This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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by Thomas V. Powers, © 2005
(From Radio Recall, February 2005.
This is Part One of a two-part article. Read Part Two here.)
As most readers will know, Superman premiered in Action Comics #1 in 1938. But Superman had been a long time in development. In 1933, in their mimeographed Science Fiction fanzine, Cleveland teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster featured a story written by Siegel under the pseudonym Herbert S. Fine with the title "Reign of the Superman". In this tale we see an evil mental Superman, a bald-headed villain, a theme that would reoccur again in the Superman mythos. Siegel and Schuster thought they had something there, only perhaps a Superman that was a hero rather than an evil madman would be more appealing. They sent off sample comic strips to all the major syndicates, with discouraging results.
After several years of trying, and several revisions, the duo submitted it to the McClure Newspaper Syndicate. As luck would have it, the strip was seen by Sheldon Mayer, who found Superman an exciting idea. Unable to convince his superiors at McClure to accept the feature, Mayer recommended it to Jack Liebowitz at National Publications, knowing they were looking for material for their new magazine, Action Comics. Editor Vincent Sullivan agreed that it was different and interesting, and Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster sold their story and character for a reported $130!
Action Comics #1, June 1938 featured a Superman cover and a lead-story that introduced the hero. Superman's origin was told in a brief one-page prolog that had him coming from nameless planet destroyed by old age. A passing motorist discovered the child, and delivered it to an orphanage. When he was grown to manhood, he attained startling abilities -- though somewhat limited from the powers we know today.
Superman was able to leap 1/8th of a mile--hurtle a twenty story building, raise tremendous weights, run faster than an express train, and that nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin.
Clark Kent was established as the alter-ego of Superman, though it is not explained how the alien got that name, and we are introduced to female reporter Lois Lane. However, the newspaper he worked for was in the early adventures called the Daily Star, and the editor was George Taylor. Not all the familiar pieces had yet been put in place. Even the city of Metropolis was not completely firm, in at least one story the locale was Cleveland, and the paper the Evening News.
Some of the significant elements of the character were to come, not from the comics themselves, but from another medium entirely. National Publications (or DC Comics, as it was commonly known) soon realized they had a hit on their hands -- and also a highly merchandisable property. D.C.'s press agent Allen Ducovny and writer Robert Maxwell had been given the assignment of exploring these possibilities.
By January of 1939, Superman had been picked up as a newspaper strip by the McClure Syndicate, and so they turned their attention to another source of revenue -- radio. In 1939, they prepared 4 audition shows for a Superman Radio series to play for potential sponsors. The openings had a different and interesting flying effect that sounded almost like a jet engine. The mock ads for 'Blankerine' make it apparent that they were already looking for a cereal sponsor, not uncommon for a show targeted towards children.
The Superman background was still in flux, the newspaper in the audition discs was called the Daily Flash, and the editor was Paris White, which would be changed to Perry, and soon adopted by the newspaper strip and comics. By this time, Superman's origin had been retold by Siegel and Schuster, naming the ill-fated planet Krypton, and revealing Superman's parents as Jor-L and Lora. It seems odd to some that the name of a noble gas was chosen for Superman's home, and it has been speculated that it was inspired by the Greek word Cryptos; the hidden place -- a evocative name that suggests an ancient tomb, fitting for a dead world.
At this point in the comics it was said the child from Krypton was discovered as an infant and raised by an elderly couple, in one version John and Mary Kent of Ohio. Maxwell and Ducovny-- whether by intent or ignorance-- decided to streamline the story by having Superman arrive on Earth as grown man, and in costume, like Athena springing full grown from the brow of Zeus. They had also placed Krypton on the other side of our own sun, like the legend of the hidden planet variously called Nemesis, Vulcan, Mondas, and other names over the years.
Superman claims to have no name and little knowledge of mankind, yet knows English and has a longing to begin his vocation. In the first broadcast episodes we will learn the man directing the saboteur called “The Wolf” is The Yellow Mask, who would become an important continuing character in the first Superman series.
Now, you'll note I said the first Superman series, because there are really two distinct radio series -- though some would say three, a point that I'll address later. The first show is the syndicated transcription series SUPERMAN, which ran from three times a week from February 14, 1940 to March 9, 1942. The Hecker H.O. Oats Company picked up the show. This Buffalo, NY-based company had previously sponsored the first Bobby Benson series in the thirties, originally titled The H-Bar-O Rangers.
Much to its annoyance, Hecker's could not get the networks to put Superman on the air, so although it was recorded at WOR in New York, part of the then still loosely affiliated Mutual Network, it was broadcast on only ten stations nationwide at first. Ratings were apparently good; Anthony Tollin's research indicates that by the tenth week of broadcasts, the show had a Crossley rating of 5.6, the highest of any three-times a-week juvenile series.
