Feb 12, 2019
“Look, up in the sky!” Today, in 1940, Superman flew from the pages of Action Comics on to radio. As he thrilled readers in the comic books and dazzled audiences in movie theaters, the Man of Steel soared on the airwaves, battling the mob, Nazi spies and saboteurs, mad scientists, and aliens from other planets, all while cementing the character’s popularity as an American icon.
In fact, much of Superman’s mythology grew out of his radio adventures and later worked its way into the comic stories. Plucky cub reporter Jimmy Olsen and blustery newspaper editor Perry White were both original creations for the radio series. Ditto Metropolis Police Inspector Henderson, one of Superman’s allies on the police force. The first meeting of Superman and Batman happened on radio in 1945 (they’d appeared on covers of comics before, but radio featured the first story where the characters teamed up), and Superman had his first encounter with his Achilles’ heel - Kryptonite - not on the pages of the comics, but on the radio series.
The show was a ratings success practically from the start when it premiered on February 12, 1940. Radio veteran Jack Johnstone (who later directed Bob Bailey as Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar) directed the early shows, and the series topped the charts among three-day-a-week children’s serials. The series aired in syndication until March 9, 1942. Six months later, it returned over the entire Mutual Network in a five-day-a-week series. Directed by George Lowther and later Allen Ducovny, Superman exploded during the World War II era, as Kryptonite was thrown into the mix in 1943 and Superman and his friends fought Nazis as often as they fought domestic villains. One of these baddies led to one of the show’s longest and most celebrated storylines when Superman battled a Nazi-engineered, Kryptonite-fueled Atom Man out to avenge the defeat of Germany from October to December 1945.
But it wasn’t all fights with Atom Men and imaginary monsters. On the air, Superman fought racial intolerance and bigotry, and today the series is as fondly remembered for its social consciousness as much as for its thrilling adventures. In one memorable arc (the “Unity House” series), Superman defended an interfaith community center from a gang of bigots; in another, he battled the “Clan of the Firey Cross,” a thinly veiled substitute for the Ku Klux Klan. Despite pressure from some listeners (and a threatened boycott by the KKK itself), Mutual and Kellogg’s, the show’s sponsor, stuck by their program, and the series received seals of approval from the Boys Clubs of America, the Associated Negro Press, and the United Parents Association, among others.
At the center of this series, providing the voice of a man who could change the course of mighty rivers and bend steel in his bare hands, was a busy radio actor who initially didn’t want the gig. By age 32, Clayton “Bud” Collyer was appearing on all four major networks over several dozen series. And while he won the job by creating two distinct voices for Superman and his secret identity of mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, he initially turned down the role. “The whole idea embarrassed me, so I said no,” he recalled years later. Collyer would also voice the Man of Steel in the classic cartoons from Max Fleischer, and he returned in 1966 for Filmation’s New Adventures of Superman. Later, in the years following the Golden Age of Radio, Collyer would find fame as a game show host on television, anchoring shows like Quick as a Flash and To Tell the Truth. He played Superman in close to 1,700 shows and was the “voice” of the Man of Steel to a generation as much as George Reeves was the “face” on television.
Collyer was backed up by a great cast in the Superman family. Joan Alexander set the template for Lois Lane - smart, spunky, and willing to jump into the fray as no damsel in distress. Julian Noa voiced the perpetually frustrated editor Perry White, and Jackie Kelk (Homer on The Aldrich Family) gave the right dose of “gee whiz” enthusiasm to Jimmy Olsen. But a comic book adventure is lost without a narrator, and for most of its run Superman had a humdinger in Jackson Beck, who famously intoned the legendary introduction that began with “Faster than a speeding bullet!” (Yep, that was coined for the radio series as well.)
Today,the radio adventures of Superman still pack a ton of excitement into every fifteen or thirty minute episode. Even if you can only see him in the theater of your own mind, Superman rockets through the air when Bud Collyer’s voice drops an octave, that wind machine kicks in, and Jackson Beck’s stentorian boom erupts over the speakers.