This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
Click here to return to the index of selected articles.
“FLIGHTS OF FANTASY:
The Unauthorized but True Story of
Radio & TV’s Adventures of Superman”
By Michael J. Hayde
BearManor Media, 533 pp., $29.95
Reviewed by Maury Cagle
(From Radio Recall, October 2009)
MWOTRC member Michael Hayde’s new book is a solid and entertaining examination of the career of the Man of Steel from a different perspective than previous volumes about him: how the radio show of 1940 – 1951 influenced the popular TV series that followed.
In telling this story, Hayde recaps the career of the great super hero from his first appearance in Action Comics in 1938 through the final shows on television 20 years later, along with contests, cartoons, movie serials, and major motion pictures.
As the story unfolds, he introduces us to the characters who gained control of Superman and their behind-the-scenes machinations to make their new property the top super hero. This began with comic books, and the shameful incident in which Superman’s originators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were talked into signing away the rights to their creation for $130.
The jump to radio in 1940 and then to network distribution was a process so convoluted that it’s a wonder it ever occurred. Initial reviews of the radio shows were not encouraging. Variety’s reviewer said, “Superman defies all measurements of realism, sanity, or sense,” but wisely added “..it is this very quality that’s likely to gather a goodly sized and staunch audience from among the very young kid listeners.” How right he was!
And even the vitally important voice of Bud Collyer (born Clayton Johnson Heermance, Jr.) as Clark Kent and Superman, was not a sure thing. After reading the scripts for an audition, he at first declined, saying “The whole thing embarrassed me.”
The book is peppered with such fascinating sidelights. After a long search, the sound of Superman leaping into the air and flying was a combination of a regular wind machine and recordings of a 50-mph gale and a bomb falling in the Spanish Civil War (lifted from a newsreel).
There were actually five different versions on radio, some 15 minutes long, others 30. Some aired three times a week, others Monday through Friday. Some aired live while others were transcribed. The last aired in March 1951.
The transition to television that same year was not easy. Superman’s backers soon found that producing a TV series was not the same as producing a radio show, especially when it came to budgets. Most production slots were filled some time before the difficult choice was made for the main role, with many staffers making the jump from radio.
At last, George Reeves was selected as Superman. Reeves had a varied career, with stage and movie experience. He was less than bowled over with the role, but took it because nothing else was on the horizon. After both were selected, he told the new Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) over a drink. “Well, babe, this is it: the bottom of the barrel.”
Hayde notes a number of fascinating stories, such as the problems in getting Reeves to “fly” with wires, actually getting dropped once, and the various amounts of padding in his costume to bulk up his physique.
In the last section of his book, Truth and Justice, Hayde tells the fate of all the key players in the Superman saga. Sadly, as with so many other actors, such as Basil Rathbone, and Bela Legosi, Reeves became so identified with his best-known character that he was not even considered for many roles of which he was capable. He died on June 16, 1959, a controversial suicide.
While there are many rascals and ups and downs in the story, Hayde notes that throughout his 70-plus year career, Superman rose above them, remaining popular through the generations, in large part because he used his extreme powers to help the cause of justice.
Of its 533 pages, Flights of Fantasy devotes 333 pages to the story of Superman. The remaining 200 list every radio and TV show, their dates of broadcast, and details as available. This is a goldmine for fans of the Man of Steel.
In summary, Michael Hayde has written a highly readable, impressively researched book that makes an important contribution to the lore of Superman. If you end up with just one book about Superman in your OTR library, this would certainly be my recommendation.
Flights of Fantasy is available from BearManor Media at www.bearmanormedia.com or at P. O. Box 71426, Albany, GA 31708 or by telephone: 760-709-9696 or FAX: 814-690-1559