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THE FIRST SUPERMAN (?)
An Investigation into the claims of Mayo Kaan
by Stephen L. Brooks

In the early 70’s a series of filler blurbs started appearing in various publications, occasionally with a photo, about a man named Mayo Kaan. Mr. Kaan claimed at the time to have been the first movie Superman. The articles were usually mini-interviews, probably made by reporters from Mr. Kaan’s then home state of Massachusetts, which were distributed by the wire services.

The articles, as I recall, basically said the same thing: that Mr. Kaan had made some early test films as Superman, and that therefore he was the first actor to have played the Man of Tomorrow. The first time or two the claim was made, I marked it as interesting and wondered just what form the films took. I thought of the Fleischer cartoons and wondered if he had perhaps performed in some footage that had been used for rotoscoping in creating the animation.

But one article, showing Mr. Kaan as he was then (ca. 1974) holding a full length portrait of himself in costume, said he appeared in the films around 1936/7.

Mayo KaanHold on there; Siegel and Shuster didn’t sell Superman until 1938; and the cartoons debuted in the early 40’s. Neither Mr. Kaan nor anyone could have been doing Superman films as early as 1936 or ’37.

So I just chalked it up as a typo or some other error, and continued to speculate what form his films took.

About that same time I bought the book All in Color for a Dime. Although some of the material has since been superseded, corrected, or downright proven false (read Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow; required on any comics fan’s bookshelf) it was the best book of its kind at the time. One of the chapters was devoted to comics characters which had been adapted into serials. The Capt. Marvel and Superman serials were covered there, but it was not in that chapter, nor even the chapter on Superman, that an intriguing piece of information was divulged.

It is well known now that Republic Pictures, the best B Western and serial makers in the business, had wanted to do a Superman serial perhaps as early as 1939. In the 1970’s it was still news, and my own “discovery” of it was in the chapter on Capt. Marvel. I often wondered after that what a Republic Superman serial would have been like. When I saw the Capt. Marvel serial for the first time in the mid-80’s, and studied the way Republic had handled that character, it piqued my curiosity even more.

The late Jack Mathis, in his still-valuable book Valley of the Cliffhangers, revealed from his extensive, exclusive, and intensive research into the Republic files that indeed the studio was so certain it would get the contract their writers had composed the first three or so chapters of the serial script. When the contract fell through, the script was rewritten to introduce a new character, The Copperhead, and the serial was re-titled Mysterious Dr. Satan. If you study the action in those first few chapters you can see incidents and stunts that were obviously designed for a character with super-strength. And, as a thumbed nose to National Comics, the girl reporter heroine was still named Lois and wore outfits similar to what Lois wore in the comics of the time and Noel Neill would wear several years later.

In his book of reminiscences on directing serials (In a Door, Into a Fight; Out a Door, Into a Chase), the late William Witney said several things about the plans for the Superman serial. One was that they considered casting two different actors with similar features as Kent and Superman. Another was that they saw and/or interviewed a large number of actors and strongmen for the part. According to Witney, the actor who most likely had the inside track to becoming the first film live action Superman was Tom Tyler. Tyler, as we know, later brought Capt. Marvel to brilliant life in the serial.

When the serial was transformed from Superman to Mysterious Dr. Satan, an actor named Robert Wilcox was hired to play Bob Wayne, alias The Copperhead. (Bob Wayne; hmmm. Another nose-thumbing moment, directed at Bruce Wayne?) Was Wilcox perhaps slated at some point to play Clark Kent to Tyler’s Superman?

These are questions to which we may never have the answers. But one cannot help but speculate: A Republic Superman serial, directed by Witney and English, starring Tom Tyler. And, following that, a Batman serial directed by W & E and starring Kane Richmond. Perhaps in some alternate universe, we may find such films.

Now, we have traveled somewhat far afield of our original subject, Mr. Mayo Kaan. Let’s return to him now in the early 1980’s.

My father-in-law was from Maine. He moved down here in 1939, just in time to take the woman who would later become his wife to the Baltimore premiere of “Gone with the Wind.” Not too shabby a first date. It was later a family tradition to spend vacation in Maine each summer. When I joined the family in 1980, I became part of that tradition.

