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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Metropolis and its annual
by Michael J. Hayde © 2009
(From Radio Recall, August 2009)
For three days out of the year, a small southern Illinois town becomes a comic book fantasy world brought to life. For the town is Metropolis, and the occasion is its annual “Superman Celebration,” held during the second weekend in June.
This year marked the 31st such celebration, and I was there to take in the sights, visit some friends and internet acquaintances, and not-coincidentally sell copies of my new book: “FLIGHTS OF FANTASY: The Unauthorized but True Story of Radio & TV’s Adventures of Superman” (published by BearManor Media).
Some brief history: Metropolis was founded in 1839, exactly 99 years prior to the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1. It sits comfortably along the banks of the Ohio River, almost directly across from Paducah, Kentucky. In 1972, DC Comics, owners of Superman, permitted the town to declare itself the Man of Steel’s official hometown, and a huge billboard on US 45 assures you that it’s so. The first “Superman Celebration” took place upon the release of 1979’s “Superman: The Movie.”
To be sure, Metropolis is no bustling – er – metropolis. Its population is about 6,500, its main street is a quaint collection of shops and businesses spanning about five blocks, and if it’s movies, malls or fine dining you’re seeking, you’ll likely be driving over the bridge to Paducah. On the other hand, there’s a taste of Las Vegas in Metropolis, as Harrah’s has a spacious luxury hotel & casino just along the riverbank on the edge of town, with Vegas-worthy entertainment; during the Celebration weekend, country music legend Merle Haggard put on a show. For the military-minded, Fort Massac State Park is a mile away, with an annual encampment that celebrates the Fort’s pre-Revolutionary War history each October.
But if you’re a tourist, a comic book enthusiast, or you fondly remember those afternoons spent with the Man of Steel flying across your radio or TV set, there are only two sights that matter. First is the 15-foot, two-ton bronze Superman statue situated in front of the town courthouse, presumably striking fear in the hearts of evildoers, or at least those who’ve come to settle parking violations. Feel free to pose in front of him, as Illinois State Senator – and now President – Barack Obama did last year.
The other is the Super Museum on Market Street, literally filled to the rafters with vintage toys, dolls, radio premiums, games, comic book and animation art, costumes – pretty much everything that has ever used Superman’s image or trademarks to spur sales over the past 70+ years. There are also TV and movie costumes and props from the Man of Tomorrow’s various live-action incarnations. Kirk Alyn’s boots? Check. George Reeves’ Clark Kent glasses? Check. Outfits worn by Christopher Reeve? Check. Gowns worn by Teri (Lois and Clark) Hatcher? Check. And much, much more.
Of course, the annual Celebration is the big draw, and rightfully so. Here you’ll see costumed characters freely roaming the neighborhood; not just Superman, but also Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman and dozens of others. The town “goes casual” that weekend; even religious service attendees are more likely to be wearing Superman T-shirts than their Sunday best. Market Street is closed to traffic and vendors of all stripe exhibit their wares under tents. Shows include bluegrass and gospel music, military bands, “extreme” bike and skateboard riders, and a “best costume” contest, not to mention games, carnival rides, and food galore.
This year, celebrities from the current TV series “Smallville,” as well as Noel Neill, the movies’ first Lois Lane, and former child actress Beverly Washburn (seen in 1951’s “Superman and the Mole Men”), were on hand. They could be greeted openly at the offices of the Metropolis Planet (yes, that’s the town’s newspaper, albeit a weekly one), or at Artist’s Alley and Writer’s Way, where comic book professionals set up shop and give talks about their contributions to the lore of Superman and other heroes (and where yours truly had his vendor’s table).
On Friday evening, a special tribute to Ms. Neill was presented, along with screenings of some of her favorite TV episodes from her days with George Reeves. The town also dedicated the site of a new “Lois Lane” statue, which will be modeled after Ms. Neill’s portrayal. On Saturday evening, a tribute to Reeves himself (who passed away 50 years ago on June 16) was screened, along with “Superman and the Mole Men,” for which Ms. Washburn had a front-row seat.
All told, and in keeping with its real-life small town status, Metropolis’ Superman Celebration shapes up as a superhero street fair overseen by the friendly folks of the Chamber of Commerce. If you have any sentimental attachment to the Last Son of Krypton, you owe it to yourself to visit his official hometown during Celebration weekend and have a “super” time.