The shadows of summer lengthen once again, heralding the Dog Days to come, the schools preparing to return to scholarly session. But this time of year never fails to return to me a phantom of kid-dom, a past but still-familiar longing that aches within me even now. Some might call 2013 the Summer of the Superhero, at least as far as movies go. Iron Man 3. Man of Steel. The Wolverine. The Lone Ranger. Thor 2 yet to come. But in the far-flung days of my childhood, summer was a time of real superhero dreams and possibilities; a season when, for the briefest of moments, it seemed that comic book characters might actually leap off the newsprint pages and invade the everyday, dull world of Real Life. Back then, with the exception of a kiddy matinee boasting the 1966 'Batman' movie, or an offering of the Italian/Spanish import 'Super Argo', the cinema was a place devoid of capes, cowls or tights. But there was hope. You only had to look in the pages of a comic book, to the ad sections that offered such tantalizing fare as Sea Monkeys, Life-Sized Monster Posters, Atlas Submarine clubhouses, and 100 Roman Soldier action figures for $1. Every summer, I'd see these ads and my imagination soared with possibilities:
Now, I had no idea where this mythical land of Palisades Park was, or why Superman, Batman, and yes...even the Amazing Amazon, Wonder Woman...would shill for it. After all, there wasn't really anything listed as far as rides and attractions that even sounded superheroic. But summer after summer, there they were in four-color splendor, beckoning to you...inviting you with open arms of steel, to come and visit the wonders of Palisades Park! My young mind feverishly grasped for what could compel my costumed friends to extend such an invite. Maybe you could visit a real life version of the Fortress of Solitude! Or the Batcave! Or maybe they had, parked on the tar mac, a life size replica of the Invisible Plane! When I showed the ads to my mother, hoping for an adult's perspective of the wonders that awaited (as well as where and just how far away they awaited), I was crushed by an early geography lesson. Palisades Park was in, of all places, New Jersey. A few maps and Rand McNallys later and I was given to understand why my family would not now, nor probably ever, be buying E tickets for that midway. We were landlocked in the middle of the USA; New Jersey was FAR OFF. Somewhere between the frozen wastes where my cousins lives, and the Jackie Gleason stomping grounds of Florida (where my other cousins lived, as cruel fate would have it). We'd never been so far away as to visit family in either of those exotic locales, and we sure weren't going to New Jersey to get into an amusement park just because it had a Kryptonian seal of approval attached to it.
Typical destinations for family units in our neck of the woods back then included Six Flags Over St. Louis, Silver Dollar City, Opryland, the Astrodome, and one friend even went to Dogpatch, USA and brought us back coasters. We never went to any of those places ourselves, save Six Flags when it became 'Over Mid-America' and I was in Junior High. Disney World was something we usually glimpsed on Sunday night TV and had no reasonable expectation to ever visit in person, either.
With a crushed spirit that only a child can fully experience, I saw the imaginary door to Palisades Park close forever.
But the flame burned brightly enough that I still looked at those ads longingly, and eventually came ot understand something of the Park. It was a longtime Jersey attraction, originally aimed at older crowds...like GI's on leave, wanting to show their best girls a good time, treat them to some carny food, and maybe sneak a caress in the Tunnel of Love. The park began to court a younger Boomer crowd in the 1960's when owner Irving Rosenthal realized that large, juvenile generation had deep pockets...or at least, their parents did. He made Superman the official park spokesman, easily enough done since Rosenthal owned stock in National Periodical Publications, which owned DC Comics. Superman promoted the heck out of the Park in those comic ads, on bus signs, on billboards and on flyers. With the advent of the Batman TV show popularity, the Caped Crusader was added in to help recruit youthful visitors, and some attractions were given a bat-theme. And as time went on, the young female segment of customers was lured by including WW in some of the comics house ads. But there was, apparently, no great effort to blaze the trails for Warner and Six Flags attractions still 30 years away; no Mr. Freeze rides, no Batman or Bizarro roller coasters.
But Archie and Harvey comics also had ads placed in their pages, and became influential enough to rate some attractions based on their characters. They weren't specifically made for the park, but were converted from existing attractions and given a character themed facelift...like Casper's Ghostland and Wendy's Cups & Saucers Ride. By that time, I was just old enough to truly grasp how far a visit to Palisades was out of my reach, and how little the park had to truly do with costumed crimefighters. Who cared about Casper and Archie??? And who wanted to ride a 'Hootenanny', whatever the hell that was???
Dreams of summer escape to lands populated with superheroes, however, die hard.
The guttering spark of youthful adventure suddenly, unexpectedly flared into an inferno when my 5th Grade teacher handed these babies out a week before Summer Vacation, 1972!