During the trip by car to Maine we went through parts of Massachusetts. The route included going past this health and fitness center which featured a larger than life cutout of Superman, raised high off the ground, in front of it. The first time I saw it was a blur, but something seemed familiar about it. On another trip we went by it slower, due to traffic, and I recognized it. The rendering of Superman looked similar to the version of the costume in the old picture of Mayo Kaan.

Time passed and we changed our route, and no longer passed the spot. One morning we were watching a local talk show before going about our travels for the day. One of the guests, it was announced, would be Mayo Kaan, owner of a local Massachusetts gym and who claimed to be the first movie Superman. This explained a lot: the fitness center we used to pass was apparently that owned by Mr. Kaan. I wanted to see him, and hear what he had to say, but we left before he came on.

Flash forward to December, 1997.

At that time an ad appeared in various publications. I saw it in USA Today. In it, Mr. Kaan was selling colorized prints of him in his Superman costume. There were four different poses, and the one I had seen in the 70’s, much smaller and in B&W, was now the centerpiece of the ad, in color, and large enough to discern the details. (This is reproduced above, under the title.) One or two others showed him interacting with local children.



The ad greatly elaborated upon Mr. Kaan’s earlier claims, saying that Art Moger, a PR executive with Warner Brothers, had assisted Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in developing Superman. One of Moger’s contributions, it stated, was to hire Mr. Kaan to pose for Joe as he did his early drawings.

I won’t go into further detail except to say the article was riddled with anachronisms and inaccuracies. The most obvious of them was to imply ANY kind of outside help from anybody, and certainly not Warner Brothers. WB has owned DC Comics since some time in the 1970’s, but had nothing to do with them prior to that. Jerry and Joe developed Superman virtually on their own. There is more to the story than that (again, see Jones’ Men of Tomorrow) but both affirmed that they never used a live model for Superman.

The only thing that the photos proved was that Mr. Kaan had, probably on more than one occasion, posed for photos in his Superman costume apparently some time in the early 1940’s.

Now, where he got into trouble was by selling these photos of himself, in fancy framed “collectors’ item” form, for exorbitant amounts of money. This, on top of his fabricated back story, was what brought about a “cease and desist” order from the DC suits. And rightly so.

Now, rather than dismiss all of Mr. Kaan’s claims out of hand, what is there about his story that we can believe? Or, at least, what can we deduce from known facts?

First let’s look at the costume. He wears a tight, but not form-fitted, blue shirt and matching tights. The tights are probably athletic or ballet wear. Over the tights he wears black trunks, and a yellow belt possibly of a military type. There are no boots; the tights are the type that cover waist to toe. The cape, in the colorized photos, is red with a blue lining, tied at the neck with a cord.

As some of my friends know, I have a fetish about Superman’s shield: its history, its variations in comics, costume and film, and enjoy drawing various versions of it. The shield on Mr. Kaan’s costume is a large, wide yellow triangle with a singularly angular red S inside. The S is seemingly formed from several short strips of red cloth, placed on the yellow shield and sewn end to end to form the S. The result is a jagged, crudely stark S, like a twisted electrical arc, which somehow fits the overall style of the rest of the costume.



That styling of the costume is a reasonable facsimile of the costume in the comics of the 1938 – 1940 period. There were variants in the depictions of it in those days, sometimes in the space of one story. In fact, the shield itself was sometimes portrayed in contradictory forms in adjacent panels, even when drawn by the same artist. Though usually drawn in curves, sometimes the S was shown as squared or jagged, as it is in Mr. Kaan’s version. As far as the making of his costume is concerned, however, it may have just been easier to adopt the shaping of the S out of cloth strips rather than attempt a more elegantly curved S inside a frame. And, as stated, it was reasonably consistent with some renderings of the shield in the comics of the time.

Here is one of the deductions that can be easily made from the existing photos: the costume was home-made, not the product of some Hollywood costume designer. Nothing wrong with that; I can’t be the only one who transformed an old pair of blue ski pajamas into a Superman costume.

This negates any possibility that the photos depict him wearing a costume made by a movie studio for any publicity associated with a film either proposed or in production. He didn’t don a professionally-made costume, pose for some photos, and then return to Massachusetts absconding with the costume as a souvenir. (Mr. Willy, are you reading this?)

