A look Back at Super Saturday: REPS’ Visit with Superheroes

On Saturday afternoon, September 9th, REPS presented a terrific program to launch the 2017-2018 REPS regular season.  The two  hour affair which centered on exploring the media origins of four featured superheroes – The Green Hornet, The Blue Beetle, Superman and Batman, was the brain child of Karl Frunz.  The event, as conceived by Karl,  was presented as a sort of Saturday Matinee of featured nostalgic entertainment, book-ended by stories of how the super hero first vaulted from a pulp fiction publication and onto the radio airwaves and the cinema screen.

At the outset of Karl’s presentation we were shown just how popular Superheroes are today.  Karl suggested that it was in fact the popularity of the superhero which was keeping modern Hollywood from going bankrupt.  Hollywood has made fourteen billion dollars off of just fifteen movies in the last five years.  That’s fifteen movies that have  featured people dressing up in latex suits , wearing capes, running around saving the world.  Beyond the movies, many current TV series are also featuring the exploits of one Superhero or another.  It’s a concept that hasn’t changed much since originally manifested in the pulp fiction days of the early 1930’s.  While younger audiences might believe that these current movies are the creation of modern movie producers, Karl maintains that there really is nothing new and in his presentation he attempts to create a time line by linking the modern superhero back to the beginning of the concept by spotlighting four characters created in the 1930’s who have been featured in more than one media.

The Green Hornet 

Karl decided to kick it off by exploring the origins of The Green Hornet because unlike other superheroes, The Hornet did not first appear in a comic book or pulp publication but was created specifically for radio (most likely in response to the rising popularity of the pulp fiction hero).  It was way back in 1936 when the Green Hornet premiered on WXYZ radio in Detroit.  The program was so popular that it was picked up and distributed by the Mutual Broadcasting System, a radio network of affiliated stations coast to coast.   Soon after,  Hollywood beckoned.  Universal figured that the listening public would flock to the movie theaters for the chance to see the radio hero in an action packed  feature.  At the time, Universal, Columbia and Republic were the three studios churning out movie serials.  Movie serials were an action packed motion picture, which were edited into chapters and exhibited in consecutive order at one theater, generally advancing weekly until the series was completed.  Each chapter generally ended with a cliff hanger in which the hero found himself in a perilous situation with little apparent chance of escape.  These cliff hangers were designed to bring the audience back to the theater week after week.   In 1940 Universal presented the Green Hornet as a 13 part movie serial starring Gordon Jones as Britt Reid aka  The Green Hornet.  On the original movie poster the serial was advertised  as “Radio drama more vivid on screen!” 

Faced with rising crime and increased racketeering activity, intrepid newspaper editor Britt Reid becomes the crime fighter the Green Hornet. Donning a disguise, the Hornet and his brilliant Korean inventor/sidekick Kato fight an infamous racket that’s menacing their city.

The first chapter of the 1940 Green Hornet movie serial was screened for the audience in attendance and ended as expected with the Green Hornet in dire peril.  Although the closing announcement at the end of the serial invited us to see “Thundering Terror, chapter two of The Green Hornet At this theater NEXT WEEK”   the REPS audience would not have that pleasure.  However, REPS may begin posting the subsequent chapters online in the near future.  The serial was typical of the action and plotting found in the standard  serial of the day.  This writer would have to agree with one reviewer who wrote, “In spite of its many-many flaws, its b-grade visual effects, its laughable dialogue, etc., etc., etc. – This vintage, b&w serial from 1940 (presented in 13 thrill-packed episodes) was still definitely about 10 times more entertaining and exciting to watch than was the likes of (that doofus) Seth Rogen’s disgustingly dismal and completely contemptible feature film adaptation of the Green Hornet character in 2011.”

More fondly remembered was the Green Hornet TV series which aired for one season on ABC TV in 1966 with Bruce Lee in the role of Kato.

The Blue Beetle

This superhero character is far less known than the other iconic heroes presented.  The Blue Beetle is the perfect example of a character who first premiered in a pulp publication.  Created by Charles Nicholas, The character was featured  in the comic book Mystery Men #1, published by Fox Features Syndicate in 1939.   The Blue Beetle radio program would spring into action over the airwaves in 1940 with little fanfare and only lasted for about four months.  Sources indicate that the series was carried over the CBS radio network but to this listener, recordings of the program suggest that the program was more likely a syndicated feature rather than a program originated over the CBS network. We’ll have to research further.   The Blue Beetle radio program was pretty faithful to the comic character and featured the exploits of Dan Garrett, a rookie patrolman who, by wearing bullet-proof blue chain mail, transformed himself into the mysterious Blue Beetle, a daring crusader for justice. The radio series was entertaining and had a different vibe than the standard radio program of the day which featured superheroes.  As Donald Motley wrote in his review “This is not one of your “fun” superhero shows. It’s deadly sober and serious with not a hint of irony or comic relief. It’s well written and acted, and there’s lots of violent action and sound-effects.”    For REPS Super Saturday, a full cast performed an episode of the Blue Beetle titled Death Rides on Horseback.  It was a thrill  presenting the radio drama live before an audience (featuring creative sound effects and Roger Kim providing live music).  I had never given much interest in listening to episodes of the Blue Beetle but this live radio performance truly piqued my interest.  It was truly enjoyable.  We only have audio of the radio re-creation  so for the video, REPS has added pictures, derived from comic book sources to create an an audio comic book feature.  The audio comic book is  fun and can be found at the  30:45 point in the video presentation How Superheroes Escaped Their Pages.

