Who Played Superman at the World’s Fair?
At Comic-Con, a few people asked me “So what do you think of the World’s Fair controversy???” I had no idea what it was (hey, I’ve been busy). After being filled in by Mike Catron, I think I’ve traced it back here to a guy named “Nostalgia King” who asked: “Q. How was Ray Middleton found to play Superman?”
What NK is talking about is Superman Day at the 1940 World’s Fair (more here on the Fair and the terrorist bombing that followed), where someone dressed up like Superman for a big, crazy parade that marked (I think) the beginning of Superman as franchise.
The newspaper accounts (and later media coverage) of who the actor was have always been deliberately mysterious and smack of hype: by not providing a name, the thought could lodge in all those kids’ minds You don’t think…….naahhh. But since the mid-seventies when someone wrote into DC and identified the guy as Ray MIddleton (a Broadway star), the association stuck. Like much of Superman history — somebody says something once and it mysteriously turns into fact. So that’s the great lesson of this whole mini-controversy (Raygate?) — don’t take anything for granted. I said it was Ray in the book. Was I wrong? Was it Ray or someone else?
Legendary comics/TV historian Mark Evanier recently weighed in on it (he thinks it was Middleton) and Steven Thompson continues to collate much of the discussion and evidence in an effort to reach a definitive conclusion. They both have good photos, dead-ends, and other ideas.
The arguments against Middleton are a) he was a judge in the Superboy/Supergirl contest (also part of the festivities) so he couldn’t be in two places at once, b) the Superman guy parts his hair on the other side, and c) they don’t look alike (see b.)
First off — does this whole question matter? Clearly, National and Duke Ducovny (who promoted the Fair event) wanted it to be mysterious. As I write in the book, this is where they saw how big this character in a cape could get. When you watch the movies, you can really see and feel this firsthand. It was the kids leading Superman, not the other way around.
For a), the parade and contest were separated by several hours so he definitely could be in both places at once. The following question then of why Middleton? is because he was already there. He was part of the big American Jubilee patriotic extravaganza at the Fair. His main role was of Abraham Lincoln. During the show, he would appear in the actual carriage (allegedly) that Lincoln rode to Ford’s Theater. This is Ray as the Great Emancipator:
The other celebrity judges of the Superboy/Supergirl contest (which also erupted in soccer mom controversy — see the book) were also already at the Fair in other roles. The better choice for Superman might have been Johnny Weissmuller, who I argue in the book was a physical model for Superman. But whether Johnny was too expensive, busy at the Aquacade (more likely), or too famous for what they wanted to accomplish (a very interesting possibility), they went with Ray.
For b) and c), I found another photo that is much closer in terms of POV. Both of these photos were taken on the very same day, a few hours apart.
So what do you think? I see them as the same person, but I am not using any kind of ultraviolet forensic technique other than the gut test. The obvious difference is the hair part, but that is easily changed, especially if they were trying to keep his identity mysterious — you couldn’t have the judge looking exactly like Superman. Though it is worth pointing out that in the 1940 comics, Superman did part his hair on the left. Still: look at how messy Ray’s hair is on the right — almost as if it was a victim of a recent restyling.
I sort of can’t believe I wrote that last sentence. But this is what history is sometimes.
My last bit of evidence is that I checked into the official Ray Middleton papers, which are housed at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center. Assistant reference archivist Rachael Dreyer had this to report to Superman Nation:
Thank you for your patience as I researched your request regarding Ray Middleton’s 1940 World’s Fair appearance as Superman. I reviewed all of the boxes that contained newspaper clippings, publicity materials, and scrapbooks, as well as a box that appeared to contain correspondence from the early 1940s.
Unfortunately, the only materials that were related to the World’s Fair were programs that pertained to the show “American Jubilee,” which ran during the New York World’s Fair. Middleton is listed as a performer and the songs he sang appeared in print as well, but nothing about his Superman appearance or roles at the Fair. Once of the scrapbooks alluded to Middleton being awarded the “male leading role,” but did not give specifics as to what this role might have been.
So what was that “male leading role?” Maybe it’s more interesting if we don’t know for sure. Though if Ducovny and National were looking at head shots trying to find their Superman, it is easy to see them going for Ray Middleton’s:This whole discussion has also brought the home movies back into larger discussion. I’ve had a lot of people asking about them and have been thinking about posting them. Check back soon maybe.