What, then, was the reason behind Mr. Kaan’s use of the Superman costume and at least his initial claims that he was the first movie Superman? Is there a scenario we can reasonably accept as a possibility?

It goes back to two theories, involving the two studios vying for film rights to Superman in the 1939 – 1940 period. One possibility is that speculated upon above: Mr. Kaan performed in some footage that was used in the rotoscoping process used in making the Fleischer cartoons. If so, he presumably wore the costume seen in his photos, or something similar. This is where the discussion of the S shield comes in. As anyone who has seen the Fleischer cartoons knows, the shield was depicted as a curved red S on a black field framed in white, and five sided. Mr. Kaan’s shield was a jagged, angular red S on a yellow field with just a hint of a red frame, and triangular. There are also two stories about Joe Shuster’s involvement with the making of the Fleischer cartoons. Though conflicting, the salient point in both stories is that he did the initial sketches for the model sheets used by the animators. Some of Joe’s early drawings of Superman’s shield depict it with a black field; indeed, the “pin-up” drawing on the back of Superman #1 shows the shield substantially the way the Fleischer animators depicted it. A variant of this appeared in the first few Sunday strips and later for a while in the dailies. Perhaps this was a version of the shield favored by Shuster that didn’t make the final cut and this was his way of letting it be widely seen. I don’t know. In any event, if Kaan had appeared in preliminary footage, wouldn’t the studio have provided him with a costume that more resembled what the animators were instructed to draw and color? And if, afterward, he had made a costume for himself wouldn’t he have most likely used the Fleischer version as a model? So that possibility is out.



But the Fleischer Studios weren’t the only ones hoping to bring Superman to the screen; they were just the winners. Republic Studios was bidding to produce a Superman serial.

As said above, Witney and English auditioned several actors and athletes for the part of Superman when Republic was in negotiations to produce the serial in 1940. Perhaps Mr. Kaan was one of those who tried out for the part. He may have even gotten as far as to do a screen test or two, in costume, which are the “test films” he spoke about in those early articles in the 1970’s. Who knows, perhaps it got as close as to be between Kaan, Tyler, and maybe one or two others. The fact that he may have brought his own costume might have piqued the directors’ interest.

I can imagine Mr. Kaan, sitting in his home in Massachusetts, reading perhaps in Variety or some similar trade paper that auditions and screen tests were being made for a proposed Superman serial. He could have flown out to California, home-made Superman suit in tow, hoping to portray the hero on film.

MRS. KAAN: Did you pack the costume I made for you?

MAYO: It’s in the suitcase.

He looked the part at the time, judging from the photos, home-made costume notwithstanding. But then again, wasn’t Superman’s real costume home-made? Maybe if Kaan had been able to get some Kryptonian blankets... But I digress.

Seriously, he may have shown up at some “cattle call” tryout, a trench coat covering his costume until an appropriate moment or perhaps wearing it openly, and someone took notice of him. Based on his look in the makeshift costume, they may have thought it was worth taking some test footage of him. If so, it may be that personally memorable incident, the sole extent of his earliest claims, which was the germ of the tall tale he told in later years.

What prevented Mayo Kaan, and just as significantly Tom Tyler, from becoming the first movie Superman was of course that the deal between Republic and DC fell through. The Fleischer studios won the right to produce their series of excellent cartoons, which today are still a classic version of Superman. If our suppositions so far are right, Mr. Kaan returned to Massachusetts with his home-made costume and resumed his business.

Judging from the photos, and from some comments in various news articles at the time of his passing, Mr. Kaan continued to appear in his Superman outfit. I’m sure he wore it a number of times, making unauthorized but well-intentioned appearances at local events. He may very well have taken the role seriously, and appeared at playgrounds, little league games, school assemblies, perhaps even hospital children’s wards, greeting kids and speaking about healthy diet and exercise. He is certainly spoken of as having worn the costume at times at his gym, perhaps as a sort of role model or ideal for his customers to work towards. If indeed this is true, in spite of his later claims and fraudulent attempts to gain money through them, Mr. Kaan may very well have for a time lived a life dedicated to the ideals of a true Superman.

Taking this scenario as plausible, we may have the answer to the riddle of Mayo Kaan, the first movie Superman - almost.


January 2, 2013

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