Superman on Radio & Audio
Superman on RadioThe Superman radio series consisted of five distinct eras:
February 1940 to February 1942: A syndicated transcribed (recorded in advance), 15-minute children's serial. Initially broadcast three times a week (up until May 1941), then five times a week (from August 1941).
August 1942 to February 1949: A live, 15-minute children's serial that aired Monday through Friday over the Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS).
February 1949 to June 1949: A transcribed, 30-minute children's series that aired over the MBS three times a week.
October 1949 to January 1950: A transcribed, 30-minute series, targeted to adults, which aired on Saturday evenings on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).
June 1950 to March 1951: A transcribed, 30-minute children's series that aired twice a week over the ABC.
The Adventures of Superman
"Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!"
"Look! Up in the sky!"
"It's a bird!"
"It's a plane!"
"Yes, it's Superman - strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman - defender of law and order. champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice, who disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way."
The above signature was heard in many variations over the airwaves, and has become as much a part of the public's perception of Superman as his blue, red and yellow costume. What most people don't know, is that this widely recognised opening did not originate from the 4-color pages of Superman comics, but rather on the long-running adventures serial that was one of the hallmarks of the Golden Age of Radio.
We all know that Superman first appeared in 1938 within the pages of Action Comics #1, but much of the mythology associated with Superman and many of the supporting cast of characters originated in his radio adventures. Daily Planet characters such as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, along with Inspector Bill Henderson, were originally created for the radio series. Superman first discovered his greatest weakness, Kryptonite, in his radio adventures long before it appeared within the pages of the Superman comics. He also regularly teamed up with Batman and Robin on radio before the trio joined forces in the comic books. The radio series' influence also extended to the big screen. The Fleischer Superman movie-cartoons were nominated for Academy Awards, and featured voices from the cast of the radio series, while the screenplays of Columbia's 1948 and 1950 Superman movie serials were adapted from the radio program rather than from the stories within the comic books.
Up, Up and Away!
Superman first flew onto the radio airwaves on Monday, 12 February, 1940 as a transcribed series for Hecker's H-O Oats. DC's press agent Allen Ducovny and former pulp fiction author Robert Joffe Maxwell developed the new series. The two were quick to realise that Superman's popularity could be boosted by the vast radio audiences.
In 1939, Maxwell and Ducovny prepared several sample audition disks to sell the idea to prospective sponsors, co-writing the first version of Superman's famous opening signature: "Faster than an airplane, more powerful than a locomotive, impervious to bullets. 'Up in the sky - look!' 'It's a giant bird.' 'It's a plane.' 'It's SUPERMAN!' And now, Superman - A being no larger than an ordinary man but possessed of powers and abilities never before realised on Earth: able to leap into the air an eighth of a mile at a single bound, hurtle a 20-story building with ease, race a high-powered bullet to its target, lift tremendous weights and rend solid steel in his bare hands as though it were paper. Superman - a strange visitor from a distant planet: champion of the oppressed, physical marvel extraordinary who has sworn to devote his existence on Earth to helping those in need." "We had a lot of fun writing that opening," Ducovny once said. "It was a typical radio action piece that fully utilized sound effects."
The new show was purchased by Hecker's H-O Oats, who tried to buy time on the networks but were turned down. Nevertheless, Hecker's bought airtime on ten stations and distributed the prerecorded series on 16-inch "electrical transcription" disks. Superman achieved a Crossley rating of 5.6 ten weeks after its debut, the highest rating of any thrice-weekly juvenile program on the air. Frank Chase produced the early episodes of Superman, George Ludlam scripted, and a repertory of the finest actors in New York radio was assembled. Ned Wever (CBS's Bulldog Drummond) and Agnes Moorehead (The Shadow's "lovely Margot Lane") portrayed Jor-L and Lara, Superman's Kryptonian parents in the premier broadcast, with Jay Josten (Mr. District Attorney) as Rozan. Other early episodes featured the versatile Santos Ortega (Nero Wolfe) and future movie star Frank Lovejoy (radio's Blue Beetle). The success or failure of the series would largely rest upon the actor chosen to portray the dual leads. Bob Maxwell was afraid he might have to hire an actor to play both of Superman's personalities, unless he could obtain the services of a particular who initially wanted nothing to do with Superman.
