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Welcome to Down These Mean Streets, a weekly trip back to the Golden Age of Radio where we rub elbows with the era's greatest private eyes, cops, and crime-fighters. Since 2013, I've been podcasting everything from cozy mysteries to police procedurals, spotlighting characters ranging from hard boiled gumshoes to amateur sleuths. 

Be sure to tune in each Sunday for adventures of a radio detective and the behind-the-scenes stories of their shows. Join me as we spend time with Sam Spade, Johnny Dollar, Sgt. Joe Friday, and more!

Super Friends

Mar 2, 2019

Today in 1945, Superman first encountered the caped crusaders, Batman and Robin. This momentous meeting of heroes didn’t take place in a comic book or film serial; it happened on radio on The Adventures of Superman. That first meeting found Superman rescuing an unconscious Robin from a rowboat, a discovery that kicked off a hunt for the missing Batman. The Man of Steel had enjoyed radio success since his debut on the air in 1940, and though the Dark Knight Detective would go on to conquer the big and small screens success on radio eluded him.

The first attempt to bring the Caped Crusader to the air came in 1943.  DC Comics, the publisher of Batman comics, was eager to duplicate the success it enjoyed years earlier with Superman.  The Man of Steel was the star of his own popular radio series airing on the Mutual Network, and he’d appeared on the big screen in a series of sharply produced animated shorts from Max Fleischer.  In 1943, Batman hit the big screen in a 15 chapter Columbia Pictures serial, and he took to the airwaves in an audition program for a Mutual series.  The story, titled “The Case of the Drowning Seal,” found Batman and Robin pursuing the Nazi agents who murdered Robin’s parents.  Comic fans may recognize this was a departure from the origin of Robin’s sidekick, but these were the years when everyone, from Superman to Sherlock Holmes, joined the fight against Nazis.  The introduction for the series set the tone for what was to come:

“You are about to hear the first in a series of programs starring - The Batman!  The legendary feats of this 20th century Robin Hood are tales of high adventure and stark mystery.  In his ceaseless struggle against the forces of evil and corruption, The Batman has enlisted the aid of no one!  He fights alone; his keen brain and athlete’s body, combined with the almost unbelievable acrobatic skill, have made the horned black mask and the flapping black cape the symbol of law and decency.”

Thrilling stuff, and very true to the way Batman was depicted in the comics of the era.  Unfortunately, the program did not make it to series, and “The Case of the Drowning Seal” is lost.  Producers moved away from attempts to bring Batman to the air in his own series, but saw an opportunity to pair him up with one of his fellow heroes.

In the early 1940s, Superman and Batman shared comic book covers, but they did not appear in the same stories.  Years before they would ever share an adventure in a comic panel or newspaper strip, the heroes would meet and team up on radio.  In March 1945, Superman (voiced on radio by Clayton “Bud” Collyer) rescued Robin, and the Dynamic Duo arrived on the air.  Over the years on The Adventures of Superman, Batman and Robin would appear, sometimes to join Superman in adventures and other times to give the busy Collyer a chance for a vacation.  This was especially true during the story arcs involving Superman’s battles against Kryptonite (his greatest weakness, the radioactive fragments of his home planet, were a creation of the radio series).  Superman would be “unconscious” with Batman and Robin hunting for their friend; in reality, Collyer was enjoying some time off!

For most of the appearances on Superman, Batman was played by actor Matt Crowley, a veteran of juvenile adventure shows.  He was also played on occasion by Stacy Harris, a veteran of Jack Webb’s Dragnet who also starred as FBI Special Agent Jim Taylor in This is Your FBI.  Robin was played by actor Ronald Liss.

A second attempt was made to bring Batman to radio in 1950, with Ronald Liss again donning the mask and cape of the Boy Wonder.  John Emery played Batman in the audition story “The Monster of Dumphrey’s Hall."  The frame of the show found Batman and Robin presiding over a meeting of the "Batman Mystery Club,” a gaggle of tykes who met to hear cases from the Caped Crusader’s files.  Oddly enough, all of these kids knew Batman’s true identity!  The plot, which involved an old estate with a possibly haunted room, would be more suitable for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (ironically, Alfred Shirley, himself fresh off a radio run as Watson, appeared in a supporting role!).  The episode didn’t provide the solution; perhaps producers were confident they’d go to series.  Unfortunately (or fortunately?), this dreadful audition didn’t go to series.

Just four years after the end of the Golden Age of Radio, Batman would explode in popularity thanks to television.  He may have missed his shot at radio stardom, but the pop culture phenomenon that was the Adam West TV series catapulted him into stardom that has never really gone away, and even managed to eclipse the hero who graciously shared the microphone with him in the 1940s.