Bob Holiday, Broadway's First Superman
Bob Holiday's Publicity Portfolio

The Definitive History of SUPERMAN

Bob Holiday's Interview with Larry Tye

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In 2009, renowned author Larry Tye reached out to Bob Holiday and asked to interview him. Mr. Tye was embarking upon writing the definitive history of Superman. As this was about two years after Bob’s open heart surgery, Bob no longer had the strength to do live interviews. We asked Mr. Tye to submit his questions and that Bob would return written answers. I enjoyed working with Bob on this, and Bob invited me to share my perspective as a fan of the show.

Mr. Tye did a good job of researching outside references like reviews of the show interviewing all the principals. He also worked in more than a bit of Bob’s perspective. Out of three hundred pages of prose, Larry Tye gave his readers a five-page taste of Broadway’s Superman. Like many who report the history of the show, he failed to understand just how exciting the production was. Nonetheless, his book is a great read for any Superman fan, and is still available on Amazon.

And now, the January 28, 2009, interview!

Book Cover

Larry Tye (LT): I understand that you were a Superman fan from the start, dating back to the Kirk Alyn era. What was it that drew you to Superman? What did you like best about Alyn’s portrayal of him? Were you also a reader of Superman comic books and strips?
      Bob Holiday (BH): My first exposure to Superman was through the Kirk Alyn movies. I was just a kid, and Kirk was my hero. He drew me to the character. I also read the comics and loved them. When I auditioned for Superman, I felt like I had to get the part because I was a true Superman fan. My mother was sure I’d do a good job because she knew how much I looked up to Superman.

LT: What was it like auditioning for the part with Harold Prince?
      BH: I’d worked with Hal before on Fiorello! and in fact I’d been in touch with Hal’s casting director shortly before auditions for Superman were announced. While she wouldn’t let me in on what Hal would be doing next, she did promise she’d call me. Well, before I got that call, I saw the ad for the auditions. I knew this was my moment. Anyone who’d loved Superman as much as I did had to have a shot at the role. And when I read the physical requirements, you would have thought they’d pre-measured me for the role. I couldn’t wait for the try outs. I knew I had to do my best.

      I’ve heard that fifty different guys auditioned for the Superman, although I never saw that many. Right up until the end, I didn’t know whether they’d choose me. But driving me along was the gut feeling that I could be Superman. I knew I’d treat the role right.

Toni Collins (TC): Bob may have felt more anxiety about getting the role than he needed to. Charles Strouse (Put On A Happy Face, Sterling Publishing, 2008, pg 170) recounted the following:

"It was casting the role of Superman himself that proved to be the biggest challenge. He had to be tall, dark, and handsome, look good in tights, and have the muscular physique so familiar to comic book readers (these were the days before everyone went to the gym).

Not to mention, he had to sing, act, and fly.

He also needed to possess an innocent, naïve quality that would make us believe him when he sang about his job of 'Doing Good.' We couldn’t think he was campy in any way. Hal suggested Bob Holiday, who had been in Fiorello! He proved to have just the right qualities."

In the February, 1990, issue of Comics Scene, Lee Adams, lyricist for the show, recalled that the first guy to walk into the auditions for Superman was Bob Holiday.

"He was 6’ 4”, handsome, black hair, good singer, … a perfect Superman. We kept auditioning, saying, you know, he was too good to be true. And finally, we came back to the first guy who walked onto that stage…. He was terrific, wonderful. After the show, he would stay in his cape and sign autographs for kids backstage."

On a personal note, I have to say that no one has ever done a better job being Superman. Apart from Bob’s performance on stage, which was excellent, he maintained the integrity of the character even when he was off stage. The souvenir program sold at the theatre quoted Bob as saying, “I love the part of Supes…. The thing I enjoy most about being in the show is the kids.” He respected his fans in 1966, and he remembers them with great fondness even today.

Because of my work on Bob’s website, I’ve made contact with a handful of “Superman Kids” who saw the show in 1966. Bob Holiday made a lasting impact on them, so much so that 40 years later they still remember him as a great man. My own brother, when he heard that I’d made contact with Bob, immediately said, “He was so nice to us. He shook my hand and everything.” That’s the memory of an eight-year old boy who was wowed by the sight and kindness of Superman.

LT: What kind of training did you do to stay in shape for the role? Weight-lifting? Protein shakes? What else? You already were in great shape, but did you build on that?
      BH:I took the physical training for the role very seriously. Yeah, I drank 1960’s protein drinks with wheat germ and raw eggs. Now I don’t know how healthy those are, but that’s what you did then. And I’d already been working out at a gym regularly. I made sure to hit the weights every other day all through the run of the show. It paid off in a big way. One day, the shackle on my flying harness broke, and I fell 6 feet onto the stage. I bounced right back up, turned to the audience and said, “That would have hurt any mortal man.” I got a standing ovation.

