Superman collection headed to Cleveland

by Sonja J. Keith
Mike Kemp photos

Mike Curtis of Greenbrier will soon package up his extensive collection of Superman memorabilia and ship it off to its new home in Cleveland.
Curtis, also a comic strip writer, has donated the collection – which has between 16,000 and 17,000 items – to the Cleveland Public Library to be on permanent display.

“Cleveland is where (Jerry) Siegel and (Joe) Shuster were at when they created Superman. They both went to high school there,” Curtis said. “Cleveland is starting to take its tourism seriously about Superman because they have a legitimate claim.”

Curtis, 63, recalls that his collection began when he was 4 with a Superman belt buckle he acquired by sending in two box tops from Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and 25 cents. “Things were cheap back then,” he said.

Shying away from action figures and more recent Superman items, Curtis has sought the old and different. “Most of the stuff I collect is unusual,” he said. “I get it because it is unusual.”

Among the most prized items in the collection is a rare Superman statue from the 1950s.

“I looked for that for 42 years. I’ve seen two of them in existence and I grabbed the second one,” he said. “It is one of my big pride and joys. He’s a pretty thing.”

Curtis took photos of the first statue he saw to capture all the details. He said it included an inscription for “super salesman of the year award.” He speculates they were given as awards or in special recognition.

Another mystery item in the collection is a tablecloth for a little girl’s tea set. His research has not turned up anything about the production of the item. He said the white material features blue threading and a Superman stamp that he traced to the 1940s. “It’s basically the same stamp they used on T-shirts and sweaters,” he said. “What I think happened was ‘daddy’ worked at the factory and his little girl wanted a tablecloth for her tea party set. He just got that material and asked his buddy if he would stamp it. Of course, I have no idea what it really is. You kind of have to be a detective in this business. If you collect anything, you kind of have to be.” Curtis attends collector shows and associates with others with a fondness for Superman items.

Another “great prize” for Curtis was part of a costume that “flew” with George Reeves on the TV show “Superman” in 1957. A rare item, he is uncertain of its value. He also has a George Reeves autograph, also hard to come by.

The collection has small items – like Cracker Jack prizes – to larger items – including a 35 foot square Superman made from foam core board that was displayed at the Smithsonian. He also has old comic books, including the last one where the Superman title on the cover was hand-drawn.

There are a lot of signed photos, too.

Curtis said his interest in Superman stems from the time period, comic books and the old television show which he watched while growing up in Jackson, Tenn. “My mother grew up reading comic books,” he said. “She passed on (the enjoyment of) comic books to my brother and myself.”

Beginning around age 19, Curtis began exhibiting his Superman collection, with about 10 displays set up over the years in the Conway area.

“People love to see it. I exhibit primarily for people to come see it.”

In addition to the items in his collection, he enjoys wearing clothing with the Superman logo and dressing up as the superhero (he has two uniforms made by his wife). His vehicle even bears a Superman emblem on the back and he has a stuffed Superman that rides alongside.

Those few personal items will not be going to Cleveland for now. “They’ll go when I go, I guess.”

It will take several weeks to catalog all of the items – something Curtis has never done – and package everything to be shipped to Ohio. “I know the history of every piece but I never wrote it down.”

Curtis thinks the display will be exhibited in the fall and he is scheduled to speak at the opening. He will also serve as a consultant for the library.

He is happy that the collection has found a good home and is looking forward to the opening.

“This way, people into the next century and beyond can see it. That was always the idea, so people could see these rare and unusual items.”

Curtis would like for those who see the exhibit in Cleveland to take away the same thing that he hopes they get from the current Superman movie.

“Superman does good. That’s what he does. He does good things for people. He makes a good hero.”