Legacy Of A Super Man

I first saw him on Hollywood Boulevard as I drove by one day late in the fall of 2000. From head to toe, he was the perfect Superman, decked out in the familiar blue leotard, red boots and billowing red cape. Even the little curl of teased jet-black hair on his forehead was impeccable.

I did a double-take that almost sent me into a lamp post.

“My GOD honey, did you see that guy dressed up as Superman? He’s a dead-ringer for Christopher Reeve!” Dorian had seen him too, and agreed. We even went around the block and cruised by again for a better look.

Christopher Reeve in “Superman II,” 1980

Christopher Dennis and Margot Kidder/Photo courtesy of Bonnie Dennis

We had just moved down from Ashland Oregon and had settled into an apartment building on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, a 2-bedroom that proved to be too costly for us and we kept falling behind on rent. After a few months the disgruntled building owner presented an offer:

“Look pal, I’ll make you a deal. I have another building closer to Hollywood Boulevard that would be more affordable for you. A 1-bedroom unit just came up, so if you want to move over there soon, I’ll let you without a hitch.”

It was a pretty nice offer, so we took it right away. By the weekend we had moved, and the dust had just settled when I stepped out the door of our new place one day, to encounter that same Superman, coming right at me.

We were on the second floor and all of the units were open to the outdoors, with no hallways in this building. To get to our place you would come up a stairway at the front and walk down a second-floor walkway, and we were down on the end in the back.

I was just closing the door behind me when I saw him coming, walking along that elevated walkway with the red cape flowing behind him, looking just as he did on the boulevard several months earlier.

I could swear I heard the Superman theme music playing as an accompaniment to his confident stride, and I was wondering where the opening credits were.

I had driven by him many times by then, but never stopped to say hello. He was often right in front of the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and seemed to always have a handful of other comic book characters and assorted actor impersonators around him.

I couldn’t figure out what they were doing, but they always seemed to be posing for photos with tourists, shaking hands and autographing things, so I guessed they must be employed to do that, but I had no idea if the theater paid them or the city of Hollywood.

This pseudo Superman was walking right towards me, having pulled a set of keys out of somewhere on the costume, and he seemed to be heading to the apartment next to ours. He must have seen the look on my face, because it brought a smile to his. I’m sure I was a deer in the headlights at that moment.

“Greetings new neighbor!” He extended a hand for a shake, and as I accepted I made a crack about hoping he wouldn’t shake my hand too hard and crush it to dust.

“No worries there, citizen, I only crush the bad guys when they deserve it!”

He did have a pretty firm handshake, but it was a mortal firmness that I found to be quite friendly, as was his entire demeanor.

“Say, if you’re not too anxious to run off, neighbor, why not step in for a moment and meet my wife?”

So far, I had learned that not only did Superman live right next door to me, but he was married. Perhaps I was about to meet Lois Lane too!

Also, he spoke in old-tyme colloquialisms like “Say…”

This was too much. I asked him to wait a second while I got my own wife in on this, so I fumbled for my key, opened the door and asked Dorian to please come out front because I wanted her to meet someone.

The look on her face showed me that she hadn’t expected to meet Superman either, and she was delighted. We closed our own door and stepped into his fortress of semi-solitude, finding a young woman sitting on the sofa watching something on TV.

She snapped it off when he announced, “Honey, we have some visitors, this is, uh… sorry, I didn’t get your names?” Introductions were passed around and we learned that he was Chris, but not Reeve, and she was Bonnie, but not Lois Lane.

We were invited to sit and neither of us could take our eyes off the walls, which were covered from floor to ceiling with Superman memorabilia and collectibles. It was an absolutely astounding collection that I would have guessed took years to accumulate and must be worth a fortune.

I like to state the obvious, so I asked, “Um, Chris, I guess you’re a bit into Superman?” He laughed, as did Bonnie. He finally dropped the character and became himself once inside his home, and he called me Dave instead of “citizen.’ He was a pretty friendly and engaging dude, and we had a lively chat with the two of them.

In that first bit of socializing we learned the following:

He and Bonnie were indeed the ultimate Superman fans. This did not come as a surprise, given the way he was dressed and the incredibly detailed decor of his apartment. They had actually gotten married at the ‘SuperMuseum’ in Metropolis, Illinois, ‘The Home of Superman.’  (YES citizen, there really is such a thing!)

He used to wait tables while trying to crack Hollywood and make it into the movies, the age-old story of the Hollywood struggle shared by thousands of people before him. Customers kept telling him how much he resembled actor Christopher Reeve, so he got himself a Superman outfit, dyed his hair and curled it just right, and found that he could make do pretty well by posing for photos with tourists on Hollywood Boulevard.

