Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
At the southern tip of Illinois and across the Ohio River from Paducah, KY, the small town of Metropolis devotes the second weekend of every June to their world-famous Superman Celebration. More than just a carnival acknowledging their local heritage and history, the Celebration invites tourists from all walks to come join in their festivities. Their Main Street’s center of attention is the also-world-famous Superman Museum, dedicated to their most important fictional resident, the great and powerful Superman. Also major draws: the special guests from various Superman movies, TV shows, and other related Super-works who drop by for autographs and Q&As.
At least, that’s how it normally works. That means this year’s Celebration would be this coming weekend. Regrettably here in 2020 Anno Diaboli, the Metropolis Chamber of Commerce announced the show’s cancellation back in mid-March, when pre-planning should have commenced if not for the writing on the wall. We hadn’t yet committed to the 2020 edition, but it sucked to hear they pulled the plug. We understood and lamented.
We’ve attended the Celebration six times, but only posted about it four times. MCC launched in April 2012, which allowed me to post timely reports about our experiences in 2012, in 2016, and in 2017. As it happens, our first time in Metropolis was our 2001 vacation and was shared as part of our annual road trip collection.
That leaves two Superman Celebrations as yet undocumented here on MCC. This week, I aim to complete the set despite some problems.
The recount I originally shared with our nearest and dearest online community clocked in at 5500 words. Nobody wants to read all that. I’m keeping several of those sentences, tossing out numerous irrelevant portions, and inserting updated commentary where it fits, including but not limited to this prologue. A larger issue is that nearly all our photos from the 2006 Celebration were vaporized. The online files were stored in a group FTP space that was deleted several years ago by a message-board admin who didn’t bother to ask before pulling the trigger. Our scans were destroyed in the Great Hard Drive Crash of July 2015. As for the original 35mm prints…Anne scrapbooked five (5) of them. After tearing apart much of our house this week in a vain search for them (and not for the first time), we have no idea what happened to the rest. This sucks.
We’re doing this thing anyway. Internet users older than myself will recall bygone eras when it was okay for words to outnumber photos in an essay. Sometimes it was socially acceptable to have no visuals whatsoever. If and when we recover the lost photos, possibly if someone ever agrees to take a deep-dive into that crashed hard drive and magically retrieve everything, I’ll cheerfully share them as an appendix to this entry.
And now we journey back to 2006, if you will. Due to lack of photos, we’re not serializing this. You’re getting everything I care to keep in one lump sum. Enjoy! Share! Forgive me for the sins along the way!
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Saturday morning I rose bright and early (well, early, anyway) at 5 a.m. Indianapolis (i.e., Eastern) time and spent an hour preparing for the day ahead of us. At my typical traveling rate (averaging 7-8 MPH over the posted speed limit), Indianapolis to Metropolis, IL, was a 4½-hour drive with maybe one stop for gas if your mileage was lousy. As luck would have it, Avis ran out of compact cars and upgraded me gratis to a 2006 Ford Escape that averaged 25 MPG, still a noticeable improvement over the 20 MPG I eked out of the Hyundai Santa Fe we rented for the previous year’s long haul to San Antonio. We arrived in town at 9:30 a.m. their time (i.e., Central), whereupon we found autograph hounds had already queued up for the four major guests, each signing at a different Metropolis bank or financial institution around town:
* Michael Rosenbaum – The star attraction, Lex Luthor from TV’s Smallville. Even better for geeks like me, the voice of the Flash from Cartoon Network’s Justice League.
* Stephan Bender – An unknown youngster who would play Teen Clark Kent in Superman Returns, which hit theaters June 28, 2006, ten weeks after the Celebration. As of today his IMDb acting credits total five in all, but he does love him some horses.
* Marv Wolfman – Legendary comics writer, best known to my generation as co-creator (with George Perez) of the 1980 comics sensation New Teen Titans that later became a fun Carton Network series (which included co-creating Cyborg, Raven, Starfire, Slade Wilson, and many more); and grand architect of Crisis on Infinite Earths (again with Perez!), which later became a super fun crossover event for The CW.
* Noel Neill – TV’s Lois Lane from The Adventures of Superman. We met her at the 2001 Celebration. She’s your favorite grandmother, except your favorite grandmother never got the chance to work with George Reeves before his death or to tell you that Richard Donner is “a nice young man”.
