By James Lantz
Whoever called James Brown "The Hardest Working Man In Show Business" probably never met Fred Shay. Mr. Shay has done so much to preserve old radio shows, films, movie serials and television shows. His collection is so large that the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame has made it part of their archive, in which he's the curator. Mr. Shay also wrote the radio log for the The Adventures of Superman radio show. This led to a friendship with Kirk Alyn, the silver screen's first live action Superman. Alyn was inducted into the National Broadasters Hall of Fame thanks to Mr. Shay's efforts.
On Wednesday, August 22, 2007, I had the pleasure of speaking with Fred Shay about Kirk Alyn, Superman and the preservation of Hollywood's Golden Age. Here is some of what was said...
First of all, Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Well, I hadn't heard an old time radio show in over 25 years until one night my wife turned on the portable radio in 1976. The station was playing an episode of The Lone Ranger. I thought to myself, "If these radio stations can get copies of these old shows, maybe I can get some of them myself." I contacted somebody, and over time I had enough radio shows to be able to trade with other people. In 1977, I was invited to the first induction ceremonies for the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame. After seeing how many radio shows, serials, etc, that I had. the NBHF made me the curator of their archive.
In 1979, a friend of mine told me that DC Comics had X amount of Superman radio shows. I contacted them. They had 900 discs with around 1,200 of the 15 minute serials, and I had found 18 and a half of the 30 minute shows. That led to talking with Kirk Alyn.
How did you meet Kirk Alyn? What was he like?
I didn't meet Kirk in person until 1989 at a show here in New Jersey, but he had called me many times over the years before that. He had first contacted me in 1979. He was working on his second book, which he never finished, and he asked DC Comics for material from the serials. They basically told Kirk to get lost. When DC refused, Kirk contacted me about the serials. I still don't know where he got my name, and at the time, I wondered why I had gotten a call from Kirk Alyn. He had contacted me about the serial, and we stayed in contact with each other over the years. I made a deal with DC for the items Kirk needed plus copies for the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame Museum. DC got what they wanted in return. They wanted film of the unaired Superboy and Superpup pilots in exchange for the serials.
Anyway, Kirk was a lot like Clark Kent. He was a quiet, reserved man. He was just one of the nicest people you'd ever meet. He never remarried, but he was always with his companion Millie. She and I got to be very good friends. I also became good friends with Tommy Bond (Jimmy Olsen in the Kirk Alyn serials) and Noel Neill. They're really nice people.
Were you a Superman fan before meeting Kirk?
Oh yes, I honestly don't believe that there isn't anybody that isn't a Superman fan in some way, shape or form.
How did Kirk approach portraying Superman in the movie serials? What did he do to make the role work for him?
Well, Kirk was such a fantastic actor, and tried his best to make every role work for him. Plus, he had a lot of fun playing the part.
Well, as I said, he did have fun with the role. Now, he was only billed as Clark Kent because DC Comics and Columbia Pictures wanted this, but Kirk did a good job as both Kent and Superman. There were some rough moments for Kirk though. One time, Kirk was near an airplane in a scene, and his Superman costume almost caught on fire.
There was also the famous train scene. Superman had to straighten a piece of the railroad track back while a train with Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane barrelled through. Kirk was worried because the train was going 90 miles per hour. The crew deserted the area while the cameras were rolling. He had his foot braced against the piece of the track and panicked when he felt the tracks vibrating. The train speeds through and creates its own personal cyclone as each car goes by. The locomotive disappears into the distance as the crew comes back. Director Spencer Gordon Bennett clapped Kirk's shoulder and said, "Great job, Kirk! That was terrific! And we got it all in one take!"
The flying scenes were also difficult for Kirk. They had first tried with wires. The wires, however, were clearly visible, and the footage was scrapped. They fitted him for a breastplate, Kirk was suspended by the wires. If you want an idea of what Kirk felt on the wires, try lying across a table with your legs held stiffly out from the edge and feel what it does to your stomach muscles. It was terrible for him.
Aside from all that Kirk had fun being Superman when he did the serials.
One thing that bothered me about the documentary Look Up In The Sky! was the scene where Bryan Singer mentions Superman in bad movies. After he says, "He's been in bad movies," there's a scene from the serials with Kirk in his Superman costume. Now, I don't know if it was Singer's idea, or if it was just because somebody mounted the film that way. In either case, I found it to be very disrespectful to Kirk.
It is disrespectful to Kirk. The poor guy isn't even here to defend himself.
In 1995, you helped get Kirk inducted into the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame. Can you tell us what that was like?
That was a huge honor for both him and all of us. It was also the time Wharton, New Jersey had celebrated its 100th birthday. I had invited Kirk back, and we had him inducted into the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame, which has inducted such talented people as Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny and Charles Osgood. Kirk had the time of his life for three days. He signed 600 autographs. He even got to talk to a lady that went to school with him. He didn't even think that anybody from his school years was still around, but four other clasmates appeared to meet Kirk. He really enjoyed himself when he was here those three days.
Is it true that you campaigned to get the Superman movie serials with Kirk put onto home video?
The fact of the matter is I kept pressing DC Comics to release the serials on home video, but they kept saying that nobody would be interested in them. However, they changed their tune shortly after releasing the first serial. It came out on videotape in 1987 after they put out the video of the first Chris Reeve film. They wanted to release Atom Man Vs. Superman after the first serial was successful, but they couldn't find the prints in their vaults. Guess who they asked for the serial.
I'm going to guess that they asked you.
No, they asked Kirk. He had a copy. I honestly hope he asked for a lot of money for that serial after the way DC treated him when he was doing the book.
Are there any little known facts or stories about Kirk Alyn that you wish to share?
