How Hollywood Boulevard’s star Superman wound up homeless, then dead in the Valley
Will we ever see the likes of a Christopher Dennis on Hollywood Boulevard again?
For more than two decades, on the Walk of Fame’s pink terrazzo stars, he played Superman with the devotion of a child convinced he’s a superhero.
He famously lived for years just a few blocks from the boulevard in a small apartment crammed head to foot with Superman action toys and Superman cutouts and Superman dioramas he made by hand. And out on the street, he embraced the role so fully that he sometimes chased down real bad guys in his pillow-padded, muscle-bulging, stretchy Superman get-up.
He held his body straight and his shoulders back, which made his neckline appear manly where red cape met sunny-day-sky-blue suit. In just the right light, at just the right angle, he could look a lot like Christopher Reeve — though up close, I always thought, he was often too hollow-cheeked and worn.
But it wasn’t just looks that made him stand out in the constant crush congregating in front of the Hard Rock Cafe. He gave tourists time. He saw it as his job not just to earn their tips, but also to make them smile. So he shared with them his vast knowledge of all things Krypton. He swooped women low to the ground as if finally wooing Lois Lane. He told children who asked to see him fly that Superman never would, except to fight crime.
In a place not known for politeness, he was unfailingly polite while in character. Which many visitors and locals alike found charming and always remembered and now mourn. And they don’t even yet know the full extent of the tragedy.
This week, TMZ broke the news that Hollywood Boulevard’s marquee Man of Steel had died at the age of 52. He’d been found in the Valley — apparently homeless and lying headfirst in one of those metal bins made for people to toss clothes to be donated.
Shock and sadness have been seeping across social media ever since. But those sentiments, I soon discovered, are harder to come by on the boulevard itself, where I recently spent hours looking for answers about what happened to Dennis.
I had come to learn more about one of our many lost souls, who for a long time caught our eye before he dropped out of our sight. I didn’t want his death to be an easy one-liner: In L.A., even Superman winds up homeless and dead on the sidewalk. In his own quirky way, he’d done service to our city for years. I thought we owed him a richer sendoff that went beyond the scant official details.
Still, on the stretch between the wax celebrities at Madame Tussauds Hollywood and the oversize white elephants at Hollywood and Highland, some of today’s members of his strange tribe of costumed characters spoke harshly about all the attention he got and about his addiction to crystal meth, which was his Kryptonite. And quite a few expressed precious little pity. They felt he’d been handed chance after chance to be rescued and squandered each one, ending up spiraling out on the sidewalk, talking to himself, caught in destructive thought loops, telling tall tales — pushing himself more and more beyond help.
Said a Freddy Krueger from Switzerland who did not want to be named: “Nobody cares about nobody out here.”
Dennis once had been more famous than anyone else on the stretch. He’d had so many opportunities. He’d been on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” many times.
He’d been the star of a 2007 documentary, “Confessions of a Superhero.” I just watched it again this week for the first time since it came out and felt the poignancy of the opening line, from Dennis: “Hollywood is a place where dreams are made and dreams are broken.”
Matt Ogens, by the way, who directed the documentary, told me he thought Dennis deserved his own Hollywood star. In the more than two years he observed Dennis, he said, he “just found him to be childlike. There was something sweet about him and there was something kind about him. He had respect for the character Superman and respect for the job he was doing.”
Ogens said he was sad to hear how Dennis had died and to think of him in that dark, lonely place. He said he hadn’t seen him for several years.
The denizens of the boulevard said they had never stopped seeing him even after he stopped working the Walk of Fame, but they didn’t always recognize him, costumeless, hunched over on the sidewalk at Hollywood and Highland, looking scruffy and sick and emaciated and decades older than he was, scribbling in notebooks, drawing, mumbling.
Storytelling on the boulevard, I’ve learned from long experience, always contains a murky mix of misinformation and rumor and make-believe. It’s a place where subtle kinds of delusion run deep, where everyone’s about to be discovered or to be cast in a movie, no matter how ragged the reality.
Every time I spend too long out there my head begins to spin, I find myself in conversations so fantastical, I’m not sure how I’ll ever find my way out.