LT: Any stories about flying? Were you using suspension cables? Did you ever fall? I heard one story about Jack Cassidy asking you to mail a letter as you were taking off, would love to hear the real version.
      BH: Hal brought in Flying by Foy, who’d flown Mary Martin in Peter Pan. They said I was their toughest “fly” to date – they were used to little dancers who would jump into the flight. I would clue them to start the lift by saying, “Up, Up, and Away!” but there was no cute little plié from me. I was Superman—I just flew. Actually, one guy would jump off a platform to lift me, and another guy would walk across the stage to give me forward movement. I just had to hold my arms legs in the right “flying pose.” It was a pretty neat system.
      Not a lot went wrong with the flying. Besides the 6-foot fall, we once had a stagehand lose control of the wire when he was supposed to be attaching it to my harness. It swung right into the middle of the stage. I just said, “Excuse me” to the audience, walked calmly across the stage to retrieve it, and handed it back to the stagehand. Again, the audience loved it. They absolutely roared when I finally did get airborne.
      Jack Cassidy and I had a great time together during the run of the show. We were always trying to upstage each other. Hal had me playing with milk and cookies at Clark Kent’s desk during Jack’s big scenes. It drove Jack nuts, but he couldn’t argue with Hal. Then one night during curtain calls, he decided it was time to get me back. As I called out, “Up, Up, and Away” and started to lift, Jack stuck out his hand with a white envelope and said, “Hey, Supes! Would you mail this for me?” I’m not sure which of us “won” that round, because sure enough, I managed to grab that envelope as I sailed over Jack’s head.

LT: What were the fans like? Did kids want to test your strength and powers? Would be great to hear any stories you remember.
      I absolutely loved the kids. I got permission to invite all the kids backstage after each matinee. They’d punch me, we’d joke back and forth, and I’d sign autographs. It was great to actually BE Superman for those kids. Remembering their little faces staring up at me is still one of my greatest memories. This was why I loved doing the show.

TC: Here’s another story from Bert Gibbs who saw the show when he was eight years old.

"My mother took me to see "It's a Bird It's a Plane It's Superman©" because I was a huge Jack Cassidy fan. Ma and I went backstage to get Bob Holiday’s autograph. Just as he was signing my program, my mom took a photo. The flash obviously startled Mr. Holiday. 'Ma!' I said. 'Why did you use the Kryptonite flash bulb?' Mr. Holiday took it all in good stride."

To this day, Bert Gibbs remains a huge fan of Bob Holiday, even though it was Jack Cassidy who drew him to see the show. Such was the charisma of Bob Holiday as Superman.

Interestingly enough, Bert and I shared the same reaction to Superman singing “The Strongest Man in the World.” Superman is alone in his apartment, crushed that the people of Metropolis have turned against him. As Superman sang, “Why must the strongest man in the world, be the saddest man, tell me why?” my little eleven-year old heart broke and Bert said he was actually in tears himself. The extant reviews from 1966 talk about how solid a performance Bob gave as Superman and how funny he was, but none seem to recognize that he also captured our hearts out there in the audience

LT: What was it like being on with Steve Allen? Johnny Carson? Were you ready to fly into Giants Stadium?
      BH: I had a blast doing I’ve Got a Secret with Steve Allen. Bill Cullen fed me some of the greatest straight lines ever. It was a kick to get him to crack up. And I loved flirting with form Miss America Bess Meyerson. Steve Allen himself was great. The “fly boys” took great advantage of Steve’s good nature and hung him up in the air forever, swinging him across the stage “like a provolone.” What could he do?
      Appearing on Johnny Carson was one of the highlights of my performing career. He was such a pro. I gave him a little box with a Superman spit curl in it, and he played with it like it was the secret to Superman’s strength. He even jumped up on his desk and acted like he was going to fly. What a guy. I sang a number from Camelot after the laughs died down, and the audience reaction was marvelous. What a night.
      And Giants Stadium was a great story. I’m a life-long Giants fan, and I thought it would be a blast to fly into the stadium. I thought it might generate a little publicity for them to have Superman, and it wouldn’t have been bad for the show, either. I got it cleared with our flying crew, and we were ready to go. Giants Stadium very nicely turned me down, but thanked me for wanting to. It’s kind of funny that I actually got to fly into stadiums in Kansas City and St. Louis when the show was revived in 1967. Those were great. Wish I could have added the Giants to that list.