A Job for Superman
To pull of the dual roles of the Man of Steel and the mild-mannered Clark Kent, a special actor was needed. Producers Bob Maxwell and Frank Chase found such a performer in Clayton "Bud" Collyer. Ironically, the man who would eventually portray the Man of Tomorrow during three decades first refused to role when it was first offered to him. "I really fought to unload it!" recalled Collyer later. "It was a funny thing; I fought with Bob Maxwell, who owned the rights to the thing... The whole idea embarrassed me, so I said no!" Maxwell tricked Collyer into returning to the studio to record the second show, which featured the first on-air appearance of Superman.
Bud Collyer hadn't even wanted to audition for the role, but Bob Maxwell reassured the young radio star. "He said, 'Just audition and we'll use you all in some parts if it does go on the air.'" Collyer recalled in 1966. "Well, it did go on the air, and when I came in, he said, 'You're Superman!' I again picked up the scripts, handed them to him and tried to walk out of the studio and get out of the show."
Maybe Bud Collyer was afraid of becoming typecast in the comic strip roles. The veteran radio actor had already starred as Milton Caniff's heroic globe-trotting adventurer Pat Ryan on NBC's Terry and the Pirates radio serial, and also portrayed the title role on Renfrew of the Mounted. Collyer was one of radio's most versatile actors, playing the part of Abie on Abie's Irish Rose, impersonating world leaders on The March of Time and announcing the prestigious Cavalcade of America. Amongst his other achievements were performances on a variety of soap operas including Young Widder Brown and Just Plain Bill, and also announcing Ripley's Believe It or Not.
And Who Disguised as Clark Kent
"When we came to audition for this new idea, this Superman thing, we knew about the comic strip but they didn't know whether they wanted one man for both of the parts, Clark Kent and Superman, or if they wanted two," Collyer explained to Richard Lamparski in 1966 on WBAI's Whatever Become Of. "They didn't know how he should be played or anything." Bud Collyer, being a master of radio acting, easily won the part of both characters with his ability to differentiate the two roles vocally, using his training as a singer to create distinct vocal registers for the "mild-mannered reporter" and the powerful "Man of Steel." "The difference between Kent and the Man of Steel was unmistakable, yet there was no doubt both voices came from one man," wrote radio historian Jim Harmon. "None of the many other people who have portrayed Superman in various media could duplicate this vocal duality."
Bud Collyer was the first actor to portray Superman in any medium, therefore it was up to him to create the audio shorthand that would define the character to the listening audience. Collyer explained, "I played Clark Kent just a little bit higher to give myself somewhere to go with the 'UP, UP AND AWAY!'" Collyer portrayed Clark Kent as a tenor, dropping an octave in mid-sentence into Superman's deep baritone as he proclaimed: "This looks like a job - FOR SUPERMAN." Bud Collyer's portrayal of the Man of Steel would remain the definitive interpretation throughout the 1940s.
Collyer would also provide the voice of Superman beginning in 1941 for the popular theatrical cartoon series produced and directed by Max and Dave Fleischer and released by Paramount Pictures. Collyer's masterful portrayal would later be echoed by Kirk Alyn in the 1948 and 1950 Columbia movie serials. Collyer received no billing in the role and kept his superheroic alter ego a secret from the listening public, much as the fictional Superman concealed his dual identity as Clark Kent. Superman Inc., the licensing arm of DC Comics, wanted the true identity of radio's Man of Steel kept a secret, to maintain the illusion that the "real" Superman was starring in the broadcasts, and Bud Collyer was only too happy to comply, afraid that publicity would hurt his career as a serious actor. Although he played Superman for three decades, in radio and animation features, Bud successfully escaped the typecasting that would later plague Kirk Alyn, George Reeves and Christopher Reeve.