When I arrived there this time, a Catwoman in minimal costume — really just tight-fitting black clothes, black cat ears and goggles — was screaming at police who told her she couldn’t strong-arm tourists for tips. “If you think you can come and bully someone, you will die in hell and you will burn into ashes!” she screamed in the cops’ general direction.
I met a shorter, somewhat rounder Superman in a suit he’d grafted together from various bits and bobs. He’d fixed tears around the neck of his blue top with crooked red stitches. He showed me photo after photo of him as other characters — a white Power Ranger, Captain America — and told me he was transitioning from Superman to Batman to fight corruption in Los Angeles because Batman on that score was particularly smart.
Talking to him and others about Dennis got confusing. Timelines and memories merged with hearsay and a certain haziness. But everyone agreed: Dennis had been on the skids for years.
It probably started when he and his first wife divorced, some said — but opinions varied over whether the reason was his drug use or because she asked him to choose between her and Superman, and he chose Superman.
Then there was the story Dennis told a couple of years ago about how he’d been badly beaten with golf clubs, which knocked some teeth out, and robbed of all his belongings, including nearly $1,000, his laptop and his Superman costume.
And his other story about having his RV seized by the city, leaving him without shelter. One person told me he’d heard he had an RV with six cats in it. Another who said he’d been friends with Dennis for years told me he never had an RV at all.
People told me he’d briefly been married again, too — to someone he met in Vegas or at an NA meeting, and who only seemed to make things worse.
His stories of his plight, in any case, led to brief flurries of news coverage followed by crowd-funding campaigns that raised thousands of dollars to get him back on his feet and to help him launch a web series about his life. (It’s unclear where it stood at the time of his death. Donors to the web series repeatedly reached out to Dennis on social media demanding the promised rewards for their pledges.)
On the boulevard, people told me he’d lost his teeth from meth and spent the money raised to help him recover from his troubles on meth, too. His benefactors had bought him new costumes. Then they disappeared just like the old ones.
The L.A. County coroner hasn’t yet determined a cause of death. An investigation is ongoing. For days, the lack of detail frustrated me.
But I now know more or less what happened. And it really couldn’t be sadder.
I recently tracked down his most recent partner, Jennifer Masciopinto, who
was the one who found him dead in the bin. She has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair and told me that he protected and cared for her even when he didn’t care enough for himself. She said they’d been living together on the streets for about a year now, with stints here and there at sober living homes.
Just before he died, she said, he thought he’d been kicked out of a drug-treatment program, though she later learned he’d misunderstood. In any case, she had followed him back onto the streets, and back into a tent in Van Nuys.
He was still smoking crystal meth, she said, though he wanted to stop. He was depressed and taking various meds. He’d been suicidal when she met him and cutting himself, but she said he told her that she’d helped him turn a corner and want to become less self-destructive.
When she first met him on the street, she said, he’d been sketching, and he taught her how to draw a tree. Then when the boyfriend she’d come out West from New York with started beating her up, Dennis had suggested one day that they go together to get cigarettes, and she’d stayed with him and never looked back.
She didn’t know Dennis’ history at first. When he told her, she said, she was in awe. He’d known celebrities, she thought. He’d been one. Why was a world-famous Superman with her?
She was getting ready for bed the night before he was found dead when he decided to head to the donation bin nearby, where he’d developed a system to pull bags of donated clothes out of the slot, which opened and closed with a lever, by standing on her wheelchair and using a tool he’d fashioned out of some rope and wire.
Usually she went with him and stood by the wheelchair, holding it steady while he hooked bags, she said. But this time, he told her just to stay put. When she woke up the next morning and realized he wasn’t in the tent, she got some help to walk over to the bin and found him there, partway in and partway out. Maybe he slipped, she said. Maybe he suffocated. But the paramedics who came after someone called 911 quickly pronounced him dead.
He’d only been trying to find some clothes to keep them warm, she said, and also some extra clothes to sell.
They were right on the verge of recovery, she told me. She was expecting a housing voucher any day. They planned to use it on a place where they could live together in Hollywood.
“He wanted to go back to being Superman,” she told me, as she sobbed on the phone. “We were this close.”
And she never even got to see him in a Superman suit, she said. By the time she met him, there was no suit in sight.
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