As many already probably know, Kirk turned down being Superman for the TV show George Reeves starred in, and Kirk had many guest appearances on television and in movies. However, many do not know that Kirk Alyn had his own television series. Unfortunately, there's no information on it, and Kirk himself couldn't remember much about it. I have pictures from the show, but I don't recognize the actors.
In 1989, I showed Kirk around Wharton, New Jersey. I even got to see the house where Kirk grew up and the garage his father built.
Kirk also wanted to send some autographed pictures with get well messages written on the back to Christopher Reeve after the horseback riding accident. Kirk felt badly about Reeve's condition. I still have the pictures because Reeve's people didn't let me get close enough to show the pictures because they thought I wanted publicity. I only wanted to make sure Reeve got the pictures. It's a pity Chris never saw the pictures, because I'm sure he would have loved to have seen them.
I think you're right about that. I had heard that Reeve was inspired by Kirk's Superman when he did the first film in his run as the Man of Steel. I'm sure that Kirk would have been honored to know that.
You're probably right.
You also wrote log for The Adventures of Superman radio show in the book Radio Drama, American Programs, 1932-1962. Is there anything you learned about the Superman show that you wish to share?
Well, I learned that it was a job and a half. Some of the discs DC Comics had given me were cracked, and I had to use masking tape in order to fix them so I could listen to the episodes. DC wasn't very happy about that, but it was necessary for the log. Not only that, whoever wrote the titles of episodes of 15 minute serials mislabeled many of them. I have copies of all the original scripts, so I don't know where they got their information. However, I was able to fix the errors and make a more accurate log after listening to them.
Under the word "preserver" in the dictionary, there should be a picture of you because of your efforts to preserve much of Hollywood's Golden Age. You even went as far as to pay $7,200 to have a 15 chapter movie serial delivered to you in a refridgerated truck so you could restore it. What made you so passionate about preserving such an important part of Hollywood's history?
That serial could have exploded. I had contacted the Library of Congress about it, and they told me that I'd better be willing to pay the money to ship it safely.
Anyway, the sad thing is that a bunch of the films and radio transcriptions discs from all those years ago have not been preserved. Once they're gone, they're gone forever. I wanted to make sure that as many of these things as possible are preserved before it's too late. The movie serials were a part of Saturdays up until the late 1950s. When I was younger, we didn't have enough money to see an entire 12 to 15 chapter movie serial. Despite that, I wanted to be able to save what I could of things that I found entertaining for future generations.
When I had started collecting the movie serials, I had got so many that were in such poor quality. I got tired of this and decided to try to restore them to improve the quality. These things have to be preserved. Most serials out there are from my transfers, and I've located many more out on the market today. Two recent ones I found are 1937's Secret Agent X-9 and Jungle Jim.
Is there any film, radio show, movie serial, or television series that you always wanted to preserve, but for some reason was never able to do so?
There's so much out there that needs to be preserved, but, unfortunately, they may never be done because studios just don't want to do anything with them. I've been trying for years to get the first 14 Universal Pictures movie serials with no success. Now that Sony owns Columbia, and the studio's changed management, I'm going to keep trying to improve on some the bad quality ones.
I was able to get the serials for Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom released. However, King Features wanted too much money. Fortunately I was able to renegotiate that deal.
You have many original masters of radio shows, films, etc. What are your favorites in your collection?
Gosh, there's so many. I'm going to have to say a 1938 movie serial of The Lone Ranger. When I first got a hold of it, the serial had Spanish subtitles, and the quality was so-so. I eventually cleaned it up with the help of a friend, and the subtitles were removed. It's now available on DVD through VCI Entertainment.
Have any celebrities ever asked if you have any of their work in your collection?
Oh yes, that happens quite often. You'd be surprised how many of these people don't have copies of their own work. You'd think when these actors are at the conventions, someone would give them a copy of their work, but unfortunately, they don't get their works. John Hart was overjoyed when I gave him copies of movies serials he starred in. I have pictures of him holding the copies I gave him.
Connie Hines, for example, didn't know that copies existed of a Riverboat television show that she did before she got the part of Carol Post on Mr. Ed. In fact, she had learned she had gotten the part of Carol while she did this show. At the same time, Richard Chamberlain was working on the same episode, and he'd learned that he'd be on Dr. Kildare. Anyway, Conie Hines didn't even know copies of that episode existed until I gave it to her. She was happy that she could show it to her grandchildren.
Another time, I had found a 1945 movie serial by accident at UCLA. It's called Secret Agent X-9, and it starred Lloyd Bridges. His son Beau Bridges had called me. He was searching for that serial. He wanted to give it to his children and show it to them at Christmas time. He was a really nice guy and was very happy to get that serial.
What are your feelings on the digital preservation of Hollywood's Golden Age?
As far as CDs and DVDs, I'm all for it. Blu-Ray Disc, however, won't go well in my opinion. Nobody is going to replace all the DVDs they bought with Blu-Ray. They'd be out of their mind to do so. I have 4,600 DVDs. I don't think I'll ever transfer them onto Blu-Ray.
Is there a question you always wanted someone to ask you? If so, what would be your answer?
Honestly, I think everybody has pretty much asked me everything. I can't think of anything except, "Why would I spend so much money to do all this?" (Shay laughs)
Seriously, I feel that these things should be saved. Anything I can do to help preserve the past for future generations, I'm glad to help.
Thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview. It was a real pleasure.
You're quite welcome. The pleasure was all mine. Contact me anytime if you want to talk again.
If anyone out there is interested in Kirk Alyn and his film and TV appearances, or they just want to talk about movie serials and old time radio, just drop Fred Shay a line at FCShay@webtv.net or call him at 973-398-7336.