The spring of 1955 was full of news. Red China was making military efforts to reclaim Taiwan, the island that many still called Formosa and America recognized as the Republic of China. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was talking about a four-power diplomatic conference and France was in the process of leaving Vietnam. Hollywood was thrilled by 26-year-old Grace Kelly’s Oscar winning performance as best actress in “The Country Girl.” Newspapers the next day showed her getting a “buss” on the check from Marlon Brando, who had won best actor for his performance in “On The Waterfront,” that year’s best picture. That Kelly was from a well-known Philadelphia family and had appeared first at the Bucks County Playhouse added an extra touch of interest to Lehigh Valley newspaper readers. And doctors were being cautiously optimistic about the new Jonas Salk polio vaccine, although some remained skeptical. “Polio Men Disclaim Report Vaccine 100 Pct. Effective,” ran the Morning Call’s headline.
But for many little baby boomers in the Lehigh Valley the arrival of the Easter Bunny that first week in April was what really was the big news. And Max Hess had his Hess’s department store in downtown Allentown ready for the season. A huge Easter Egg and a costumed version stand-in of the bunny himself was on display. But this year Hess had a real surprise that week when on March 30 no less a figure than Superman flew in from Metropolis. It was not just some guy from the purchasing department in a lumpy costume but the real thing that had fascinated kids on TV screens across the nation for the past five years. Oh sure, there were some killjoy adults who tried to tell you it was an actor named George Reeves in that costume with the big S in the center. But kids knew the “truth.” He was “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” How else could mild mannered reporter Clark Kent possibly not be the real thing? Getting Jimmy Olson and Lois Lane out of scrapes was his task and the TV showed those bullets pinging off his chest. Every kid knew you could not kill Superman.
Among the first to be greeted by Superman was little Patricia Kuntz of 1906 Whitehall Street. Under the picture of them that appeared in the March 31 issue of the Morning Call the caption read:
“Superman, who greeted hundreds of children at the store yesterday, will again be on hand today. Every hour he plans to make a tour of the store to greet youthful customers. He had planned only a one-day stay at the store but prolonged his visit because he was ‘thrilled and delighted’ with the friendliness of the people of Allentown and vicinity. He was impressed with the cleanliness and termed it ‘a well- scrubbed city.’ In real life Superman is George Reeves. In addition to appearing on television in the Superman role for the past five years, he took the part of Sgt. Stark in “From Here to Eternity” and also appeared in other movies including “Gone With The Wind.” Reeves, who lives in Beverly Hills, is actively engaged in youth activities. He recently succeeded Roy Rogers as sponsor of the Little Helpers of the City of Hope.”
The following day was a busy one for the caped crime fighter. He took part in nine autograph sessions and posed with the Easter Bunny. He also showed 8 year old David Kleckner of Bethlehem how to handle the Superman flying toy. In one particularly iconic photo, Reeves in full costume shows several Hess’s waitresses how to toss a salad in Hess’s Patio Restaurant. The photos were taken by Hess photographer Bill Zwikl. Underneath them is the following caption:
“Roaring into Allentown from his home city of Metropolis where he is constantly warring the forces of evil, Superman this past week visited the Lehigh Valley’s Queen City to see how well it is battling juvenile delinquency. The brief visit extended to two days when Superman found Allentown and its people so enjoyable. He signed autographs for thousands of youngsters who had the pleasure of seeing him during the two-day personal appearance at Hess Brothers. Typical of Superman’s whirlwind activities on television, Superman “flew” from place to place in Hess Brothers to greet his thousands of fans … in toyland, at Easter Bunny headquarters in the Patio Restaurant (where he greeted the residents of Allentown, Bethlehem and Hellertown–guests of Hess’s) kitchen and many departments. Superman is one of the long list of celebrities whom Hess Brothers will bring to Allentown from time to time.”
Reeves/Superman was to return in 1957 and 1958. Dressed in Superman costume he traveled with Hess’s delivery truck. He even knocked on doors and presented customers with their purchase. Another picture taken during at that time shows a smiling Reeves in a suit dining with Hess’s executives in the Patio Restaurant.
But by 1958 the truth is that Reeves was getting tired of playing Superman. His tight finances following a divorce and a few attempts to make money that failed must have had him wondering if he was typecast forever as the Man of Steel. The entire Superman series was filmed over a period of 13 weeks. During that time, he made what today would be almost $50,000 a week but after that had to depend on what he made in public appearances. The reason he kept coming back to Hess’s, along with a genuine feeling of appreciation for his young fans that might have been based on his own troubled childhood, was that he needed the money.
But then life had never been easy for Reeves, who was born George Keefer Brewer in Woodstock, Iowa on January 5, 1914. Soon after his birth his parents separated. Reeves and his mother traveled frequently, eventually to California to live with his mother’s sister. In 1920 she remarried to a Frank Joseph Bassolo. He took on his stepfather’s name as George Bassolo. When his stepfather and his mother divorced after 15 years she lied to her son, who was away visiting relatives at the time, claiming her husband had committed suicide. It was only several years later that Reeves learned his stepfather was still alive.
Reeves took up acting in high school and eventually took acting courses at the Pasadena Playhouse. He married and in 1939 got his first movie role as Stewart Tarlton in the film “Gone With the Wind.” Along with his twin brother Brent (Fred Crane), the feckless pair are seen competing for the attentions of Scarlett O’ Hara (Vivian Leigh) who sends them on their way with a “fiddle-dee-dee.” According to book author Margaret Mitchell, both die at Gettysburg. A more likely scenario would be dying of measles in training camp.
What followed for Reeves were contracts, first with Warner Brothers and Twentieth-Century-Fox. He got several roles, few above the B-grade level. Vehicles like Charlie Chan mysteries (“Dead Men Tell” with Sidney Toler in 1941) and westerns could not do much to advance his career. Perhaps the one exception was as Sergeant Stark in “From Here to Eternity.” It was a minor character part, but it gave him the distinction of having been in two Best Picture Oscar winning films.
Reeves took on Superman in 1951. The public was already familiar with the character that had been invented in comic books by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1938. This led to a built-in audience. At first like many movie people at the time, Reeves was convinced that television was not going to help his career. By 1959 Reeves was finding himself in a number of potential theatrical ventures that seemed to fail. At 45 years old he may have wondered what kind of future he had.
On June 16, 1959, between 1:00 and 2:00 am, Reeves died from a gunshot wound to the head. He was found naked lying on his bed. Suicide was the most likely cause but everything from an accident to an execution, gangland style slaying by mobsters that he had “welshed” on gambling debts have been offered. For some of his young fans at the time it was hard to take. How could Superman die? For at least a few, now graying fans, although there have been many other Supermen, some really good ones, Reeves will always be Superman.