During the 1960s, Bud Collyer would also provide the voice for Superman on record albums, TV's animated The New Adventures of Superman (1966-67), Superman-Aquaman Hour of Adventure (1967-68) and Batman-Superman Hour of Adventure (1968-69).
Eventually, Bud came to appreciate the role he had nearly turned down. "I loved Superman, the guy who could fly through the air. It was the ultimate in unabashed corn." Collyer explained. "So many people get the least bit embarrassed by fantasy when they're directing it or performing it and it loses all the great charm it could have, but if played honestly and whole-hog all the way, it's great."
Mild Mannered Reporter for a Great Metropolitan Newspaper
Although absent from the premiere episode as Superman, Bud Collyer was heard in a background role in the classic story of the doomed planet Krypton's destruction. In the radio version of Superman's origin, Krypton was a large planet orbiting on the opposite side of earth's sun. The baby Kal-L would grow to manhood during his journey through space in the rocket ship Jor-L created, emerging as a full grown man when arriving on Earth in the second episode. The first earthlings he meet give him the advice to assume the guise of Clark Kent, and apply for a job at "a great metropolitan newspaper" to better study the ways of men.
Before the second episode came to an end, Clark Kent was hired as a cub reporter by editor Perry White (introduced as "Paris White" on the earliest prototype adition shows). Being a totally new character, created for the radio program by Bob Maxwell and Allen Ducovny, actor Julian Noa was allowed to develop his portrayal of the Daily Planet editor independent of the comic book and newspaper features. Julian Noa's blustery style set the standard for the character's later appearances in comic strips, and would eventually be echoed by actors Pierre Watkin and Jackie Cooper in film and John Hamilton, Jackson Beck and Lane Smith on television.
Superman investigated the theft of an atomic ray gun in the seventh episode of the radio series, and met Daily Planet's veteran reporter, the eternally inquisitive Lois Lane ("the only young, adult woman regularly to co-star in this type of afternoon thriller," noted radio historian Jim Harmon). Lois Lane was initially portrayed by Rollie Bester, a respected radio character actress and the wife of science fiction, radio and Green Lantern comic book writer Alfred Bester.
In the earliest days of the radio serial, Lois Lane was portrayed by Rollie Bester and Helen Choate, before Joan Alexander made the role her own for the remainder of the run. Although she would portray Lois Lane in more than a thousand broadcasts, Alexander came close to losing the role during her first year as Lois. "I was fired from the part of Lois Lane about three months after I got it, and Bud said: 'If you're going to audition other girls, let Joan audition back for her part.' I auditioned blind back for the part and won it again."
In the 28th program, Kent was recruited by the Daily Planet's copyboy to investigate the protection racket that was victimizing his mother's candy store. The program aired on 15th April, 1940 was the first appearance in any medium of copyboy (eventually cub reporter) Jimmy Olsen, eventually portrayed by Jackie Kelk (for seven years) and Jack Grimes. The character of "Superman's Pal" Jimmy Olsen soon moved onto the comic book pages (in 1942) and later starred in 163 issues of his own DC comic book (beginning in 1954).
Faster than a Speeding Bullet
The Man of Tomorrow was honored at "The World of Tomorrow" when DC Comics hosted "Superman Day" at the New York World's Fair, featuring the first public appearance of Superman in full costume and a live radio broadcast from the fairgrounds. The brainchild of publicist Allen 'Duke' Ducovny, "Superman Day" was held to promote the sales of DC's New York World's Fair Comics, a 100-page special edition originally sold exclusively at the World's Fair.
Radio veteran Jack Johnstone was hired to direct Superman early in its first season and wrote some of its finest scripts. No stranger to radio science fiction, Johnstone had spent years as the director and primary scriptwriter of CBS's first science fiction series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Although the programs were directed at children from 10 to 16 years of age, a phone survey showed amazingly enough, that 35% of the listeners were adults.
