Sunday, February 17, 2019

An Update on the Man Who Wasn't Superman

In 1973, newspaper articles started turning up around the country about a Boston area man named Mayo Kaan. Kaan was an aging bodybuilder and, according to him, had been the model for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's original Superman concept. In fact, he went on, he had also gone to Hollywood as the first big screen Superman in not just one but TWO Superman movies made around 1937. He even had photos of himself in his Superman costume from back then and he looked, well...SUPER!

As the stories continued over the course of the next year or two, Kaan hit the talk shows and even a game show, all identifying himself as the very first Superman actor! A later news photo ran in the National Enquirer featuring the chubby, modern day Kaan wearing what he said was his original super suit! It still fit!

The problem, of course, lay in the fact that not one reporter who spoke with him or wrote about him ever bothered to check his story.


Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were teenagers in Cleveland who created Superman years before Kaan claims they spotted him working out in a Boston gym and asked him to model for their new hero. Neither Siegel nor Shuster had ever been to Boston.

Even given that he might have been misremembering years, there simply were no Superman movies prior to the late 1940s Kirk Alyn serials from Columbia. There was almost an early '40s serial from RKO but it was canceled. Superman's unquestionably only big screen appearances prior to Alyn were the Fleischer  studio's top notch animated cartoons.

While he certainly looked the part of the Kryptonian hero, his costume looked homemade and had no boots or shoes. Certainly that would never have been used in any professional Superman appearance.

Oh, and also, one of the buildings seen in Kaan's supposed 1930s photos wasn't built until 1940.

Kaan was denounced by those in the know as a liar and a conman. DC disavowed any knowledge of him, as did Jerry and Joe when his story was brought to their attention. The fan press attacked him and made fun of the media for just blindly accepting his tall tale.



Mark Evanier wrote in 2002, "Kaan's claim upset Siegel and Shuster, and some of us did some phoning-of press services and reporters and pretty well debunked the whole story."  He quietly slipped back into the woodwork...for a while.

Well, not locally it looks like. Here he's promoted in this 1980 Boston-area notice as "The Original Superman."

About two decades later, Kaan emerged selling colorized prints of himself in Superman garb and once again reiterating his claim as the original Man of Steel! His daughter (a former teenage ventriloquist who later married a scandal-ridden real estate investor) was said to possibly be behind the renewed push.

Again, DC issued denials but the story didn't go away this time and the Kaans undoubtedly made quite a bit of money from less knowledgable Superman fans. A newspaper article about Kaan's daughter some time after her father's death noted that even she had a large photo of her Superman dad displayed in her home.

It's easy to write the man off as a con artist but if that were the case, how did he come to have pictures of himself looking like an early Superman cosplayer? Some writers speculated that perhaps he was confused over time and was actually spotted by someone associated with the Fleischer studio when the Superman cartoons were being animated. The Fleischers famously used the rotoscope process, which required live action footage be shot to be animated over. At least one other of their models was known but maybe there were more than one. If Kaan simply shot live footage to be animated, that would explain why his Superman costume wasn't quite complete, or even quite all there. The rest would have been added in the ink and paint department.



But just as it looked like no one would ever fully know one way or another, the longtime Superman tribute site, THE ADVENTURES CONTINUE posted an update on the story the other day, with a new piece of the puzzle--a 1942 article about Kaan as Superman! In this one, there's no mention of being the inspiration for Siegel and Shuster, and the only talk of Hollywood is a claim that several major studios wanted to talk to him. Instead, he is described as a lifeguard, a physical instructor and a Vaudevillian who, because of his resemblance to Superman, was helping sell war bonds locally. His being a lifeguard even explains why there are all the kids around him in swimsuits in the one photo.


Armed with that info and a longtime subscription to Newspapers. com, I was able to come up with a couple more 1942 articles, including another Superman photo that apparently has never been on the web until now. Again, he's described as just a local guy doing his part for the war effort.


One Internet poster a few years back said he knew Kaan as a chiropractor at one point and he bragged to him on more than one occasion that he had posed for Superman in war bond ads, not for comics or movies. Apparently, somewhere along the way even that story--possibly alluding to photos like the above-- changed. 

I also found a 1964 article headlined, "Former Superman Keeps Bodies Fit" which just casually described its subject as "the movies' first Superman." Was it the reporter's mistake or did Kaan tell him this?


Interestingly, I did find some info on where Kaan was as of 1938 and 1939, and it wasn't in Hollywood.


A 1965 article on another of Mayo's daughters, a hypnotist, mentions her father by name and yet doesn't tie him to Superman in any way. Years later, in the 1990s, Mayo Kaan would be advertising himself in the classifieds as a hypnotist.


And so it seems like the mystery of Mayo Kaan may at last be solved. He was a bodybuilder and former artist's model, a lifeguard, and a one-time Vaudevillian, who made a homemade Superman suit in order to promote war bond sales to young people in and around his home town in Massachusetts for a while in 1942 before joining the Navy. Then about 20 years on, a reporter--accidentally or on purpose--referred to him as the original Superman and the story built from there. Whether or not he set out to bilk the public or just decided to take advantage of a once in a lifetime situation, he got his 15 minutes of fame...stretched out over a few decades, and either he or his family made sure we'd all remember him. 

Oh, and while Kaan's appearance on WHAT'S MY LINE? is not available his daughter's appearance is on YouTube. In case you're wondering, the family name is pronounced "KAHN" as in, The Wrath of...  

2 comments:

  1. Really interesting blog post, with some information that I knew, and some that I did not! I am one of Mayo's relatives (a cousin), and I think that your last comment -- that the name is pronounced 'CONN,' as in 'con artist' -- is a cheap shot. I have always heard the name pronounced as 'Kahn.'

    FYI, Mayo did work as a chiropractor, and he also had a health club located on Route 1 (north of Boston, in Lynnfield) for years called 'House of Health.' The building was emblazoned with a cut-out of Mayo posing as Superman.

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  2. I agree about the cheap shot. That was added after the initial post and didn't really sit well with me, either. I just deleted that part.

    Thanks for the comments.

    Best,
    Booksteve

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