Other 2006 guests who weren’t set up at their own autograph tables included:
* Steve Rude – Longtime comics artist, co-creator with Mike Baron of the long-running indie SF-superhero series Nexus (one of my all-time favorites), who’s also contributed to numerous projects for Marvel and DC. I first met him at Wizard World Chicago 1999, where I failed to get a photo and forgot to include him in my write-up of that milestone occasion, but I did get to hear the story of why his name appears on the cover of Action Comics #600 but his work is nowhere inside.
* Adam Shaw – A young artist with comics credits that included a 2004 Image miniseries called Bloodstream. He’s still painting book covers today.
* Other artists I didn’t recognize – A mix of local talent and aspiring hopefuls is standard for any given comic convention, but I didn’t record any other names.
* Scott Cranford – The actor hired to dress up as the Official Superman of Metropolis from 2000 to 2007. His job was to be Superman, pose with fans, and tells kids he was Superman. We met him in 2001, too. A nice guy doing a great job that surely took nerves of steel right there.
Anyway. Saturday at too early in the morning after a long drive. Michael Rosenbaum, Stephan Bender (pronounced “ste-FON” like the Bill Hader alter-ego), Noel Neill, and Marv Wolfman already had long lines by the time we got to town. Said lines were scheduled to be disbanded in time for an 11:30 Q&A session, which means we had no chance of reaching them at that time. A mass autograph line with the whole foursome was planned after the Q&A anyway, so Anne and I skipped that part. We also skipped a BMX freestyle show, the first activity in our path. I took a few pics just to test my camera’s speed capabilities, all of which failed.
I recommend one visit to the Superman Museum at least once in your life, but since we’d already paid to see its exhibits in 2001. we settled for merely perusing their gift shop. It was jam-packed with copious forms of DC merchandise, Metropolis souvenir shirts, and leftover comics apparently acquired on the cheap from bankrupt comic shops, including a hefty supply of ’90s fare — not just Superman titles (although they had of copies of the first four chapters of “Reign of the Supermen”), but also unusual supplies of The Punisher, X-Force/Youngblood, and a local comic I’d never heard of, of which they had dozens of copies on hand. I picked up a copy of Steel #37 for my Christopher Priest collection, along with a Metallo figure from the first wave of the DC Direct Superman/Batman line for a few dollars above retail price.
(Ten years later we returned to the Super-Museum and took better photos with newer cameras. So far they haven’t self-destructed, at least.)
Next was the Comic Art Gallery, held in a tiny, normally empty storefront — a former Dippin Dots franchise, if I’m not mistaken — where the comic-artist guests were sheltered, almost out of sight from Main Street Metropolis, hub of the major festivities. As Artists Alleys go, this was far less crowded, had an ambiance more easygoing and 100% less sweaty than a regular con, even without central air. In those days, air conditioning was a premium feature found only in select Metropolis businesses such as the combined Hardee’s/Red Burrito restaurant. Most other interior locations were made bearable only by electric fans or wishful imaginations.
Steve Rude autographed my copy of The Original Nexus graphic novel (a First Comics reprint of the original b&w Capital Comics issues), sold me a nice print of Supergirl in flight (which I…still have somewhere in this house? I hope?), and thanked me for my kind words about his Dark Horse series The Moth, which he’d planned to be his primary venture for the foreseeable comics future.
(In future years that little building was renovated and turned into the all-new Metropolis Chamber of Commerce.)
I wish I had daring insights, sneak previews, and/or lusty tidbits to share about the 11:30 Q&A with the Big Guests, but it was only thirty minutes long, and Metropolis isn’t exactly an ideal setting for hardcore journalistic interrogation or James Lipton-esque artful contemplation. One kid asked Wolfman how long the Superman Returns novelization took to write (two months to percolate, two more to type). Stephan Bender revealed that working on the movie was “fun”, that he plans to do a lot of different things with his career, and that he thought the first Superman movie was “pretty cool when I seen it!”
Noel Neill took a few of the same genial softball questions she’s probably fielded at so many previous Superman Celebrations, but no one in their polite mind begrudges a then-85-year-old actress a chance to kick back and relax. By 2005 Metropolis had come to love her so much as a community that they’d begun making plans to build a commemorative statue of her as Lois Lane to adorn the courthouse lawn behind their famous Superman statue. That statue was finished in 2010 and set up on the opposite end of Main Street as a fine sight to see on our last three Metropolis visits.
