by Erin Doane
“Look! Up in the sky!”
“It’s a bird!”
“It’s a plane!”
“No, it’s Superman!”
That’s what people were saying in Horseheads when tv’s Superman, George Reeves, made an appearance at the Chemung County Fair on August 14, 1956. The 6-foot 2 ½-inch tall, 195-pound actor played the title role in The Adventures of Superman from 1952 to 1958. He came to the fair as part of the “Kiddie Kapers” grandstand show that included another popular television star of the time, Lassie.
A record overflow crowd of more than 5,000 people, mostly children, filled the grandstand for “Kiddie Kapers.” The show began with a clown act that finished with two clowns crawling through the grandstand, dusting off the children with feather dusters. Next came a small brass band, then an aerial trapeze duo. The Briants, a comedy pantomime team performed after that, then Cowboy Jim Phillips and his horse Smokey took the stage. Lassie was up next, performing clever tricks and stealing the children’s hearts. A bullwhip and knife-throwing demonstration by William Cody and Company followed the canine tv star. And then it was time for the final act – Superman.
George Reeves came onto stage as mild-mannered Clark Kent, but after a brief moment behind a backdrop he reappeared as Superman. While everyone was excited to see Superman, as he went about explaining how television shows were made, the children became restless and some began to boo when they found out Superman was not going to fly for them. Yet, when he offered free autographed pictures, hundreds of children rushed the stage.
Reeves spoke to reporter Jim Morse of the Star-Gazette while he was here for the fair. Reeves didn’t seem surprised that children would be disappointed by him not flying. “It takes plenty of explaining,” he said, “when the kids ask me how I’m able to fly. If they’re real young, I tell then that’s Superman’s secret. If they’re 10 or older, and appear serious, not fresh, I tell them the truth. It’s best that way.” My guess is that “the truth” may have had something to do with explaining showbiz magic.
In the interview, Reeves also described how people, both children and adults, were always trying to test him as Superman. Grown men would take swings at him so they could brag that they punched Superman. He always refrained from getting into a fight in public and would run away from such encounters whenever possible. “A guy in my position never wins a public fight, even if it isn’t his fault,” he explained. “The publicity kills you.” Reeves also took his status as a role model for children seriously. He even gave up smoking so kids wouldn’t pick up the habit from seeing him do it.
Reeves also told a rather frightening story to Morse. One time when he was at an appearance in Denver as Superman a 7-year-old showed up with his father’s loaded .45 pistol. The boy wanted to see the bullets bounce off of Superman like they did on television. Reeves was able to talk the child out of shooting him by pointing out that when the bullets bounced off him they might hit someone in the crowd and the boy didn’t want anyone to get hurt.
Erin Doane is the curator at the Chemung County Historical Society. To see more of their blog, click HERE.