TAC Table of Contents
A Super Memory
In the kaleidoscope of 50s fads, Superman was a solid star - until one day, the star fell down to earth.
In addition to the Cold War, Senator Joe McCarthy, and the Belgian Congo, the 50s provided a bouncy springboard for all manner of silly fads and crazes. After nearly two decades of crippling Depression, followed by a world war, the nation was thirsting for the frivolous and nonsensical. Many of these fleeting diversions, like phone booth stuffing, poodle dog skirts, and rock and roll, were targeted at the teen-age market. Others, such as dirty comedy albums, country clubs, and the growing popularity of the three-martini lunch, were the exclusive property of the adult community.
As a member in good standing of the pre-pubescent set, I had my own collection of fleeing obsessions. There were Davy Crockett, Hoola Hoops, Silly Putty, and nonsense songs like The Witch Doctor and Purple People Eater. Most of these things, however, didn't last long. They usually came and went, rapidly replaced by some new fleeting preoccupation or diversion. For me, though, there was one exception to this rule, a popular phenomenon that came and stayed. Its name was Superman.
Superman, created in the 30s by two imaginative teen-agers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, caught on quickly. From comic books to the comic pages, to a series of beautifully animated cartoons produced by Max Fleischer of Popeye fame, to two cliff-hangers released by Columbia Studios and starring Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel, the character was a natural from the beginning.
To a whole generation of boys and girls who grew up in the 50s, however there was and will always be only one true Superman - George Reeves, who appeared in the television series the Adventures of Superman from 1951 to 1957.
Next to watching Davy Crockett go down swinging at the Alamo and discovering that my big brother really couldn't lick every other kid in the world, the saddest day of my boyhood was the day I looked at the front page of the newspaper to discover that Reeves had committed suicide. Superman Kills Self was the headline displayed all over the world - one which predictable prompted a series of tasteless one-liners from stand-up comedians. But I wasn't laughing. I just couldn't understand.
It wasn't that I actually believed Reeves to be Superman. I was as gullible as the next kid, but that's not quite as gullible as most adults like to think. It was the fact that this strong, brave, courteous, and friendly man who I had watched every week for what seemed like my whole life righting wrongs, punishing criminals and keeping the world safe from evil, was suddenly gone, totally removed from my private adolescent universe.
Looking back, this just might have been my first contact with real death. These days, the psycho-babblists would undoubtedly get together and try to counsel America's children on how to cope with this tragedy, probably even get around to naming a syndrome after it, but the world wasn't quite so sophisticated back then, and we kids had to deal with this thing alone. I doubt if my parents even paid attention to my mourning. Probably just thought I was moping around for particular reason. Probably didn't even notice that I rarely put The Suit on after that.
The Suit was my most valued possession. Nothing came close to it. Not my Captain Midnight decoder ring, my Rifleman Winchester, or my Roy Rogers lunch pail. You could buy Superman suits in toy and variety stores, of course, but they looked cheap and fake, and I wanted no part of them. Fortunately, I had a father and mother who went that extra mile for their kids. So one year as Halloween approached, I informed them I wanted to go trick or treating as Superman.
My mother dyed some long underwear blue, sewed leather heels onto a pair of bright red rocks, and made me a red cape. Then my father, a part-time artist, painted a magnificent S on both my shirt and cape, fashioned a yellow belt, and bought some red swimming trunks which he then modified to look like Krypton's favorite son's briefs. I could have used some muscle, of course, but what I lacked in that department I more than made up for in enthusiasm.
Although never appearing on television or in film, Superman owned a dog in the comics, a supermutt named Krypto who my Dalmatian, Rocky, doubled for. A red towel attached to his chain collar helped reinforce the illusion. We were quite a pair all right, and big hits on assorted Halloween porches as well.
Not that The Suit went away after that holiday night. Although my parents were probably never aware of it, I subsequently wore it beneath my clothes just about everywhere I went: to church and out to dinner, to school, to ball games, while I did my homework, and even beneath my pajamas. Not only was this a private secret that I relished, but the fact that I knew I was actually Superman under my street garb made even the dullest experience seem that much more interesting.
Excusing myself, I would retreat to the men's room, position myself in front of the mirror, whip off the clear-lensed glasses I always kept with me for such occasions, and undo a few shirt buttons to reveal that wonderful S. No longer was I just a skinny, lisping kid with knobby knees and biceps that would have had a hard time passing for marbles. I was faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Strange visitor from another planet.
Yes, The Suit got a lot of use before George Reeves took his own life. But after that, although I continued to watch repeats of the show, things were never quite the same. I felt different. The world seemed different. I still wasn't sure how. All I knew was that playing Superman no longer thrilled me as it once had. The magic just wasn't there in the same way. Eventually, even had I wanted to keep up the illusion, I grew too big for The Suit, and it became just another piece of forgotten cloth at the bottom of my mother's rag basket.
Reeves has been dead for some 30 years now. It hardly seems possible. A local television station recently aired a three-day marathon of some seventy episodes, and I decided to catch a few. But the few quickly turned to many. I closed the drapes, put my feet up, called out for pizza (and later Chinese) as I watched George Reeves soar effortlessly over the Metropolis skyline (actually Los Angeles), listened to the familiar pulsating music, groaned at Jimmy Olsen's naiveté, laughed at Perry White's grumbling, and admittedly checked out Lois Lane in a way I probably hadn't the first time around.
I didn't make it through the entire 70 shows, but I came pretty close. Each episode was like seeing another old friend from the past. The most important of these friends, of course, was George Reeves. There he was in all of his black and white glory, untouched by time, smirking at the bullets bouncing off his chest, breaking down cardboard, peering through doors with his X-ray vision, using perfect grammar, and always seeming like a darn nice guy. It was awfully good to see him again.
Sometimes, for a few hours at least, you can really go home again.