This week the much anticipated Man of Steel opens, ushering in a brave new era for Superman on the silver screen. But the Man of Steel is a man of many media, and after being around for 75 years, not all of them still exist. Case in point, old time radio.
Did you know that Superman starred in his own radio series for over eleven years? Come with me after the jump and learn about the radio “Adventures of Superman!”
Before television, and later this thing we call the internet, became the way we see things, there was once radio. Not AM and FM or satellite as we know them today, but a whole universe of imagination fueled by weekly and daily radio programs where you heard voices tell a story, and you saw it in your mind. Think audio books, with special effects.
Many of the heroes we know and love began as programs on the radio. Among the notable, both famous and obscure, were The Shadow, the Green Hornet, Captain Midnight, Speed Gibson, and the Lone Ranger. As radio serials became more popular, they began to mine other media with shows featuring Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Sherlock Holmes. Soon comic books got into the act, and we saw (or heard) adventures of Hop Harrigan, Mandrake the Magician, the Blue Beetle, the Green Lama, and the biggest of them all – Superman.
“The Adventures of Superman” debuted on the Mutual Broadcasting System in February of 1940. The character had been around for two years at that point, much of his background was already in place, and his popularity had soared. There were toys, buttons, a newspaper strip, and even a series of cartoon shorts in production at Fleischer Studios – Superman was red hot. America had their ears glued to that first episode, and all those afterward, over the years running weekdays, sometimes just three times a week, and then twice a week toward the end.
Sponsored by Kellogg’s Pep cereal, the man of steel was brought to life by the multi-talented Clayton ‘Bud’ Collyer. These days he is remembered, if at all, for his time as a game show host and panelist, appearing in such shows as “Beat the Clock,” “To Tell the Truth,” and “Break the Bank,” among others. But the man’s real claim to fame was his dual radio (and later in the 1966 Filmation cartoons as well) roles of Superman and Clark Kent. He perfected the vocal changeover from one character to the other with the phrase, “This looks like a job for Superman!”
Many of the things we know about Superman were first introduced in the radio show. The Man of Steel first flew on radio. As each episode was introduced with a whooshing wind tunnel sound effect, so we knew for sure he was flying, and followed by the immortal words, Up in the sky! Look! It’s a bird, it’s a plane… it’s Superman!” The other famous introduction and description lines, used in the Fleischer cartoons, and in the 1950s TV series were first used here as well, becoming legend.
Much of Superman’s supporting cast and surroundings were born on radio as well. Lois Lane (played originally by Joan Alexander) carried over from the comics of course, but Jimmy Olsen first made himself known on the radio. The editor of the Daily Planet first got a name, Perry White, on the radio serial as well. So did Inspector Henderson. The announcer and narrator of the show was the legendary Jackson Beck, whose voice work has also graced numerous projects over the years including Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run and the 1980s “G.I. Joe” animated series.
Also among the things that radio beat the comics to was the first meeting of Superman with Batman and Robin. The dynamic duo never had their own radio program, but appeared quite often, together and separately, on “The Adventures of Superman.” As shows were done live, and there were no reruns, a Batman story or two, and well as being incapacitated by kryptonite, allowed Bud Collyer time off. And audiences got the pleasure of Bat-radio.
Radio also introduced the deadly K-metal to Superman. Kryptonite was a substance from Superman’s home planet Krypton that rendered him powerless and weak as a kitten. The details of its existence first surfaced on the radio in 1943, before being finally clarified in the comics six years later.
While there were a dizzying amount of gangsters, spies, enemy agents, mad scientists, and just common criminals for Superman to fight on the radio, he did develop quite a colorful rogues gallery unique to his radio universe. The Yellow Mask, The Wolf, The Scarlet Widow, The Vulture, and sinister Nazi scientist Der Teufel all tried their hands separately and at times together to destroy the Man of Steel, but no one posed a deadlier threat than the Atom Man, a Nazi nuclear superman powered by radioactive kryptonite.
The ongoing battle between Atom Man and Superman raged on through several storylines, spanned dozens of episodes, and even loosely inspired the 1950 movie serial Atom Man Vs. Superman. The serial replaced the Nazi super agent in the Atom Man costume with the more expected menace of Superman’s archenemy Lex Luthor, who ironically never appeared in the radio show.
Superman Vs. the KKK
One of the more fearsome foes Superman faced on radio was the very real threat of the Ku Klux Klan. Human rights activist Stetson Kennedy had infiltrated the KKK and learned their secrets. Seeking to fight the Klan by exposing them, he contacted the producers of Superman and proposed what would become the storyline called “Clan of the Fiery Cross.”
In these episodes, secrets of the KKK were revealed. Things like rituals, codewords, handshakes, and all manner of previously unknown arcane knowledge of the group were broadcast to the American nation as Superman thwarted them publicly on the radio. The Klan came down hard on the show, the comics, denouncing them as un-American, and boycotting the sponsor Kellogg. It was all too little, too late, as usual, Superman triumphed over evil – in his world, and ours.
After eleven years, changing air times, networks, and program lengths, and even replacing Bud Collyer with Michael Fitzmaurice in its final season, “The Adventures of Superman” left the airwaves. It was 1951, and radio of this kind was dying a slow death, and something called television was on the horizon. As the radio show ended, a production was in the works to bring Superman to the new medium with actor George Reeves playing the Man of Steel. A new era had begun.
Today, the show can be found on CD, on MP3, and through a half-dozen podcasts available through iTunes. It still holds up today as exciting superhero audio adventure. Seek them out, I think you’ll get a kick out of the radio adventures of Superman!