This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 9 - Seventy years ago this month – as Adolph Hitler was tightening his grip on Europe and a teen-age schoolboy named Stan Musial was preparing to sign his first major league baseball contract with the St. Louis Cardinals – a strange caped figure burst onto the nation’s newsstands.
Wearing a red and blue acrobat’s costume and raising a full-sized automobile over his head, he was unlike anything 1938 America had ever seen. Quickly, this orphan from a distant planet – this super man – became a champion of truth and justice, a guardian of the weak and oppressed and the iconic hero of a new generation of youth.
In just three years, Superman and Action Comics were selling more than 2 million issues a year; the Superman radio show had become the most popular children’s program ever broadcast, and plans were underway for a series of animated cartoon features by Paramount Studios.
And if all that was not enough, the company that controlled Superman already had licensed 33 toys and related items, the first of thousands of collectibles that would saturate the market well into the next century and become highly sought-after prizes to collectors around the world.
Few characters, real or fictional, can compete with Superman in terms of the sheer numbers of collectibles available. Besides the comic books, the character has loaned his image to tin pinback buttons, dolls, membership kits, cereal premiums, advertising tie-ins of all sorts, storybooks, chewing gum cards, wind-up toys and dime banks. Collectors pay top dollar for particularly hard-to-find items, such as the Dunhill Superman cigarette lighter and the Superman Crusader Ring (both from the 1940s), the Superman Official Magic Kit and the Superman Golden Muscle Building Set (both from 1954), the Calling Superman Game of News Reporting and the Superman Official Horseshoe Set (from the 1950s) and the Superman Tilt Track Marble Skill Game (from 1966).
Some especially hard-to-find items are priced out of reach of all but the most serious and well-heeled enthusiasts. A Superman of America toy ring from 1940 can fetch up to $30,000, while a 1956 Superman stand-up store display advertising Kellogg’s Corn Flakes can bring $5,000.There are so many items available, in fact, that most collectors are forced to specialize in what they collect, pursuing items from specific time periods or items tied to one of the various actors who has played the Man of Steel on TV or in movies over the past seven decades.
St. Louisan Jerry Frandeka, whose family runs Frandeka’s Meats in the Soulard Farmers’ Market, has been dealing in vintage toys and collectibles for the past 20 years. In the past decade, he has become a serious collector of Superman items, concentrating on those with ties to the 1950s TV show with George Reeves.
The first important item in his collection was a 1960s George Reeves gum card box that he obtained in a trade at the Kane County Toy Show in St. Charles, Ill. Soon after, he purchased a rare 1960s Superman gumball flicker ring for less than $10 at an antique mall in Eureka, Mo. The ring is worth about $200.
“When I first started collecting, I realized there were thousands of items out there,” he said. “There is no way you’re going to be able to get one of everything, so you might as well be selective in what you buy.” Frandeka is attracted mostly to rarer, more unusual “oddball” pieces and pieces that take him back to the 1950s TV program he enjoyed as a boy. Topping his “want list” are a “Superman and the Molemen” movie poster or lobby card, a boxed Superman Krypto Ray Gun and the very rare Superman chrome hood ornament.
Another St. Louis-area collector, Bob Bohler, is a serious Superman comic book collector, but also is attracted to pieces with “older-style artwork,” similar to the work done by Superman co-creator Joe Shuster or longtime Superman comic book artist Curt Swan.
One of Bohler’s first acquisitions: a 1970s beautifully illustrated child’s record player. Like Frandeka, Bohler has become more selective because of the extensive number of items available, particularly since the recent release of the “Superman Returns” movie.
Both Frandeka and Bohler plan to attend this year’s Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Ill., set for June 12-15. In addition to marking the 70th anniversary of the creation of Superman, the festival also marks the 30th anniversary of the event in the small southern Illinois town – the only town in the U.S. with the same name as Superman’s fictional adopted city.
The town is the home of Jim Hambrick’s SuperMuseum, which houses the world’s largest collection of Superman memorabilia, including costumes worn by both Superman actors George Reeves and Christopher Reeve. Special guests at the celebration are expected to include former Lois Lane actress Noel Neill, Allison Mack from the “Smallville” TV series and Ned Beatty, who played Superman nemesis Lex Luthor’s henchman in the first Superman movie with Christopher Reeve in the late 1970s.
The celebration features carnival rides and games, a Superhero costume parade, a Superboy and Supergirl Pageant, a Superdog Show and an auction of memorabilia. Information on the celebration is available on the Internet at www.supermancelebration.net
Heartland Focus On:
Treasure Aisles Antique Mall, 2317 Big Bend Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63143, Phone: 314-647-6875* This is a small-to-mid-sized antique mall in the heart of the St. Louis area on Big Bend, halfway between I-64 and Manchester Road. Although in recent times its dealers’ offerings have slid from mostly vintage collectibles with a little kitsch thrown in to the current stock of primarily garage sale finds with a few genuine collectibles scattered about, occasional treasures still pop up. The mall has lots of vintage jewelry, books, decorative housewares, small furniture and kitchen items from the 1960s and 1970s, with a tilt toward St. Louis-related memorabilia. Next door is the Big Bend Antique Gallery.
A sampling of better collectible items and associated prices from Treasure Aisles:
- Popeye Pipe Kazoo marked 1934 King Features: $70
- 101 Dalmations McCoy Cookie Jar: $120 minus a 30% sale tag
- St. Louis Zoo Diving Polar Bears Allard small aluminum tray: $22
- McKee Glass Co. Safety Razor Hones (12) in original display box from the early 1940s: $120
- Set of eight Block Optic depression glass sherbets: $36