Johnstone worked closely with the sounds artists to create the audio effects that would make radio listeners believe a man could fly. The series' most famous sound effect was reportedly created by combining a recording of an artillery shell streaking through the air with a separate recording of a wind tunnel played backward. The sound effects team slowed down the recording by hand to create the effect of Superman swooping down, and stopped the turntable completely to create the effect of the Man of Steel dropping to the ground.
George Lowther joined the production team as the series' narrator and primary scriptwriter during Jack Johnstone's time as director on the Superman radio series. in 1927, the 14-year-old Lowther dropped out of school when he was hired as NBC's first page. Working his way up in the then young company, Lowther went on to create many of Superman's finest scripts, and succeeded Jack Johnstone as the director of the series in 1942 when the series returned over the entire Mutual Network. Beginning 4 January 1943, The Adventures of Superman was sponsored by Kellogg's Pep and began its most memorable era of audio adventure.
A Never-Ending Battle
The radio Superman, like his comic book predecessor, traveled around the world and even into outer space in a 'never-ending battle' against evil and injustice. During the early seasons, Clark Kent and his friends and colleagues travelled to the Arctic, the American frontier, the high seas, and even battled Nazi agents before the U.S. entered the second World War.
In 1943 when writer/narrator George Lowther succeeded Jack Johnstone as director of the series, Jackson Beck took over as narrator. Jackson Beck, who had played a character called Alfredo on the program in the previous year, was one of the greatest action/adventure narrators from the golden age of radio. His forceful vocal delivery sounded "more powerful than a locomotive" and perfectly set the stage for The Adventures of Superman.
Radio listeners learned of Superman's Achilles' heel long before kryptonite was featured in the Man of Steel's comic strip adventures. "Superman for the first time in his life faces an enemy against which he is entirely powerless," proclaimed the series' narrator. "That enemy is a piece of the planet Krypton - kryptonite, it is called - which a few days ago struck Earth in the form of a meteor. A full understanding of his danger came to Superman when he approached the kryptonite for the first time. As he came within five feet of the mass of metal, which glowed like a green diamond, he suddenly felt weak, as if all his strength had been drained from him."
The comic book version of Clark Kent remained a civilian, but his radio counterpart was quickly commissioned as an undercover Secret Service operative. He battled enemy agents both in the U.S. and overseas, such as Lita the Leopard Woman, the evil Nazi scientist Der Teufel (German for "the devil") and Teufel's creation, the greatest menace Superman ever encountered during his radio career, the kryptonite-powered Atom Man. Luckily Superman didn't have to go up against the Atom Man alone. In his time of greatest need, Superman was able to call on the help of his friends Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, better known as Batman and Robin.
The World's Finest Team
On 5 September 1945, the Man of Steel came to the rescue of an unconscious boy adrift in a rowboat. Quick to notice the young lad was wearing a red vest with the letter "R" under his street clothes, Superman exclaimed, "Great Scott. If this is who I think it is, this is serious business!" Superman had rescued Robin, the Boy Wonder, Batman's sidekick. Later Superman would also rescue Batman, who would repay the favor by pinch-hitting for Superman during the years to come - especially when Collyer needed time off for family vacations.
Stacy Harris was the first actor to play Batman on radio. Matt Crowley took over the role in the middle of the second Superman-Batman serial and would become the voice most associated with Batman on radio. Ronald Liss played Robin in all the radio team-ups. He and Crowley had worked together on many radio programs previously.
Although Superman and Batman had appeared on symbolic comic book covers and in a brief cameo in a 1941 issue of All Star Comics, the 10 September 1945 broadcast was the first to feature the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader working together as a team. Batman and Robin would guest-star with Superman in 13 radio serials over the next several years, including the greatest adventure serial in the history of the series, "The Atom Man".
