Heart of the City Archives

Noell Neill, the original Lois Lane, with Mister SF at Boboquivari's on Lombard. (I took off my glasses but she recognized me anyway. - HD)

The San Francisco Adventures of Lois Lane
by Hank Donat

She was a single career woman on television 20 years before Mary Tyler Moore. As Lois Lane in the 1950s series The Adventures of Superman, Noel Neill may have left audiences wondering what use this feisty, strong-willed woman would have for a man of steel in the first place.

Now in her 80s and still able to leap Margot Kidder in a single bound, Neill visited San Francisco last week to promote a new book about her life and career.

Witnessing the affection that San Franciscans have for the star and her unforgettable character was a rare treat. The spirited Neill seemed to charm everyone in her presence, from the Marina to City Hall to the Castro, during a week-long tour of the city, her first visit here since 1942.

At Boboquivari's steak joint on Lombard Street, planning commissioner Bill Lee, Supervisor Fiona Ma, redevelopment commissioner Benny Yee, port commissioner Pius Lee, insurance agent Jason Gee, and Jack and Judy Yu of the new Sake Lab on Broadway have gathered around to hear a memory of Superman or to share one of their own.

Foreshadowing her TV gig as a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, Neill had every intention of becoming a journalist in real life until she was hired by Bing Crosby to sing at the race track at Del Mar. "I'd still be in Minneapolis if it weren't for Bing," she says.

Neill, who now lives in Santa Monica, sang at both the Fairmont and the Mark Hopkins on her way to becoming famous around the world as "Superman's girlfriend."

It's a staple of Hollywood history that Betty Grable's pin-up was #1 among G.I.s during World War II, but it may be news to you that the #2 poster girl was Noel Neill. Her career is detailed in the new biography by Larry Ward titled "Truth, Justice, and the American Way."

As the sun sets in Superman colors over the distant Presidio behind her, Neill discusses such juicy topics as co-star George Reeves alleged suicide - she doesnÕt believe it was - and Neill's take on Phyllis Coates, the actress who played Lois Lane in Superman's first season. (Neill created the role in a 1948 serial, making her the original Lois.)

"I read in an interview once that Phyllis visited the set after leaving the show," says Neill, "She said she came to see me in my dressing room and that I slammed the door in her face. If we had had any kind of budget I might have had a dressing room!"

Neill says she's still friends with Jack Larson, who played cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. "I visit him from time to time with his... other," she said. "Do you mean 'significant other?'" I ask. "Yes," Neill says, "but everyone's significant." At this time I could be counted among those so charmed by the vibrant actress, a veteran of 90 films. (The Internet Movie Database names 70, but Ward says he has uncovered a number of Neill's earlier roles and bit parts.)

I catch Neill rolling her eyes when someone, without a trace of irony, calls her Lois, but Neill says she doesn't really mind. She's seen her share of comic conventions.

This is an opening for me to take my glasses off and on a few times and say, "See, it's still me. Couldn't you tell he was Superman?" Neill is already in on the act, "I knew it all along," she says, "I just didn't want to lose my job."

The next day, Neill is standing in front of the Hotel Diva on Geary Street with publicist Stefano Cassolato and Diva owner Yvonne Lembi-Detert. Along comes John Handlery, general manager of the Handlery Union Square Hotel a block away. Handlery recognizes Neill at once and introduces himself as an admirer.

Cassolato is on the ready with a camera, but would Handlery allow himself to be photographed in front of someone else's hotel? "You bet," says Handlery, "but I wouldnÕt for Della Street."

At City Hall, Neill soaks in the atmosphere under the magnificent dome and marble stairs. When I tell her that City Hall is second only to the U.S. Capitol in stature among municipal buildings Neill is impressed. "I was honored by the city of Los Angeles once but the place was a little trashy," she says, "That's L.A." Well said by a woman second in stature only to Betty Grable.

Later, the Board of Supervisors is in session. Supervisor Tom Ammiano has been fanning himself with a report. He is clearly ready for a break. Reading Neill's name from a proclamation, Supervisor Ma announces that Lois Lane is in the chambers. Ammiano springs to life. Supervisor Bevan Dufty is also beaming.

Ammiano says he was chastised in Catholic school for watching Superman because the nuns said the character had godlike powers. Dufty professes that it was vicariously through Lois Lane that he first discovered his own penchant for men in tights.

Before leaving City Hall, I introduce Neill to Ronald East, the cable car grip operator who won the 40th Annual Cable Car Bell Ringing Championship a few days earlier. "Lois Lane, meet the Ding Dong Daddy," an only-in-SF moment to be savored!

Cassolato and company keep Neill on the run and well fed with stops at Judy's Cafe, Il Destino, Tommaso's, Firenze by Night, and New Delhi. At the U.S. Restaurant, Neill, who is petite, tells me she has a sweet tooth and proves it by polishing off a tiramisu and a cannolli.

After just a few days in the city Neill had already signed 75 autographs, with an appearance at Books Inc. on Market still ahead of her. Compliments on her good looks and vitality come in endless succession.

Throughout my encounters with the visitor from Metropolis, I ask myself what would cause so many people to adore Neill and Lois Lane so deeply and so openly.

On Tuesday evening at Tommy's Joynt on Geary, the theatrical producer Jack Anderson remarks that we are living in an era with a critical mass of religious, political, and cultural institutions that have fallen into ruin and discredit. Superman is paralyzed.

It is obvious then that Lois Lane has become a great icon for optimism and survival. It just feels right that the character would have gone on as a strong, fun, happy senior lady. Noel Neill is, as always, perfect in the role.

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Copyright 2003 Hank Donat
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