Michael Rosenbaum clearly had the most fun and the most devil-may-care attitude of all. In his buzz cut, mustache, beard, sunglasses and ball-cap, he looked right at home with the other townsfolk, through questions both intriguing and embarrassing. He had a kick working on the Justice League Unlimited episode where the Flash and Lex Luthor switch brains (which gave Clancy Brown the chance to mock Rosenbaum’s peppy Wally West voice, while Rosenbaum enjoyed his first crack at being a full-on evil Luthor). As of 2006 he’d never eaten Pop Rocks and drank Coke at the same time (a reference to his role in Urban Legends). When preparing for the forgotten comedy Sorority Boys, costar Harland Williams complained much more loudly than he did. He regaled the crowd with his Kevin Spacey impression. And when the usual shameless fan (every Q&A crowd has one) asked him, “Is it such a burden being so hot?” he retorted, “It’s pretty hard to think of yourself as ‘hot’ when you have to wake up on set every morning and look at Tom Welling.”
The Q&A ended promptly at noon, at which point everyone made a mad dash toward the old Metropolis Chamber of Commerce, where the autograph line wasn’t scheduled to begin moving until 1:00. The line was dozens deep by the time we found the end, front-loaded with eBay hounds who’d skipped the Q&A so as to better supplement their incomes. We spent an hour waiting for the line to move, then another two hours on actual line movement.
Meanwhile, we had a series of lively chats with a middle-aged couple behind us who’d flown in from Pittsburgh the night before. The husband once played in a local Pittsburgh band, but I didn’t catch his name or theirs. He worked in an auto-parts store and had named the family dog after a car-component name brand, while she did charity work for an organization that Michael Rosenbaum had once worked with. The left side of her shirt bore Rosenbaum’s autograph from the early-morning session. In front of us were a group of college-age guys from towns in Canada so small that their local high schools pool together to form a single football team.
At 3 p.m., Rosenbaum and Bender surprised the crowd by exiting the Chamber and, accompanied by security, jaunted down the still-lengthy line and dashed out speedy, sloppy autographs to one and all because they, the Big Hollywood Stars, had a plane to catch. Their time was up.
After Rosenbaum and Bender bailed, only Neill and Wolfman remained at their autograph tables. By amazing coincidence, our rate of advancement increased from two feet every five minutes to five feet per minute. We skipped Neill’s table because we’d already met her in 2001, but I insisted on having Wolfman sign my copy of Tales of the Teen Titans #50, which featured Wonder Girl’s wedding and even included a cameo by Wolfman himself (back in the days when he had a beard and mustache, to say nothing of thicker hair in general). To my chagrin, the teen girls in front of me had him sign their shirtsleeves, inspiring a long digression about his past clothes-signings that cut into our own face time. But at least I got a little moment.
(Thirteen years later I had the utmost pleasure of seeing Wolfman and his old pal Perez paneling together at Dragon Con in Atlanta, where they reminisced about the Titans, Crisis, and more.)
Our next event wasn’t scheduled until 6:00, so we had time to kill. Show of hands, who loves digressions? Especially without photos?
As of June 2006 I was still moderating my appetite in light of my year-long diet from July 2004 to July 2005. This particular Saturday was one of high temperatures and long walks, chiefly because I parked a half-mile away from the main festivities in a parallel space near an abandoned storefront. Thanks to this amazing calorie-burning opportunity, I was able to let my guard down for a day and indulge myself in a long-neglected hobby: looking for new and different forms of carnival food.
Each year numerous concession stands, locally owned and out-of-towners alike, scatter across Main Street Metropolis every year for the chance to fleece other out-of-towners like us as much as possible for a good cause — i.e., keeping their families and their town solvent. The last two years appear to have been prodigious times for snack makers nationwide as I found myself captivated by a variety of treats I’d never encountered before:
* Sweet potato fries – Yep, these were new to me in 2006, long before steakhouses co-opted them. Dunked in grease and showered in salt, just like the real thing, except that, unlike the cursed regular potato (call it the sour potato), sweet potatoes were allowable in later phases of my diet. Granted, the oil negated that advantage altogether, but I accepted the compromise.
* Gator kabobs – If you’re like me, and I know I am, I’ve always disliked how America’s gator-hunters kill and skin these poor defenseful animals for the sake of a few ugly purses, then throw away the rest of the carcass without care or regret. Finally, some brave entrepreneur concocted a use for the rest of the alligator: fry it up with some onions and potatoes, then skewer ’em in a straight line like some kind of chunky Cajun popsicle. More good greasy eatin’.
* Fried moon pie – From the same generation that brought you fried ice cream, Fried Twinkies, fried Oreos, and fried Snickers bars! There was a new fried sheriff in town. I don’t recall moon pies ever being a part of my childhood, not even as a rejected treat, but I first tried one in 2005 at the Dr Pepper Museum in Waco, TX, where they were sold as a dessert alongside their popular-in-the-South partner RC Cola. I’m not a huge fan of marshmallows in and of themselves (especially not Peeps — bleah), but marshmallows on top of a wafer layer dunked in chocolate, then dunked in batter, then dunked in boiling oil? That hit the spot.
