells the tale on page 159 with a decidedly more level head than Sheff. I’ve added paraphrased replacements in brackets for clarification:

"[Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi] called his son-in-law [Minoru Arakawa, president of Nintendo of America] and told him that a new game was coming that would make Nintendo one of the hottest game companies in American arcades.

The news could not have come at a better time. [Nintendo of America] had nearly bankrupted themselves, and Arakawa was having trouble covering the costs of his floundering operation. Around this time, Mario Segale, the landlord of Nintendo’s warehouse, visited Arakawa to complain that the rent was late. After threats and angry words, Segale accepted Arakawa’s promise that the money would arrive shortly. Arakawa later immortalized Segale by renaming Jumpman, the carpenter in Donkey Kong, Mario."

I recently asked Kent about the source of this information, and he says he likely took it from David Sheff’s book originally, but he’s fuzzy about it because he wrote it twelve years ago. Kent is sure, however, that he ran all of his Nintendo chapters past both Howard Lincoln (legal counsel for NOA in 1981, later Chairman) and Minoru Arakawa. They had no complaints. I contacted Minoru Arakawa myself, but he declined to be interviewed on this topic.

Interestingly, neither Sheff nor Kent say that NOA named the character Mario because of a physical resemblance to Segale. That element of the story seems to have come from interviews with Shigeru Miyamoto, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

With these dramatic, simplified stories in mind, it might be obvious why (aside from associations with a childlike cartoon character), Segale isn’t itching to step out and claim the limelight as Mario’s inspiration. Put yourself in Segale’s shoes: would you be happy about the antagonistic role you played in this classic tale of overdue rent? Furthermore, in Sheff’s account (the first one that caught the eye of the press), it’s almost as if Nintendo was mocking Segale by naming their character after him.

Ah yes, mocking. That brings us to another reason Segale might not be too thrilled with Nintendo’s mascot: the exaggerated Italian stereotypes baked into Nintendo’s one-note Mario character. In modern Mario games, the character delivers plenty of simple-minded one liners (voiced by Charles Martinet) in a very thick, very silly Italian accent. (Think: “It’s-a me, Mario!”) At least Mario isn’t constantly seen scarfing down pizza and pasta–unless you count the entire run of the Super Mario Bros. Super Show .

Nintendo Remains Quiet

Unless Nintendo officially acknowledges Segale’s role in the Mario origin story–and unless Segale steps out and talks more about it — this tale will continue to retain more than a hint of legend and lore. In my research, I have never found a reference to Nintendo of Japan officially acknowledging the Mario Segale/Mario character connection. The possible reasons for Nintendo’s behavior range from conspiratorial to mundane.

I suspect (and this is pure conjecture on my part) that Nintendo is reticent about making the Segale/Nintendo connection publicly due to possible legal or financial implications of using Segale’s first name, Italian heritage, and likeness for its extremely lucrative video game character. You might recall the “I’m still waiting for my royalty checks,” quote from Segale, which, while portrayed as humorous, probably didn’t inspire confidence in Nintendo.

In addition, Nintendo almost certainly knows that Segale is not enthusiastic about the association, so why rub it in his face when there’s little (if anything) to be gained by it on Nintendo’s part?

Nintendo recently had an excellent opportunity to officially address Mario’s name origin with this entry in the “Iwata Asks” series on Nintendo’s website. In it, Nintendo Co., Ltd. President/CEO Satoru Iwata interviews Shigeru Miyamoto about New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The two discuss the origins of the Mario character:

"Iwata: So the entire design was a case of form being dictated by function. You can really see that your specialist field, industrial design, is evident in the final result. Then, because he jumped up and down, he became known as “Jumpman”, right?

Miyamoto: Well, I called him “Mr. Video”. My plan was to use the same character in every video game I made."

Through this, we know that Miyamoto’s original name for Mario was “Mr. Video.” The two discuss that name to some length, but Iwata strangely doesn’t press him on the origins of the “Mario” character name. The sole reference to Mario’s final name came from Miyamoto:

I felt that I had come up with a pretty solid character, which is why I thought: “Right, I’ll keep using him from now on!” That’s why I decided a solid, imposing name like “Mr. Video” would work best. But thinking back, I don’t think I should have gone with that name. Someone at Nintendo of America actually came up with the name Mario. If he had been called “Mr. Video,” he might have disappeared off the face of the earth. (laughs)

Miyamoto, as quoted through Nintendo corporate, devotes no more than a single short sentence to the official explanation of Mario’s name: “Someone at Nintendo of America actually came up with the name Mario.” And they leave it at that. No follow-up questions about it from Iwata, no inquiries about the origins of the character’s Italian heritage. It’s slightly odd, to say the least.

On the other hand, Nintendo might just be genuinely confused about the origins of Mario’s name. The Mario naming story took place at great distance from Nintendo’s main office in Japan, which gives the account once-removed status from corporate Nintendo, injecting uncertainty about the geography and circumstances of Mario’s naming. Evidence of this theory can be found in interviews of Mario creator and Japan native Miyamoto, who acknowledges the story about a NOA landlord, but often mistakenly mentions that NOA’s rented warehouse was located in New York. Here’s one such quote from a 2005 MTV article:

"The team gets a lot of credit from Miyamoto, who points out that even conceiving the character’s name was a group effort. The character was initially called “Jump Man” when he made his debut as the player-controlled protagonist in 1981's “Donkey Kong.” Nintendo had warehoused the first American copies of the “Donkey Kong” arcade game in New York. “Apparently the landlord of the warehouse in New York had a striking resemblance to the character that we had designed in Japan for the game,” said Miyamoto. The New York-based Nintendo players took note. “They kept calling him Mario, and eventually we made that the formal name of the character.”"

Of course, Miyamoto’s account is even more confused than that, because he says that ambiguous “players” of Donkey Kong named the character Mario instead of high-level Nintendo employees. Miyamoto’s statement doesn’t match the stories of Nintendo of America employees who actually worked in Tukwila, Washington at the time of Mario’s naming.

What to Believe

Since I’ve presented so much information here and the modern reader tends to skim, I’ll summarize what I know. My research confirms that the Steven L. Kent version of the Mario origin story is the most accurate. Mario A. Segale, real estate developer, was indeed the namesake of Nintendo’s Mario character, and he was indeed the landlord of Nintendo’s Tukwila, Washington warehouse in 1981 when employees of the then very small Nintendo of America named the protagonist in Donkey Kong after him. Many details beyond that still remain in the realm of speculation and will remain so unless the parties involved talk to the press in more detail (and reporters do their part by reporting it accurately).

Ultimately, Mario is Mario is Mario. We never needed to know about Segale to take delight in playing a masterfully crafted Mario title. But as we enjoy the games Nintendo brings us, we can now appreciate the reclusive millionaire that inspired a few aspects of the famous character. At the end of the day, there’s a big difference between the two, and the continuing silence of both Segale and Nintendo on the matter server to remind us of that. It’s in the best interest of both parties to keep the two concepts–Mario the man and Mario the character–as far apart as possible, even if history tells us otherwise. For yes, Segale is truly a part, however small, of video game history.

Special thanks to Bill Odekirk (an alumnis of Highline High School himself), Jeff Ryan, Chris Baker, and Steven L. Kent for help with this article. Simon Carless provided the scan of Lincoln and Arakawa.

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