Mason Adams portrayed the Atom Man, an atomic super-soldier within whose veins flows radioactive kryptonite. The Atom Man story line was the longest and greatest adventure serial in the history of the Superman radio program and inspired the second Superman movie serial starring Kirk Alyn. However, a story line dealing with religious and racial persecution would soon propel the series to its greatest heights and prestige.
Truth, Justice and the American Way
The Adventures of Superman radio series catapulted into the media spotlight with its "Unity House" story line in 1946. "Recently the Superman program underwent a change as drastic and unprecedented as some of its hero's exploits," wrote columnist Harriet Van Horne. "It became a program with a message." Having fought mad scientists, atomic weapons and other supernatural menaces for years, Superman took up the battle against racial and religious intolerance when a rabbi and a Catholic priest were menaced by young vigilantes out to destroy an interfaith community house. After saving the day, Superman gives this message to the gang members who had been taking orders from a man who was a former enemy spy, "Remember this as long as you live: Whenever you meet up with anyone who is trying to cause trouble between people - anyone who tries to tell you that a man can't be a good citizen because he is a Catholic or a Jew, a Protestant or what you will - you can be sure he's a rotten citizen himself and an inhuman being. Don't ever forget that!"
Although at first anxious over what reaction this show for tolerance would insight, the sponsors (Kellogg Co. and Mutual) were relieved when the show's new direction began attracting the highest ratings in the history of the series. "Superman's Hooper rating has risen perceptibly since the change in plot," reported the New York World Tribune on 4 June 1946. "The show is now Number One among the radio juveniles." The story line attracted endorsements from dozens of organizations, but it also generated hate mail. After years of jealously protecting his dual identity, Bud Collyer finally stepped into the media spotlight to proudly promote the "Unity House" story line.
The success of the "Unity House" series led to follow-up story lines on juvenile delinquency and school absenteeism. It was the finest moment in the history of one of radio's greatest adventure programs as Superman truly fought "a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way!"
This Looks Like a Job for...
Clayton "Bud" Collyer's decade-long stay on radio's Superman was the longest run of any star on a juvenile radio adventure serial, lasting more than 2000 shows. "Bud loved portraying the Man of Steel," narrator Jackson Beck recalled. "He was awfully proud of being Superman." The 15-minute Mutual serial ran five days a week through 28 January 1949, then continued until 17 June 1949 as a thrice-weekly half-hour program. The actor who had initially tried to turn down the role portrayed Superman and Clark Kent in 325 syndicated episodes, through 1610 15-minute shows and 73 half-hour episodes on Mutual and ABC. All good things come to an end, however, and Collyer's long run as radio's Superman was ended not by kryptonite but by his growing popularity in the new medium of television. During the 1950s and 1960s, Bud Collyer would achieve his greatest fame as the host of television game shows like Beat the Clock, Quick as a Flash and To Tell the Truth.
Michael Fitzmaurice took over as ABC's Superman on 5 June 1950 and played the role for 78 broadcasts of a revived final season. Fitzmaurice was a radio veteran and the long-time announcer of Land of the Lost and Mutual's Nick Carter, Master Detective. His rich baritone voice was well-suited for the Man of Steel, though he was regrettably unable to match Bud Collyer's marvellous ability to create distinctively different voices for Superman and Clark Kent.
1 March 1951 saw Superman fly off the ABC radio airwaves, but he successfully landed on television screens the following year. Bob Maxwell, the co-creator of the radio program, produced the first season of the television series. Radio characters, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen and Inspector Henderson were prominently featured alongside Clark Kent and Lois Lane on the new series.
Though the Superman television series continues in syndication to this day, budget restraints and primitive special effects prevented the series from reaching the imaginative levels of epic adventure that were commonplace on the radio series. Suspended from wires on a sound stage, Superman was never able to fly as high on television as he had for an adventure-filled decade in radio's theater of the imagination.
Adapted from the Smithsonian Historical Performances "Superman on Radio" CD set booklet, written by Anthony Tollin.
"Flights of Fantasy: The Unauthorized by True Story of Radio & TV's Adventures of Superman" by Michael J. Hayde.