Initially, The Blue Beetle did not have a long run in radio or in comic books but he did return in the mid 1960’s in  comic book form and once again in 2008.  In 2008 a new publisher re-envisioned  the Blue Beetle with an entirely modern look for 2008 comic book readers.  Who knows that the future holds? Movies? Television?  Only time will tell.

Superman

Superman was introduced to the American public via comic book in 1938-39 feature in action comics.  The character became so popular that he was featured in his own comic book a few issues later.  Not long after, radio producers were wanting to adapt the comic book character as a daily series.   The series came to radio in 1940 over station WOR in New York city.  Similar to the Green Hornet,  the Superman radio program was picked up by the Mutual Broadcasting Network and broadcast coast to coast.  The radio series would run until 1951 when it gave way to the legendary television series starring George Reeves which ran from 1952-1958.   Prior to radio series going national, a gentleman named Max Fleischer produced a series of Superman cartoons released in technicolor by Paramount pictures.  The initial eight cartoons were released in 1941 and 1942.   The first cartoon in the series, simply titled Superman, a.k.a. The Mad Scientist, was released on September 26, 1941, and was nominated for the 1941 Academy Award for Best Short Subject: Cartoons. The voice of Superman for the cartoon series was initially provided by Bud Collyer, who also performed the lead character’s voice during the Superman radio series. Joan Alexander was the voice of Lois Lane, a role she also portrayed on radio alongside Collyer. Music for the series was composed by Sammy Timberg, the Fleischers’ long-time musical collaborator.  The Superman cartoons till this day are considered to be “beauty beyond compare” in terms of the way that they were done.  It was REPS pleasure to be able to screen one of these amazing animated features for the Saturday audience.

Superman has stayed a part of the American culture for many, many decades.   Launched as a comic book feature, he leaped onto the radio airwaves and into movie serials, television, cartoons and feature films.  What has he not done?

Batman

Batman first appeared in Detective Comics in May 1939.  This one appearance started a phenomenon.  Batman’s popularity would bring him to the radio airwaves in the 1940’s as a part of the Superman radio program.  He wouldn’t generally appear with Superman, the characters would rotate story-lines.  For a period ,from tine to time, the Man of Steel would break from the action and the story line would center around the exploits of the caped crusader, Batman.    In 2016 Superman and Batman would appear together in a big budget motion picture Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.  Many were ecstatic thinking that this was the first time the two had ever appeared together ( and maybe it was as far as appearing in a major motion picture).  However, the the two iconic characters famously  appeared together in the Saturday morning cartoon The Super Friends in the 1970’s and going back to the 1948 there was was one story line on the Superman radio series that brought the two characters together.  From March 10, 1948 thru April 1, 1948 Superman was forced to call on his friend, the famous Batman,  to aid him in The Mystery of the Stolen Costume.   Superman had just returned to Metropolis from his adventure in the Kingdom Under the Sea. He received a shock when he entered the apartment he occupied as reporter Clark Kent. Something so great had happened that the Man of Steel required the help of Bruce Wayne, alias Batman. The secret panel in which Superman kept his spare costume had been opened. Worse yet, the red and blue suit was missing.  Had someone discovered Superman’s greatest secret?  The REPS audience has the opportunity to sit back and tune in on a radio program from long ago as the REPS Radio Artists stepped to the microphone to present part one of The Mystery of the Stolen Costume.  

Batman, like Superman, has been an important part of American pop culture for all these decades since the character’s creation in the 1930’s as a feature in a comic book.  After first premiering as a comic book creation and appearing on radio, Batman was also adapted as a movie serial in 1943 which spawned a sequel in 1949.  Batman moved on to television in 1966 starring Adam West in the title role.  This television series is so iconic that you would be hard pressed to find someone who has not seen it.   The TV series lasted until 1968.  The character was brought back as a feature film starring Michael Keaton in the late 1980’s and subsequent Batman films have been released regularly ever since with various A-list actors in the role.  In 2014 a series titled Gotham premiered on FOX. Originally the series would have related only Commissioner Gordon’s early days on the Gotham City Police Department, but the series subsequently included the Wayne character and the origin stories of several Batman villains.    In May 2017, Fox renewed the series for a fourth season, which premiered on September 21, 2017.  It appears that Batman is going to be with us for some time to come. 

Summary 

Superheroes continue  to be featured in comic books and major motion pictures right up until this today.   These industries employ thousands of people and entertain millions.  Whether we are someone who does or does not like superheroes, we need  to understand their impact, popularity and influence on popular culture. In the next year alone, the major studios plan to release into theaters, seventeen movies based on superheroes.  On television, the upcoming season promises viewers seventeen returning programs and four new series based on superheroes.  From the 1930’s until today, superheroes remain with us and as popular as ever.

How Superheroes Escaped Their Pages
We have uploaded the September 9th presentation for your enjoyment.
The online presentation contains the following:
1.) Audio of Karl’s featured talk accompanied by Karl’s slide show presentation
2.) The complete and unedited first chapter of the 1940 Green Hornet movie serial released by Universal
3.) Live re-enactment  of a Blue Beetle radio program in an episode titled Death Rides on Horse Back first heard May 31, 1940
(Pictures from Blue Beetle comic books accompany the audio from the live performance basically creating an audio comic book).
4.) Fleischer Studios Superman cartoon The Mechanical Monsters first released November 28, 1941.
5.) The September 9th, 2017 Live radio performance of The Adventures of Superman “The Mystery of the Stolen Costume” first heard March 10th, 1948

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