Show Business: Up, Up and Awaaay!!!

America's favorite hero turns 50, ever changing but indestructible

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Today, of course, Superman is an institution. After a half-century of crime- busting adventures in Action Comics and Superman Comics (as well as in some 250 newspapers), 13 years of radio shows, three novels, 17 animated cartoons, two movie serials of 15 installments each, a TV series of 104 episodes, a second animated-cartoon series of 69 parts, a Broadway musical and five feature films (not to mention a hoorah of shows featuring Superboy, Supergirl and even Krypto, the Superdog; not to mention, for that matter, a plunder of spin-offs and by-products: Superman T shirts, Superman rings, Superman bed sheets), the man of steel is now, well, unique.

"He is our myth, the American myth," says Screenwriter David Newman, who collaborated on the Broadway musical and three of the films. "When we first started writing Superman I, some friends said, 'What are you doing that for?' And I said, 'If I were an English screenwriter and I were writing about King Arthur, you wouldn't be asking that.' " John Byrne, who actually is an English-born writer but now turns out the monthly scripts and drawings for the Superman comic books, calls his hero the "ultimate American success story -- a foreigner who comes to America, and is more successful here than he would ever be anywhere else." But though Superman lives in America (mainly), he is a hero all over the world. One admirer, Science-Fiction Writer Harlan Ellison, has estimated that there are only five fictional creations known in practically every part of the earth: Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Mickey Mouse, Robin Hood and Superman.

So, bravo! Bravissimo! For last week the man of steel celebrated the grand milestone of his 50th birthday. Technically, it was not exactly the occasion of his birth, for April 1938 was when he made his debut on the cover of the first issue (dated June) of Action Comics. If he was then about 25, as he looked, he would actually now be 75, his superbody weak and weary, his X-ray vision dimmed. But since he still looks about 25, he can be said to be timeless, immortal. And although nobody is sure exactly how old he is, there is a tradition that his birthday falls on Feb. 29 (the leap-year day appropriate to Lois Lane's repeated efforts to get him to marry her).

CBS broadcast a prime-time special on the great day, and DC Comics rented part of Manhattan's Puck Building to throw a big party; several thousand fans came to watch favorite film clips, buy balloons and nibble on birthday cake. The observances will continue throughout the year, starting with the anniversary of Action Comics next month. The Smithsonian's exhibition of Supermanobilia will run until June in Washington. In Metropolis, Ill., they are refurbishing for summer visitors the large statue that proclaims the dubious proposition that this is "Superman's hometown." And in Cleveland, which really is Superman's hometown, a booster club that calls itself the Neverending Battle is planning an international Superman exhibition and a ticker-tape parade down Euclid Avenue in June.

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