Less than a year after the United States dropped the first atomic bombs on Japan, young listeners to “The Adventures of Superman” radio serial heard of another dictatorship’s threat to destroy American cities with 100 planes loaded with atom bombs.
But most of the summer 1946 14-day story had little to do with the Man of Steel zooming to the rescue in his blue suit and red cape. As was often the case in the radio series, the comic-strip-like daily serial featured reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane tracking down a story, in this case with the assistance of a Daily Planet country correspondent (and correspondence-school detective) named Horatio Horn, as well as Planet editor Perry White.
Here the reporters are, in episode 11 of 14 of “Horatio F. Horn, Detective,” facing a mystery-in-a-mystery…
Not only is there a lot of shoe-leather reporting in the story, The Daily Planet newspaper itself plays a central role in solving a mystery, reminding us that the Golden Age of Radio was also a golden age for newspapers, when a subscription to the local daily even seemed part of being an American.
— At this point, if you want to avoid “spoilers,” go listen to all 14 episodes of the radio story, in the Internet Archive collection of Superman episodes. (The fast-forward button on your MP3 player may come in handy with the two minutes of Kellogg’s Pep commercials and announcements at the beginning of each 15-minute program, and another minute at the end. That way the whole story takes a little under three hours.) See the link here or at the bottom of this page.
A Newspaper Quiz
An immigrant family’s reliance on newspaper for news and entertainment was a key in the solution to this July 1946 Adventures of Superman mystery. With a nuclear attack on America hanging in the balance, Clark Kent, reporter, had gone through a series of “expert sources” at university foreign language departments, trying to decipher the only clue in the kidnapping of the nation’s leading atomic scientist.
Between their Kellogg’s Pep commercials, young listeners to the daily radio series — itself modeled on a newspaper comic strip — would have followed the dogged Daily Planet reporters and learned together about linguistic research specialties like philology and etymology, as Kent and his friends interviewed experts from university to university and pored through reference books… while the physics professor held out against torturers in a distant land.
In episodes 11 through 14, the reporters’ word-mystery alternates with the scientist’s ordeal at the hands of his captors’ in that mysterious foreign land. (For the first 10 episodes, the mystery had been his disappearance and abduction.)
In the 11th of 14 episodes, Horatio F. Horn, Daily Planet correspondent, corroborated by reporter Lois Lane, remembers overhearing the kidnapper Carlos berating his driver as “a fool, an idiot, and a zaluto” for letting them escape. It is their first clue to his home country.
Have you forgotten you’re a newspaperwoman, Lois?
First step: Research!
Lois: “It must be a word of his language, so if we can trace that, Clark…”
Kent: “Let’s get going. We’ll get ahold of all the foreign language dictionaries and hunt through them…”
Lois: “Wait a minute, where are we going to find foreign language dictionaries at this hour. It’s a quarter to six in the morning.”
Kent: “So what! Have you forgotten you’re a newspaperwoman, Lois? We’ll go see Charlie Sims at the New Orleans Times; he’ll let us in their library.”
And quite the pre-Internet research library the newspaper has! The three reporters scour books from the Balkans, middle European countries, the Far East, Central and South American, before something dawns on them.
“‘Zaluto’ may be idiomatic,” Kent tells the group, “… in pretty general use in the country, but not accepted as a standard part of the language…
“Like ‘groovy’ or ‘dreamboat,’a lot of our youngsters use those words all the time, but you won’t find them in our dictionaries.”
That sends them off to a philologist, who eventually recommends an etymologist. But even he can’t figure out the origins of the word “zaluto.”
That’s when a virtual lightbulb goes on over Kent’s head, and he races to editor Perry White with an idea for a newspaper “Define-the-Word” contest. In the nation’s largest city of immigrants, maybe someone will recognize the word from their small foreign country! And he’s right, although there are a few complications before the contest winner arrives at the editor’s office, and Superman zooms off to battle a fleet of nuclear bombers.
The contest does reach a man who knows the local slang word from his country. He and his wife are dedicated Daily Planet readers. He is chuckling over the “Mutt & Jeff” cartoon in his first scene in the story. (I wonder if “Mutt & Jeff” and “Superman” comic strips had the same distributor!) But the newspaper’s generous — for 1946 — $100 prize for anyone identifying the word distracts him from both the news and the comics.
All 14 of the episodes in “Horatio F. Horn, detective” can be streamed or downloaded from Page 9 of the 15-page Superman collection at the Internet Archive.
Episode 13 has the Zaluto solution
Episode 14 has a colorful description of Superman’s attack on the nuclear bombers, ending with — as was always the case — the start of new adventure.
And here’s a Super Bonus … that Page 9 of the Internet Archive collection also has the full sets of a some other 1946 Adventures of Superman, including two of his biggest Post-World-War-II battles against hatred and intolerance at home, “The Hate Mongers Association” and “The Klan of the Fiery Cross,” both of which I’ve written about in the past.