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Super Museum in Metropolis, Ill., began with a Superman lunchbox

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I grew up without a dad, so [Superman] was my surrogate father,' museum founder says

Reporting from Metropolis, Ill. — Growing up in the 1950s, Jim Hambrick wouldn't budge while "Adventures of Superman" was showing on TV. Soon, the Man of Steel, portrayed by actor George Reeves, began to shape Hambrick's life, lasting well beyond childhood.

"I grew up without a dad, so [Superman] was my surrogate father," Hambrick, a native of Huntington Park, recalled. "It gave me a good understanding of good versus evil and right versus wrong."

Hambrick was 5 when he began collecting Superman memorabilia. On that birthday, his mother gave him a lunchbox featuring the comic book character.

"It was a metal lunchbox," he said. "It had Superman in flight, and he was fighting a robot. It had airplanes, a cityscape and a fire going on down below."

Almost instantly, Hambrick was hooked. He began buying everything he could related to the superhero — comics, of course, toys made of tin and almost everything in between. He even snared an automobile hood ornament.

He never outgrew the stuff, and he never threw anything away. Instead, he started a museum — some might call it a shrine — in his bedroom. By age 10, he was charging the neighbor kids a nickel to view his ever-expanding collection.

Half a century later, the obsession continues. Hambrick has amassed more than 100,000 collectibles. Having long ago outgrown that boyhood bedroom, he now has thousands of items on display inside his Super Museum in — where else? — Metropolis, the southern Illinois community that state legislators proclaimed the "official" home of Superman. The town is nearer Nashville — about 150 miles — and St. Louis — 170 miles — by far than it is to Chicago — about 370 miles.

The museum is just across the street from a 15-foot-tall bronze statue of Superman. It graces the town square, right in front of Metropolis City Hall.

It took Hambrick a full year to pack up his belongings and move them from Los Angeles to Metropolis, a quiet town on the banks of the Ohio River. He opened the full-fledged museum in 1993.

The collection is expansive and quirky. Visitors who grew up listening to the 1940s radio program wander through the museum beside youngsters only recently introduced to the man with a large, red "S" emblazoned on the chest of his form-fitting blue jersey.

The collection contains some one-of-a-kind pieces. For example, suspended from the museum's ceiling, there's the "flying pan" to which Reeves was attached as he soared through the clouds high above the fictional Metropolis.

Also on display are the two costumes into which the "Adventures of Superman" star hastily changed as he switched identities from mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent to Superman. The first Superman outfit in brown and gray was the one worn when the show was shot in black-and-white. For color film, a second suit — this one of blue, red and gold — was created.

Signage, which is used sparingly, draws visitors' attention to specific, noteworthy items, such as Clark Kent's classic, tortoiseshell glasses.

Adjacent to TV monitors showing various Superman scenes is every conceivable type of branded merchandise. There are action figures, board games, books, bubble gum, clocks, coffee mugs, comics, Halloween costumes, playing cards and slippers. There's even a vintage "Super Sounds" record player.

Museum admission has changed too: Instead of 5 cents, it's $5. Tickets are sold in the gift shop, where die-hard fans won't want to miss the glow-in-the-dark, green Kryptonite..

Hambrick's most prized possession isn't the "Daily Planet Building" sign or one of the yellowing, autographed photos. It's his first collectible: the lunchbox he got as a gift in 1959. He proudly displays it behind a protective layer of plexiglass just inside the entrance.

travel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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