By the time we met him he’d been at it for over a decade and had recruited all the other characters I’d seen with him in the few months we’d been in LA.

He’d long since quit waiting tables, and he was able to pay his rent by that time solely on the tips he’d generate every day. He even wanted to recruit me by trying to figure out if there was a character I would fit, but I already had a decent job I’d been working for a few months, plus I was getting a lot of gigs as an ‘extra’ in film and TV by that time.

I learned during our conversation that no one employed the characters on the boulevard, they just stuck to a handful of rules and took home tips every day. Primarily they were required to stay on the public sidewalk and not private property, and they were not allowed to request tips or any kind of payment for posing with people in their photos. They could say, “We gladly accept any tips you might be kind enough to offer.” That was the appropriate catch-phrase, and Chris held to it tenaciously.

He was sort of the ringmaster for the whole operation and often chided his fellow characters when they’d get out of line. “If you make yourself look bad, it makes us all look bad,” he’d say.

A month or two had passed since we met he and Bonnie, and I ran an idea by Chris that I thought he might have fun with. When I presented my idea he laughed and said, ‘That sounds super!”

He was always saying “Super!” when in costume, thus in character. If someone asked him on the boulevard how he was, he’d reply, “I’m super! How about you?”

For my idea we were going to go for a ride in my Miata with the top down, because as usual, the weather in LA was really nice. I set a time to meet Chris on the boulevard while he was doing his tips for photos gig, and I had gotten my Miata out of our parking garage and brought it around to the front of Grauman’s Chinese, tooting the horn.

I had borrowed a chauffeur’s cap from somewhere and wore a dark blue blazer, and when Chris saw me pull up he announced to the tourists gathered around him, “My ride’s here good citizens, I must take my leave of you for the time being. You’ll be in good hands with Wonder Woman and Spiderman who will remain here.”

Then he climbed into the passenger seat of my Miata without opening the door. He was 6’4’’ so that wasn’t difficult for him at all, and as he spread his cape out over the rear of the car someone shouted out the obvious question, “Hey Superman, why do you need a chauffeur? Why don’t you just fly where you need to go?”

He pointed upward and replied, “My friend, Los Angeles is a no-fly zone and I obey all local ordinances.” Masterful!

We zipped off and turned a lot of heads for the next 45 minutes. The entire idea was to drive around LA in that Miata with the top down and Superman in the passenger seat, his cape billowing behind him and a dude (me) dressed as a chauffeur, with mirrored shades and a proper cap.

As we were doing this, I could hear a hypothetical conversation play out in my head:

Person #1: “Hey, welcome back, how was your trip to LA?”

Person #2: “It was SO BIZARRE!”

Person #1: “Oh? How so?”

Person #2: :Get this… we were driving on the 101 and suddenly, Janie says, ‘Mom, Dad, LOOK!’ So we did, and damned if there isn’t a 2002 Miata creeping up alongside us with the top down, doing about sixty, being driven by a chauffeur, and in the passenger seat is Superman, with his big red cape flapping behind him… and he’s smiling and waving at the kids while giving us a thumbs-up!”

Person #1 “Wait, what? Superman? What was he doing in a Miata, for god’s sake, why didn’t he just fly?”

Person #2 (Shrugs) “Beats me.”

We hit the freeway and cruised the 101 over to Universal Studios, driving around the perimeter of the lot, then through Studio City along Santa Monica Blvd. and back to Hollywood.

A lot of people took our picture and each time we saw a camera pointed at us, Chris would give a thumbs-up to them as I tried my best to look stoic and professional. Sadly, I haven’t a single photo from this event and nothing comes up on a Google search. Since nearly a hundred people took photos of us, there must be something out there. If you happen to be one of those people and you happen to read this someday, please get in touch with me.

After a year or so I left the position I was working in Hollywood, so Dorian and I moved down to Orange County to be closer to my new job. Chris helped us move, and I admit I was a bit disappointed when he showed up the morning of moving day dressed as an ordinary citizen. I just wanted to be able to tell people afterward that ‘Superman helped me move, but it still took darned near all day.’

I saw Chris only a few times after that, and we left the area entirely by 2007, moving out to the desert near Palm Springs. We’d stayed Facebook friends and last connected one day when I had to take a trip to the coast to pick up Dorian and bring her home. My journey took me straight through Hollywood so I jumped off the freeway and hit the boulevard, connecting with Chris over a whopper and fries at Burger King.

