As I mentioned last week, for the next few weeks I’m going to be trying a little experiment on the blog where Fridays are reserved for posts about superheroes, since a number of my readers and followers are interested in this area of popular culture. Thanks to a suggestion from one of you clever readers, I’ve decided to call this weekly installment, “Phone Booth Friday”, appropriately enough. And to begin the official launch of this feature, I thought we’d take a look at Superman’s changing room itself, an object which in many parts of the world has largely ceased to serve its original purpose.
On Wednesday, London launched the first of a series of phone booth conversions, turning some of the city’s iconic red boxes from payphone shelters to green-painted, solar-powered charging stations for mobile phones and other devices. With the advent of digital communications, many of these familiar pieces of London streetscape have fallen into disuse. Some are sitting in phone booth “graveyards”, waiting to be scooped up by collectors and designers seeking to find new uses for these objects. In fact, roughly half of all phone boxes which once dotted the British landscape have disappeared over the last decade.
London is not alone, of course, in finding itself with a surfeit of phone booths it no longer needs. Here in America, removal or repurposing in many cities is taking much longer, in part because there are so many phone companies responsible for the installation, maintenance, and upkeep of these objects. There are still an estimated 10,000 phone booths on the streets of New York City alone, and various proposals floating around regarding what to do with them.
Although it’s good to see new and innovative ideas are bringing life back to some of these now largely superfluous bits of technology, one might also conclude that with fewer phone booths out there, the last son of Krypton might find himself in a bit of a quandary when he needs to spring into action. The old-fashioned, full-length phone booth is hard to find in many American cities anyway, as compared to the open, half-length style still to be seen in places like airports and train stations. Except interestingly enough, the automatic association we all make regarding the phone booth as Superman’s changing room is not entirely accurate.
Originally, the phone booth was not an essential part of Superman’s modus operandi. The first example of Clark Kent using a phone booth to change into Superman occurred not in the comic books, which were first published in 1939, but rather in a cartoon short from 1941. In fact the use of the phone booth as part of one of his comic strip adventures didn’t appear until 1942. As this article points out, over the years both in print and on film, Supes has changed clothes in all kinds of places; on the 1950’s TV series, for example, he most often used a broom closet at The Daily Planet, or an alleyway, and never once used a phone booth.
So rest assured, good citizens, whether from a repurposed phone booth, a storage cupboard, or behind a dumpster, there will always be somewhere for Superman to do what he needs to do to leap into action. The more critical problem today, quite frankly, is the ubiquitous presence of cameras both inside and outside of buildings, on streets, highways, intersections, and so on, which run the risk of giving the entire game away. Plus, you can imagine the size of the speeding tickets.