This makes me speculate that the show may have been airing in other markets, not sponsored by Hecker's, perhaps carried as a sustainer. What also leads me to suspect this is the fact that the episodes of this transcribed series I've heard don't have H.O. commercials, nor do they appear to have any definite commercial breaks -- unless the fades to silence between some scenes were intended to allow local stations to simply lift the needle and insert their own.
Now we come to casting. The part of Superman went to busy radio veteran Clayton "Bud" Collyer, despite his reluctance to take the part. Ducovny and Maxwell felt he had struck the perfect balance with his ability to give Clark Kent and Superman to distinct voices, often shifting seamlessly between the two in mid-sentence. Collyer was pleased that the part would be unbilled, as DC preferred to create the illusion that Superman himself appeared on the program. It would be years before he was publicly credited as the character, and by then Collyer had come to have more respect for the show and the positive values it presented.
Perry White was played by Julian Noa, who had the opportunity to mold a character by his performance. White would play many roles on the series, including sinister villains, such as the Yellow Mask -- except when the Yellow Mask called Perry White on the phone. It's hard to talk to yourself on an isolation mike.
Lois Lane made her debut on the seventh episode of the program, and was played by Rollie Bester, a very active radio actress, and wife of Alfred Bester -- a science fiction author, who would later write Green Lantern comic books and scripts for The Shadow and other radio shows. She apparently played the role three times, and then perhaps because the character did not appear on the show for about two weeks, was replaced by Helen Choate. It's possible that the producers simply weren't satisfied with any of the performances of Lois Lane.
Perry White's secretary is named “Miss Lane” in the audition, and was played by Agnes Moorehead, who also played Superman's mother, renamed Lara (a change that would stick) in the first broadcast, and Miss Sullivan in the second episode we recreated. They may have had her interpretation and delivery in mind -- something hard for any actor to recreate.
Helen Choate would be replaced by Joan Alexander, who went on to play the character for the rest of its run. Even she hard a rough beginning, it seems she was fired as Lois after about three months, and only through the insistence of Bud Collyer was she permitted to re-audition for the part. Joan won back the part, fortunately--for I think she played it to perfection.
On April 15, 1940 in the 28th episode of the series, “Donelli’s Protection Racket”, young Daily Planet copyboy Jimmy Olsen was introduced. Olsen would be played by a number of actors, for the majority of episodes by Jackie Kelk, who would play the part for seven years. He was succeeded by Jack Grimes, who would later appear on Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and as a vocal actor in many cartoons.
It seems the producers of the radio series were given a relatively free hand to shape the show to their liking, and many of their creations were ultimately incorporated into the Superman legend. Kryptonite would make its first appearance on the radio show, although Siegel and Schuster had introduced the idea of a "K-Metal" in an unpublished story. Part of the reason that this story went did not see print is because they had allowed Lois Lane to discover Superman's secret identity.
July 3rd, 1940 marked a special occasion -- Superman Day at the New York World's Fair. Allen Ducovny had arranged the promotion to cross publicize the radio show, broadcasting a live episode from the Fairgrounds, as well as to promote DC's World's Fair Comics, a 100-page special edition intended to be sold exclusively at the Fair. The day also marked the first public appearance of Superman, in the person of costumed actor Ray Middleton. A costume bearing a special Superman insignia was made that spelled out the character's name at the top of the shield, to insure that people knew who he was supposed to be.
|Hecker's seems to have done well with the radio series, and offered a number of premiums, such as a Superman parachute toy, that are quite rare today.
Superman jumped to the movie screens in 1941. After a false start with Republic Pictures, which wanted to produce a Superman live-action chapter play, DC signed with the Fliescher Studios for a series of Technicolor cartoons. Bud Collyer, and Joan Alexander recreated their parts, and it appears Jackson Beck narrated, and did the voice of Perry White in at least some the cartoons. Sammy Timberg contributed a rousing Superman theme that would eventually added to the second radio series. Like many juvenile adventure serials, Superman would not use music themes and interludes until much later in its run (circa 1946-1947).
The last episode of the series Superman would air on March 9th, 1942. On August 31 of that year, The Adventures Of Superman would debut on the quickly growing Mutual Network as a Monday through Friday 15 minute series airing at 5:30 PM. The show was still transcribed, presumably for the West Coast, although the some of the loosely constructed network of local affiliates may have opted to broadcast the program at their own convenience.
Mutual could only get many of its member stations to agree to air about four hours a day at the same time as the network. Mutual was comprised largely by WOR-NY, WGN-Chicago, the California-based Don Lee network, and the Colonial Network of New England. Most of the other affiliates were independents, and often acted that way, which limited the Network's power and finances. On Mutual, the show would continue the breakfast cereal connection, sponsored mainly by Kellogg's “Pep.”.
(To be continued in our next issue.)
About the author: Thomas V. Powers is known as Tom Powers around the NJ FOTR Conventions. This Queens, NY resident been attending since the 80's and he and his little troupe, the RadioActive Players, have performed dramatic readings of radio shows of characters from the Pulps and Comics since 1999. Tom is a budding author, with a few published works, and is involved in independent film/video productions.