* Jumbo corn dog with cheese sauce – Yet another simple but brilliant form of dunking that America had no excuse not to invent decades ago. It was about time someone had that level of ingenuity.
Fatty food? Damaging, even? Maybe even the food of the MAD? Sure, but I woke up Sunday morning the same weight I’d been Saturday morning. As a one-day-only event, I could’ve done worse, and with far less entertaining results. Suddenly, quaint fare such as funnel cakes seemed so pedestrian.
As is part-and-parcel of the Superman Celebration experience, we also check out the non-food vendors stationed up and down the length of Main Street Metropolis. We passed quite a few cosplayers, including a few in Marvel gear. Classic cars are a common sight along this straightaway. We took pictures here and there.
As of tonight only one of those photos still exists. And of all the possible photos of all the possible things we saw in that entire, variegated, delightful experience teeming with creativity and pop culture, of course this old famous thing had to persist into this, the worst possible year.
Our 6:00 event was the annual Superman Dinner and Auction, which can be a fun affair if you keep yourself entertained till the doors open. In 2006 one of the perks for attending was free four-day admission to Americana Hollywood, a new museum on Metropolis’ south side that poured considerable money into advertising and acreage, as it appears on the outside to be three times the size of the much more famous Superman Museum down the street.
Once we entered, hilarity ensued. Our first sight was the gift shop, 10% local-flavor souvenirs and 90% action figures. If you had a decent comics shop in your town, you’d either seen these figures before at your shop, or you’d seen them in Diamond Previews catalogs. Lots of DC Direct figures (just like the Superman Museum in that respect), McFarlane Toys leftovers, and scads of little-known lines based on big-breasted licensed characters such as Witchblade and Lady Death.
A few of the “exhibits” were decent memorabilia collections. Entire sections were devoted to Casablanca merchandise, John Wayne/Clint Eastwood collectibles, a cheesy sci-fi room with its own giant SF robot (probably from some crap ’50s flick — not Robby the Robot, I know him), even a collection of props from casino-themed movies defended by a sign prohibiting flash photography. In those days something about the prohibition of flash photography was supposed to add one or two instant levels of respectability to any given museum. We encountered the same effect at the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, where it worked slightly better.
Then there were…the other exhibits. A wing devoted to horror was filled more than anything with horror-based action figures, such as McFarlane’s “Movie Maniacs” line, all present and accounted for. Elvira’s cleavage had its own shrine. A TV showed uncensored clips from “famous” horror films — at the moment we walked by, Warwick Davis was in full-on Leprechaun makeup as he gleefully pogo-sticked a man to death (pogo-stuck?). There were plenty more props, but Davis’ laughter convinced us to gather our dignity and slink away.
If Elvira’s attributes weren’t enough for any male attendees, other exhibits offered more choices. An Angelina Jolie section featured a collection of tabloid headlines and magazine covers, as well as a disproportionate (in more ways than one) amount of Tomb Raider merchandise, from cardboard standees to comic books to (you guessed it) action figures. Americana Hollywood may also have been the only museum outside Bizarro World with a section devoted to college graduate and American movie star Pamela Anderson, replete with tons upon tons of cheesecake photos, and even actual costumes from the set of V.I.P. And of course they had Pam action figures. A cubbyhole paying homage to jungle stars in film devoted nearly half its wall space to photos of Raquel Welch from One Million Years B.C.
Getting past useless exhibits devoted to differently talented Hollywood denizens such as James Dean, Elvis Presley, and, uh, Jimi Hendrix, there was naturally a Marilyn Monroe section. Some of it’s dignified and wouldn’t be out of place as a state fair exhibit…until you get to the enlarged copy of her famous Playboy centerfold hanging up for all to see. Or you can look down on the floor on the opposite side at a painting of Marilyn wearing only a see-thru shawl, anatomy demystified for any who thought her centerfold too obscured. Clint Eastwood fans sure didn’t get to see a painting of his man-parts under a shawl in this joint, I can tell you that.
Almost as an afterthought, the largest exhibit room was filled with more action figures on pegboards. Multiples, even. No theme, just action figures. The complete set of Warren Ellis/John Cassaday Planetary figures would’ve been nice keepsakes to take home, but these weren’t for sale. They were exhibits. Museum pieces. Artifacts of a moment in time that will reveal unto future generations that there were, in fact, action figures in our era.
