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I Am Interviewed About The Adventures Of Superman

24 Jan

January 24, 2012

Not long ago I had the great pleasure of being interviewed by Jimbo of the fantastic website OTRr Buffet. We talked about one of our mutual interests, the Superman radio show. The site is full of great information about Old Time Radio and you can find links to Jimbo’s other OTR sites there too. Check it out.

Below is an excerpt of the interview. You can find the full interview and more right here.

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OTR BUFFET: Tell me a little about yourself and how you got into OTR.

It’s all my parent’s fault. My Dad listened to OTR when he was young and sometimes just fooling around he’d snicker this evil kind of laugh and he’d say things like “The Shadow Knows!” Of course when I was a kid I had no idea what he was talking about but it sounded cool and it stuck with me. I had a lot of trouble falling asleep when I was young and Mom would put on the radio to bore me to sleep, usually the all-news station. This was the 1970’s and one night just flipping around the dial I found the CBS Radio Mystery Theater and I was hooked. I told Dad about this great show I found where they told stories on the radio and he told me all about the shows he grew up with. This was long before the internet and somewhere along the line I found a catalogue where I could order cassettes of old shows and that was it. I was hooked.

I remember waking up early one Saturday morning and Dad was fixing an old transistor radio in the kitchen. It was playing NPR’s Star Wars, every episode back to back. I helped him fix the radio and then I took it wherever I went the rest of the day. I didn’t want to miss a second. That showed me that radio drama was still relevant even if it wasn’t popular anymore.

I was a teacher for ten years, high school English in Brooklyn New York. One thing that was clear was that my students had no real conception of what the world was like outside of their interests. I know that describes almost everyone you know but these were kids who couldn’t imagine a world where their grandparents didn’t grow up with cell phones. I took it upon myself to work things into the curriculum that might never have been exposed to or given a second thought. If I was connecting a movie to a book and I had a choice of something modern or old and black and white, I picked the old and black and white. When we did a unit on drama or playwriting we’d not only read Lucille Fletcher’s Sorry, Wrong Number, we’d listen to Suspense’s version with Agnes Moorehead. I firmly believe that audio shows and OTR involve the mind in ways that the constant images and sounds of today do not.

OTR BUFFET: Tell me how you got into The Adventures of Superman (TAoS) radio series.

That was a straight leap from the comics. Superman has been published non-stop since 1938 and with all the movies, TV shows, cartoons, and serials I devoured it wasn’t long before my interest in OTR and my interest in Superman collided. In fact, one of my favorite comics came out in 1981, World’s Finest #271. Besides having a great George Perez cover, it claimed to present the secret origin of the Superman-Batman team. The interesting thing about that issue is that it attempts to tie in the old radio stories to the comic book canon. It even features Atom Man. I’ve still got that issue, all beat up and worn.

Probably around that time I had found some obscure college station playing OTR and one night they were going to play the first episode of The Adventures of Superman, which I never heard but I just had to listen to. The problem was my family was going out to dinner with some friends. I had this great watch that had a radio built in (hey, it was the eighties) and I spent the evening listening to the show through a pair of clunky headphones plugged into my tiny watch. I looked pretty silly, and my parents weren’t too happy with me, but I heard the show.

I guess in retrospect that was my version of Jimmy Olsen’s signal watch!

OTR BUFFET: Why are we as adults hooked on TAoS?

It is more than just nostalgia; I believe it is because the show is well-written and fun, pure and simple. I know that you can say that about shows from Jack Benny to The Great Gildersleeve to Archie Andrews, but there is a reason that the character of Superman has endured. The story of Superman is a classic American immigrant tale, and who doesn’t dream of being the hero who saves the day, gets the girl, and is humble enough to fly off before his picture can be taken?

The Adventures of Superman hits all the right notes. Nostalgia, escapism, patriotism, fantasy, and fun, and all appropriate for the whole family. The show comes from a time when Superman wasn’t afraid to stand for the American Way. In today’s comics and films Superman is sometimes a conflicted character, but the radio show’s Superman knew right from wrong and wasn’t afraid to say so. It’s a shame that so many of the episodes are lost.

OTR BUFFET: The first 2 years of Superman are much different than the remaining years. The first 2 years are dark, serious and not as jovial. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

It is not only good, but necessary. Of course this is all in retrospect, but those adventures set up who Superman is, what he can do, and sets him in “reality.” To swipe a line from the movies, if you listen to those shows “you will believe a man can fly.” Once you believe Superman and buy into that world, you can go along with anything, including sillier and lighthearted stories. I am a big fan of that era of the show and I love the serial format the series had for most of the run.

The Adventures of Superman always had a variety of menaces, from crooked politicians to aliens. It was a great feat that the program could do a series of shows about space men, then gangsters, then Kryptonite, and then Nazis and still be the same show week in and week out. The early years built that believability and you bought into it and went for the ride with whatever came along into the next arc. There was never a point when you’d say “this is just silly.” You’ve already suspended your disbelief for a man from space who flies around in a cape, was a dinosaur too far-fetched?