He seemed in good spirits, but I didn’t see Bonnie that day because I had taken Chris out of his boulevard hustle to go grab lunch for about an hour, and after we had a nice talk, he had to get back to it and I had to get down to Dorian to eventually get us home by midnight, so that was that.

I like the fact that I left him well and brimming with hope, and I’m thankful that’s the final memory I have of him in person. On the other hand, I’m greatly saddened that his life took a turn for the worse a handful of years later.

Dorian and I made another move, this time to San Francisco, and we’ve now been here since 2010. Anything I knew of Chris after that came in bits and pieces in online chats over the next few years.

I learned of a drug addiction I had no idea about previously, and at some point Bonnie had enough and they split up. She moved out of state and he wrestled with bouts of homelessness and despair.

I read snippets of stories regarding his deterioration, but I was now over 300 miles North of him, so all I could offer were encouraging words, which seldom got a reply. I’ve had other friends who’ve tussled with the meth monster, and although that seemed to be his drug of choice, so I heard, in reality it turned out to be his personal kryptonite.

The sad truth of the Superman legend was playing out. That truth is, the actual character of Superman is entirely the work of a teenager’s active imagination, and he doesn’t really exist in our world. The actors who’ve portrayed him, from Christopher Reeve to my neighbor and friend, Chris Dennis, are all terribly mortal.

The character was invented by two Ohio teenagers in the 1930s, Jerry Siegel and his artist pal Joe Shuster, who drew the first concept of a bullet-proof superhero in a costume who would swoop down and save the day.

One story has it that the two boys had invented a superhero to impress girls at their highschool, but another story has come to light that Siegel’s father was murdered in his Cleveland clothing store during a 1932 robbery, and Siegel invented the character as a response, wishing that a magnificent superhero would have come along to save his father on that fateful day.

Either way, Superman was invented as a wish, from the minds of two creative teen boys, and all that immortality, incredible speed, unspeakable strength, and bullets bouncing off his chest didn’t actually exist at all, and never will.

Chris was painfully mortal, much like his mentor and idol, Christopher Reeve, who had suffered a horrible accident in 1995, having been thrown from his horse during an equestrian event and rendered a quadriplegic for the remainder of his life. Reeve eventually died in 2004 from complications of that tragedy, showing how very human he actually was.

Of course we knew that both men were actors, but they were portraying more than just a character, they were portraying hope for a better world, showing that maybe we can battle the bad things that plague us by somehow conjuring up the latent superhero we all have inside.

Like so many of his friends, I look back and wish I could have been some kind of a superhero for Chris, swooping in to save the day when he was savagely beaten and robbed of hundreds of dollars and his laptop.

I lament that I lacked the superpower that was needed to take away his drug addiction and help him land on his feet as a productive citizen once again, so he could continue bringing smiles to the miles of tourists and their children on the boulevard everyday.

But if I could only choose one shot at it, my final wish for the world’s greatest super power would be to possess whatever it would have taken to fly to Van Nuys California on a winter night in 2019, where I’d show up in the nick of time to keep him from diving into a clothing donation bin to get some warm clothes for himself and a disabled friend.

That’s what finally did him in. He died in a box when he got trapped and couldn’t get out, and wouldn’t you know it, he was getting clothes for someone confined to a wheelchair and living in a cheap motel nearby.

That was Chris. I have absolutely no doubt he would have waited to get something warm for himself, but his friend was cold, so he took his chances.

He’d never gotten the big break he’d always hoped for, but other things kept him going. Aside from an occasional small bit in a film or TV show, Chris appeared a handful of times on ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live!’ on ABC late night, and was also the featured subject of the 2007 documentary, “Confessions Of A Superhero,” which looks in-depth at Chris and three other Hollywood Boulevard characters.

Christopher Dennis and Jimmy Kimmel/Photo courtesy of Bonnie Dennis.

My super friend, and Bonnie’s super husband, and Hollywood’s pseudo superman was laid to rest in Forest Lawn in Glendale on December 7th of 2019.

Bonnie flew to LA to attend and give the eulogy, but despite the fact that Dorian and I couldn’t make it down from San Francisco at that time, Christopher Dennis had a multitude of friends who’d loved and supported him in life, and were there to do the same for him in death.

We will miss you, Chris, we do already and always will. RIP brother in blue.

– THE END –

<ROLL CREDITS
>

Christopher Dennis as Superman/Photo courtesy of Bonnie Dennis


KCAL 9 News report on the death of Christopher Dennis


LINKS

LA Times: How Hollywood Boulevard’s star Superman wound up homeless, then dead in the Valley.

The Facebook page of Christopher Dennis

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