The True Face of Mario

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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.

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