We’ve walked past the place a few times since that year. The front fence is always locked, while online reviews argued over whether or not the place was still in business. Some say it’s dead; others swear it opens whenever no one’s looking.
From the museum we walked south toward the shore of the Ohio River, where the only thriving business is their casino. As of 2001 their “casino” was a single gambling boat with a gravel parking lot. By 2006 the casino had done well enough that it had upgraded to brick-‘n’-mortar. An impressive neon sign proclaimed the HARRAH’S name, visible from blocks away. Their paved parking lot held several hundred cars or more. Construction on an adjacent Harrah’s hotel was scheduled for completion that July, a good five or six stories high, likely by my estimation to be Metropolis’ tallest man-made structure this side of their Superman water tower.
No other building was nearly as shiny or as well-groomed as the casino and its adjuncts. The storefronts of downtown Metropolis remained half-empty — more than there’d been in 2001, by my recollection. Those that survived could’ve used a serious paint job and some reconstructed facades. Casinos are not our thing, and it’s not a subject on which I’ve done enormous research for any sort of soapbox thoughts here, but the juxtaposition was jarring.
The first one-third of their all-new convention hall was completed in enough time to host the 2006 Superman Dinner and Auction. We enjoyed plush carpeting, waitresses serving drinks, and a scrumptious (if modest) meal of sliced ham, grilled chicken, and semi-fancy salads that were waiting for us at the tables.
We sat at a table seating eight, but since the townspeople all clustered amongst themselves, our table became home to stragglers from other states, each of us in pairs. From Indianapolis, of course, came the wife and I. A middle-aged mother and her over-21 son had driven up from Alabama for their third Celebration. The son had entered the annual costume contest as a very convincing Clark Kent, Chris Reeve-style. From New York came a pair of women in their late-30s/early-40s on a road trip (having driven in from a Nashville detour on Friday) who tore into their salads so voraciously as soon as they were seated that I can only assume they’d skipped eating for most of the day (although I’d seen one of them earlier in the day offering to share a few cans of beer with a streetside toy salesman). One of them was employed in an off-camera capacity for CNBC.
I’ve rarely gotten into auctioning, whether online or in person, but we’d had enough fun at the 2001 edition (Anne won me some action figures that time!) that an encore presentation seemed like an amiable way to cap off our Celebration. Due to pet-related concerns we couldn’t stay for the whole auction this year, and were disappointed that the earlier items were by and large Not Our Thing. One flash of high-energy auction action did occur before our departure on one item up for bid: an actual S-emblem from one of George Reeves’ costumes from The Adventures of Superman. After seeing far too many items receive opening bids for ten bucks or less, the auctioneer was downright excited when bids on this ‘S’ passed the three-digit mark within seconds. When the dust settled, the S went for a cool $2,100.00. It was also fun seeing Adam Shaw win himself a set of superhero records, but that competition was a bit more mild-mannered.
A camera crew also attended the Dinner & Auction to shoot footage and do man-on-the-street interviews for a segment-in-progress planned for Jimmy Kimmel’s show. (As of 2020 I’ve still never watched an episode.) They chatted with one of the ladies at our table and seemed really focused on “the Hollywood Superman”, a self-billed guy who used to wear a Superman costume a lot in front of L.A. events and hotspots — Graumann’s Chinese Theatre and the like. His impending wedding was the major event on the Celebration’s schedule for Sunday.
Apart from his mentions, I couldn’t tell what their angle was. For all I know, they could’ve edited their accumulated material into a tired and unfortunate “Bumpkins be FUNNY!” sketch. Maybe I’m better off not knowing how it turned out.
We left the Auction at 8:30 p.m. their time, hit the road, and made it home just after 1 a.m. their time. We’d gained an hour going into Illinois and arrived in plenty of time to spare before the proceedings commenced, but lost that same hour going home, resulting in a 2 a.m. homecoming, bringing the length of our day to a full 21 hours, probably the longest I’d stayed up without napping in years. That 8 a.m. wake-up call for church service came far, far too soon.
It was worth it. And we still have souvenirs from the occasion.
Eventually we had follow-up encounters with Michael Rosenbaum that were slightly less fleeting. At Wizard World Chicago 2013 — on the far opposite end of Illinois — Anne got a much more legible autograph and got to hear him sing. Five years later, again at WWC, he joined our jazz-hands photo-op collection alongside his old pal Tom Welling. But you never forget the first time you met Lex Luthor.