Sunday, June 20, 2010

Another Super-Myth Busted!

Here's a news flash: George Reeves made dozens of personal appearances during his years as TV's Superman. HOLLYWOODLAND (2006) would have you believe that he hated doing them and in fact feared for his life... unwilling to perform in costume because some over-zealous child might be packing his dad's pistol. In fact the film actually depicts this mythical event, misleading viewers into thinking it did happen.

To be sure, Reeves appeared one-on-one in hospitals and schools dressed as Clark Kent, but this was for a strategic reason. As he told a reporter in 1957, "On these visits, I don't wear the suit with the muscles because the kids want me to do all sorts of things, like jumping out of windows. But I can't fly.... We have to be careful not to destroy any illusions."

At county fairs, parades or department stores - where crowds could be controlled - Reeves willingly suited up. By 1955, when he began making these visits, Adventures of Superman was in production only for about seven weeks out of each year, and the extra money was welcome and relatively easy. Usually he spoke about safety and did a few judo falls, then handed out 5x7 pre-autographed photos, similar to the one seen at top.

In 1957, he tried something a little more ambitious: a full-fledged tour with a band of musicians, Noel (Lois Lane) Neill and national judo champion Gene LeBell, who portrayed "Mr. Kryptonite" (you can see his costume at the Super Museum in Metropolis, Illinois). As Clark Kent, Reeves sang and played stand-up bass with his combo; Neill sang as well until she was kidnapped by the super-villain, leading to a thrill-packed rescue by the Man of Steel. The show was a little too ambitious for its day... Reeves lost a lot of money when crowds failed to turn up during the tour's theater and civic auditorium dates.

A snippet of silent color footage from Reeves' appearance at the Indiana County Fair in Indiana, Pennsylvania, on Friday, August 24, 1956, can be seen on YouTube. The four-minute home movie mainly consists of excerpts from Wild Bill Cody's Western Show, but about 38 seconds in, you can see Clark Kent posing with Cody's 5-year-old daughter Mary Alice, followed by Superman handing out photos to a line of kids in front of the "Kiddie Kapers" stage upon which he'd just performed. The heavy-set man with his back to the camera, moving the kids along, is Reeves' manager, Art Weissman. Hopefully there's more filmed footage from Reeves' many Superman appearances to eventually be rediscovered and uploaded.

"Wild Bill Cody" was actually actor and circus performer Fred Penniman, who put together the Western Show with his wife, Mamie Alice. The pair can be seen in the film doing their knife-throwing and whip-cracking acts. In a tragic irony, Mrs. Penniman died when, during an appearance in Pittsburgh, a 9-year-old boy picked up one of two rifles used in the act, and asked his mother if he could play with it. The mother assumed they were stage props, but in fact the guns were real and had been loaded by Mrs. Penniman just moments before. The young boy pulled the trigger and a bullet struck and killed the 40-year-old actress, wife and mother.

This happened on June 7, 1959. Nine days later, George Reeves would also be fatally struck down by a gunshot.


Mary Hurst said...

Mr. Hayde,
I've just stumbled onto the YouTube video you posted of George Reeves at a state fair. In it are my parents (Bill & Mamie Cody) and myself. I was approx. 4 or 5 at the time. I'm wondering how I could get a copy of this film from you? Most everything my father had was distroyed in a fire in fact, there are no photos of me as a child, and very few of my mother....much less film. Please contact me at Thank you!

Jimmie Dee said...

Mamie Cody also appeared as a contestant on "What's My Line?" in an episode that aired live on September 2, 1956.