*Thanks to the 'Superman Super Site' for these details and maps, once pored over in my room but long lost to the rummage sales of antiquity...*
Originally planned for construction in Metropolis, Illinois and scheduled to open in 1972, The Amazing World of Superman was a giant complex that would have brought to life many phases of the Superman legend through rides, exhibits, and other forms of entertainment. The maps here are small, and details are hard to make out...except that it looks like a Neal Adams concept artwork to me. But I remember some of the minutia shown...like sky trams made in the form of a flying Superman buzzing high above the park, seats made into a cape cockpit to accommodate Mom, Dad and at least two kids! The entrance to the parking lot was watched over by a 200 foot, full color statue of the Man of Steel, a Collosus of Metropolis with feet planted heroically so that visitors drove between his boots to get in! A full-sized, enlarged City of Kandor! Main Street of Superboy's hometown, Smallville! The Bizarro Playground! A Voyage to Krypton ride that deposited you in Kryptonopolis, pre-catastrophe capital of the planet complete with moving sidewalks! The Fortress of Solitude Restaurant, complete with Giant Key! Krypton's Rainbow Falls Scenic Walking Path! The Hall of Science! A movie theater that promised to show cinematic versions of Superman and company! Plus a truly Super-Market Shopping Mall! I was feverish as I visually consumed the Amazing World of Superman promotion issue our teachers had handed out, with the encouragement that we should all go there over the summer vacation and then write themes about it when we returned! See, Ma??? It's an assignment! We gotta go! Maps inside also showed where this Metropolis, IL actually was...a good drive, but not that far south of our own patch of Illinois! Plus, with the new Interstate 57 nearing completion, it would be the simplest, safest sort of trip!
Yes, indeed. Palisades Park could suck it, eternally! Because I was going to be one of myriads of 10 year olds swarming into the Amazing World of Superman in summer of 1972!
Except, I wasn't. And I didn't. And I had lots of company.
Unfortunately, the extreme oil shortage in the U.S. of the early 70's and the constant delays in the completion of I-57 running parallel to the park caused the whole project to come to an abrupt end before construction even started. Metropolis had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote the park through posters and ads, only to have the theme park, as well as all that cash, disappear as quick as a bowl of ice cream treated to a blast of heat vision. The city took almost ten years to recover.
I took almost as long.
But kids are resilient, and I managed to survive. As a teen, there was a momentary rekindling of that hopeful fire, just for an instant, when I saw my first Sea World ad displayed on the back cover of one of my regular DC reads.
Yes, Sea World of Ohio and Florida, from 1976 to 1979, paid tribute to a bevy of DC's heroes and villains with their Acrobatic Waterski Superhero Show, or Cavalcade of Comics as it was sometimes touted. The variety of characters was impressive, especially some of the fetching superheroines to my geeky, pubescent heart. Buuuuuuttttt...they were all on water skis. Doing a water ski show. It just wasn't the same as pulling the family sedan past Superman's legs to have a lunch feast in the Fortress of Solitude. At least the performers looked like they were having a good time.
Years later, I did finally visit Metropolis, IL. I was shocked at what a small town it was by then, underwhelmed by the meager statue of Superman the locals had managed to erect as if in testament to their shattered dreams, and mildly amused that they had re-named the local newspaper The Daily Planet, even though it was published only 3 days a week. I bought a little bag of green rocks peppered with glitter, the sad local tourist souvenir version of Kryptonite; it seemed an appropriate memento. Yes, dreams die hard. And sometimes, they get a swift kick as if to make certain they never stir again.
But never count a dream completely out. Or, as a favorite Commander once uttered in reverence to the Star Trek ideals, 'Never give up! Never surrender!' By the late 1970's, and thanks to the box office bonanza of Christopher Reeve's 'Superman' and 'Superman II' films, interest in Metropolis slowly, cautiously, began to build. An annual event sort of left over from the theme park fiasco, 'Superman Day', became the Annual Superman Celebration and began to draw some tourists. A modest museum filled with props from the old Superman serials, TV show and new movies appeared. Saintly Noel Neill, one of the actresses who portrayed spunky reporter Lois Lane opposite George Reeves on the small screen flew in to be a Guest of Honor many, many times. DC Comics talent...the people who wrote and drew the comics...began attending as Honored Guests as well. Then stars from the syndicated 'Superboy' TV show. Then stars and creative crew from the movies! Then stars from 'Lois & Clark' and 'Smallville'! Harrah's Casino built a lavish hotel and gaming establishment there, and Merv Griffin Enterprises even more fully embraced the town's Favorite Kryptonian Son. They also poured money into the idea, and people began to show up in droves...kids, adults, cosplayers! The town folks, with every right to be once bitten and twice shy, nonetheless funded a memorial brick walk in the famous 'S' insignia shape, paying for a huge, full color, towering Superman statue to rest before the Massac County Courthouse in the center of the town! And so the celebration continues to grow, and the statuary multiplies. A few years ago, a beautiful Lois Lane statue (looking very much like Ms. Neill and partially in tribute to her work on behalf of the town) joined the downtown scenery.
My family and I visited the Celebration that same year, and though it was hot as blazes for the second full weekend of June, when the event is always held, a ten year old version of me was very much in attendance. I spotted him in the reflection of the front window at The Superman Museum, a facility now expanded and quite filled with Super-memorabilia of all kinds. My hair was graying at the temples, my form was a lot thinner than the kid, and his bug-eyed, horn-rimmed glasses were like goggles compared to my sleek, modern spectacles. But he smiled, giving a big Clark Kent-style wink. Some childhood dreams, even when realized in a different form than anticipated, are very satisfying. And well worth the wait.