LT: Was it a shock to learn the show was closing? How did you learn? Why did it close? Could it have been a long-running hit on Broadway?
      BH: Boy, that was tough. We felt like we had all the right pieces, a great cast who got along well, marvelous audience reaction, and an upbeat show with hit music. I’d had a few moments when I worried that the show wasn’t focusing on Superman enough, but I never said anything because I didn’t want to rock the boat.
      I think a lot of different factors came into play. Superman had been two years in pre-production, so it was a shock when Batman appeared on TV just before we hit Broadway. We had some heavy competition all around us like Sweet Charity and Mame. I think that people assumed we’d be just like Batman, so why pay for tickets?
      Around June, we started to notice that ticket sales were falling off. Hal Prince worked hard to keep us upbeat, and he also added another matinee. The final blow came when we all got letters from the General Manager announcing the final performance. We didn’t know what had hit us.
      After the show closed, I asked Hal Prince if he thought I could have done anything different. He said he didn’t think so, that somehow this just wasn’t the right time for this show.
      What’s great is that interest in the show has lasted for forty years. There were two revivals the very next year, and you still have schools and professional companies staging it all the time. And I still hear from fans. Some of them saw the show, and others loved it just listening to the cast album. Now that we’ve got the Internet, I hear from people all the time. I’m so proud to have been a part of something so long lasting.

LT: What was it like taking the production on the road to St. Louis and Kansas City? Any stories from those shows?
      BH: First, it was great to be playing Superman again. I was the only original cast member to be cast in these revivals, so the dynamics were a bit different. But these new actors and actresses were great to work with. We had a lot of fun.
      For these shows, there were a lot of community opportunities. It was great. I went to a children’s hospital to meet the kids there. What a thrill. I loved letting kids meet Superman. There were other publicity events, but I always liked the ones with kids the best.
      The revivals were held in open air theaters, so we had to change the way I flew. They hooked me up to a crane and swooped me in over the audience. I guess I was lucky the harness never broke in these shows. The other funny thing they did was to line up a bunch of kids twirling hula hoops at the end of the first act. I still don’t get that.
      By the way, we’re also hoping to find someone who might have made a home movie at one of these shows. Right now, we only have a few still photos from these revivals.

Back of Book

LT: How did playing Superman affect your ability to land TV gigs and other acting roles? Were people reluctant to consider you for non-Superman parts? Did it help or hurt your career? Any regrets about playing the role?
      BH: I don’t think that the supposed “Superman Curse” hit me at all. Broadway roles don’t define you the way TV used to. I think George Reeves and Jack Larson suffered from that way more than I did. In fact, I think having held a lead role on Broadway opened some doors for me. No one type cast me as Superman forevermore.
      Show business is a tough business. Eventually, I got tired of being on the road all the time and I decided to settle down. This let me be in charge of my own life and my own destiny.
      But no, I don’t regret playing Superman for one minute. It was a tremendous honor. It’s still a kick to let people know that I was the Man of Steel. My doctor even hangs a picture of me in his office so that all his patients know he fixed Superman up right.

LT: Were you consulted over the years by anyone else who played Superman on TV or in the movies? Did you consult any of your predecessors for tips?
      BH: I had to listen to my director and the way he wanted me to play the part. Hal told me to play Superman straight without any camp. Beyond that, he let me do what I wanted to do. Hal had a lot of respect for us as actors. That’s why Jack could get away with the envelope gag. It brought a lot of energy to the show.
      Superman on stage had to be played different from a movie or TV. And I was only the third actor to play Superman in person. By the time we did the show, Reeves had died, and it wouldn’t be easy to find Kirk Alyn. In 2007, a couple different revivals got in touch with me. It was a blast to talk about the role again.

LT: How did you balance the Clark v Superman split? Did you change your voice, the way you carried yourself, anything else? Which of the two roles was your favorite?
      BH: My favorite? You can’t really separate the two roles. When I looked like Clark Kent, I was still really Superman who was acting like Clark Kent. You can’t drop Superman—he’s playing Clark. And you have to let the audience know that all the time. You don’t pull Superman off and put Kent on, they’re on at the same time. I changed my voice, I carried myself a little different, but it’s still Superman on the stage. When Clark’s on the stage, this is the little secret going on between you and the audience.
      You know, I felt a lot of support from Hal Prince. He recognized how tough it was to pull off the two characters, and he was livid that they didn’t put me up for a Tony Award. But in the long run, it’s the fans of the show who have given me the greatest rewards. Knowing that there are folks out there who still love this show is better than any Tony Award could be.

TC: You might want to visit Judy Harris’s web site. She loved the Philadelphia preview so much that she trekked into New York to see the Broadway version. When she shared some of her memories with Bob, she wrote the following:

"I can't stress enough how perfect Bob Holiday was as both Clark Kent and Superman. It fell to him to perform the first musical number, "Doing Good," and he just so exactly embodied the reverse transformation from Superman back to the much meeker, less confident newspaper reporter; it made the whole show believable."

That's it for the interview. While Larry Tye's documentation of "It's a Bird It's a Plane It's Superman©" is well-researched, it was a disappointment to discover that he failed to appreciate three different fans' love of the show and to explore our reactions. And, perhaps, that's the unfortunate part of the legacy of "It's a Bird It's a Plane It's Superman©". People who never saw the show, whether in 1966 or 2023, just didn't know what they were missing.

Text © 2009 and 2023, Larry Tye, Bob Holiday, and Toni Collins
Photos courtesy the Estate of Bob Holiday and personal collection of Toni Collins
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