By John C. Alsedek:
Faster than a speeding bullet.
More powerful than a locomotive.
Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Look! Up in the sky!
It’s a bird! It’s a plane!
That intro would be ever-so-familiar to anyone who has seen the early television incarnations of the Man of Steel: the live-action Adventures of Superman (1952–1958) and the animated The New Adventures of Superman (1966–1970). However, it wasn’t original to either program; the exact same introduction had been used a decade earlier when The Adventures of Superman ruled the radio dial.
The Adventures of Superman premiered on February 12th, 1940, less than two years after the character himself was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster at DC Comics. Originally aired on Mutual Broadcasting station WOR in New York City, Superman was quickly picked up by the entire Mutual network and became its most popular program. At first, it was run as a 15-minute daily serial, and then later changed formats to air as a
30-minute show three times a week. In 1949, Superman moved from Mutual to ABC, where it remained until it went off the air in 1951. In total, 2,088 episodes were recorded. The same voice actors would also be used in the lavishly animated Fleischer Studios Superman short film series of the 1940s.
An admission: prior to starting this article, I hadn't heard The Adventures of Superman. As a result, I had expectations that it would be pretty much just an audio version of the 1950's Superman TV series starring George Reeves—enjoyable, but pretty vanilla by today's standards. So I was very pleasantly surprised to find that not only was that not the case, but that a LOT of what is long-accepted Superman canon actually originated on the radio show and was later added to the comics!
The single biggest one is the fictional element Kryptonite, which was written into the show as a way of giving the otherwise-invincible superhero an Achilles' heel. DC Comics would run with the concept, creating a whole spectrum of Kryptonite variants that affected Superman in different ways. But the radio show was where Kryptonite first came into being. A great added benefit was that the use of Kryptonite allowed the voice of Superman, Bud Collyer, to take vacation time. Since all the shows were done live, having the main character just disappear for a week wasn't an option. Instead, Kryptonite stories were written in whenever Collyer would be gone; a substitute actor would add the occasional groan while someone else—such as frequent guest stars Batman & Robin, for example—would take over the show.
More Superman canon that came directly from the radio show were a trio of characters that would figure prominently in both the comics and the later TV shows: Daily Planet editor Perry White (voiced by Julian Noa) copyboy/cub reporter Jimmy Olsen (voiced by Jackie Kelk, later Jack Grimes), and Police Inspector Bill Henderson (voiced by Matt Crowley, later Earl George). The trio, along with Superman's romantic interest, Lois Lane (voiced by Rolly Bester, later by Helen Choate and Joan Alexander), filled out the cast and helped humanize the mighty alien visitor.
Something else I learned about the Superman radio show? It played a significant role in halting the spread of the Ku Klux Klan! In 1946, the Anti-Defamation League approached the producers of Superman with the idea of having the Man of Steel take on the Klan, and the producers were more than happy to oblige. The result was a story arc called "Clan of the Fiery Cross." Unsurprisingly, the Klan’s leadership was furious at the depiction and tried to start a boycott of Kellogg’s, the show’s sponsor. But the boycott went nowhere, and Superman's ratings for "Clan of the Fiery Cross" were among the highest in its history.
But that was the show's high water mark. After a decade of voicing Superman, Bud Collyer left the show in 1950 and was replaced by Michael Fitzmaurice. Perhaps Collyer had seen the writing on the wall, as the producers of The Adventures of Superman were moving the program to the then-new medium of television. Longtime show narrator and voice of Alfred Pennyworth (Batman & Robin's faithful butler), Jackson Beck, followed Collyer out the door at the beginning of 1951; he was replaced for the show's final season by Ross Martin, best remembered today as Artemus Gordon on the 1960s spy series Wild Wild West.
However, Collyer and Beck would end up working together again on a Superman series. The two of them were part of the team for The New Adventures of Superman (1966–1970), with Collyer reprising his role as Clark Kent/Superman and Beck serving as the show's narrator as well as the voice of Perry White. The series was produced by Filmation, and we'll be delving into the history of that storied studio next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.