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Calling Superman

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By Kim Lyons
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
 

At Klavon's Ice Cream in the Strip District, Patty Graham says she often points to the restaurant's phone booths and tells customers, "go in there, and see if you come out with an 'S' on your chest. "

She refers, of course, to what most people think they know about Superman: He changes from his Clark Kent suit and tie into his tights and cape inside a phone booth.

If he visited Pittsburgh, Superman could face a wardrobe challenge, since there just aren't that many phone booths anymore.

"Any phone booths still out there are anomalous at this point," said Willard R. Nichols, president of the American Public Communications Council. "They may have one at Grand Central Station, but as far as deployment on the street, phone booths are gone."

Nationwide, there are more than 1.3 million pay phones in operation, with about 61,000 in Pennsylvania, Nichols said, quoting Federal Communications Commission figures.

"In the last five years, we've gone down by about a million pay phones," he said.

Verizon was unable give an exact figure of how many phone booths still exist within the greater Pittsburgh area.

The largest contributing factor to the decline of the pay phone and the phone booth, Nichols said, is the proliferation of cell phones.

Phone booths aren't cost-effective, either, he said. The maintenance costs -- glass for the booth doors, for instance -- often outstrip the operating costs of the phone.

And it seems Superman didn't do much to keep the business alive. In the comics, movies and television versions, the Man of Steel rarely stepped into a phone booth.

"I think it may have only been on the television show with George Reeve," said Wayne Wise, assistant manager of Phantom of the Attic in Oakland.

A self-professed comic expert, Wise recalls the scene in the 1978 "Superman" movie with the late Christopher Reeve, where Clark Kent, in need of a quick-change, approaches a platform pay phone -- a half-booth -- sizes it up and moves on.

The real answer, of course, apparently can be found on the Internet. According to www.supermanhomepage.com , Clark Kent first used a phone booth to change into Superman in a 1941 cartoon, "The Mechanical Monsters." Clark uses the phone to call in news of a robbery to the Daily Planet, then emerges as Superman.

Still, the phone booth folklore persists, leaving Superman with few options in Pittsburgh. There's the display at Klavon's, there's one outside the VFW Post along West Liberty Avenue in Dormont, and then there's the antique wooden booths at the Carnegie Museum in Oakland.

Spokeswoman Tey Stiteler said the Carnegie's booths have functioning phones. The drawback: Superman would have to pay the $10 museum admission price to get in.

But special accommodation for Clark Kent is possible, Stiteler added. "We may have a superheroes' discount," she said.

 

 
 


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