OTR BUFFET: What’s your opinion of Bud Collyer as Superman/Clark Kent?

With no disrespect to anyone else’s favorite actor, Bud Collyer was the definitive Superman. Period. In any visual medium, the joke was always why can’t Lois see that Superman is just Clark without his glasses? No matter how much Christopher Reeve slouched or looked nerdy (and I think Christopher Reeve did an amazing job in that role) you could still look at him and see Superman’s face.

The magic of radio is that you decide in your imagination what people look like. Bud Collyer did such an amazing job of not only changing the tone of his voice but his entire vocal range and intonations that you visualize Superman completely differently than you do Clark Kent. It would not have worked if they had different actors for Clark and Superman. Despite the differences, it was still recognizably the same voice and you believed that it was the same man, which of course it was, but you saw each character very differently in your mind. No other actor ever got the separation between the two as perfectly as Bud Collyer. And of course he just had that powerful, deep, heroic Superman voice.

OTR BUFFET: What’s your opinion of announcer and bit part player Jackson Beck?

He is very much responsible for the show’s popularity and the fact that it endures today. Like theme songs, announcers set the tone and feel of a show. They were usually the only ones to directly talk to the listeners, during the commercials, so they had a chance to bond with the audience. Jackson Beck was just great. Not only did he have a great voice, he knew how to use it. Who doesn’t love the way he growls “The Adventures of Superman!”? While he may not have written that intro, that whole opening narration is still the way Superman is known to millions of people. And thanks to him, I want a collection of Kellogg’s Pep buttons.

OTR BUFFET: Do you like Batman and Robin in the radio series or are they “in the way?”

It was a lot of fun when Batman and Robin were on the show. Even in the comics back then it was a big deal when characters crossed over, not like it is today with huge events every other month. I can only imagine the thrill it must have been when a young boy unconscious in a rowboat turned out to be Robin. The problem was that while the writers had taken great pains to create their version of Superman over the years it seemed like they had no idea how to write Batman. They didn’t have the luxury of developing him. So while they had gone to great lengths to make Superman and Clark Kent distinct, it was never clear who did or didn’t know that Batman was Bruce Wayne. At one time Batman said that the police had his fingerprints on file. Goodbye secret identity! And of course there is the little fact that Batman wore gloves. And while Batman and Superman knew each other’s identities, and Superman knew Robin’s, it was never clear if Robin knew Superman’s.

Then there was the time Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson changed into Batman and Robin in the back of a police car while an officer in the front seat was driving them home. Some master detective! Batman and Robin didn’t fare nearly as well as Superman did in the transition to radio.

OTR BUFFET: Do you have a “favorite enemy” in the radio series?

Probably Der Teuful, the cliché mad Nazi scientist. He was a part of many of the best stories and he was the force behind Atom Man, likely the most famous Superman radio villain. Der Teuful was an over the top evil genius. He created atomic ray guns, stole Kryptonite from other villains, and planned to take over the world. He’d give Lex Luthor a run for his money. And his voice?  He just sounded evil.

Apart from Der Teuful, the show managed to make even normal gangsters or smugglers a challenge. The smugglers of Lighthouse Point or The Wolf were as much of a challenge to Superman as Atom Man in their own way.

OTR BUFFET: What are a few of your favorite story arcs in the series?

I love the early era where Superman still tried to hide his existence. He somehow managed to save Lois from fires and other assorted perils yet no one had a clue that there was a superhero around. Clark would usually make up an excuse- totally unbelievable- about how he accidentally knocked over a convenient bucket of water and put out the fire, or a passing motorist rescued Lois while she was unconscious and no one ever quite bought it.

Superman wasn’t yet as powerful as he’d later become and things he’d normally do without effort, like stopping a train, wore him out and caused him to exert himself. He was still super but not the Superman we’d come to know later.

And I have to credit the show’s writers. It is impossible to simply say that the Atom Man vs. Superman arc is my favorite without recognizing all the stories that came before and directly influenced it. You have to go back to the Black Widow arc where she was auctioning off pieces of Kryptonite and Der Teuful stole them for his plan to create an Atom Man, and then back a few more stories before that to see all the plot lines that culminated in the Atom Man arc. In how many shows, especially ones that get mislabeled as juvenile shows, can you see that level of writing?

A lot of people confuse all-ages or family friendly for juvenile or kid’s programing. Superman is not simply kid’s programming, even though some arcs were unabashedly aimed at children.

OTR BUFFET: If you could change one thing about the show, what would it be?

I would change the final years of the show. They dropped the serial format and became a standard ½ hour show. It was too formulaic. Clark would investigate a mystery, he or Lois would get into a jam, and Superman would show up and save the day. You could more or less tell when Clark would change into Superman just by looking at the clock. When the show was a serial it was less predictable. Stories went as many parts as needed, and Superman might not even appear at all in a particular episode. The ½ hour format took away some of the magic.

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