WHEN KAY KYSER JOINED BATMAN
by Robert Jennings © 2006
(From Radio Recall, October 2006)
EDITOR’S NOTE: In the March 2006 issue of the newsletter of the Radio Collectors of America (Boston, MA) Robert Jennings wrote an OTR history of Kay Kyser and his band. The last section of that article told of Kyser’s starring role with Batman & Robin in Detective Comics. With Jennings’ permission, we are reprinting that section.
There is a bizarre incident in the history and chronology of Kay Kyser; his appearance in a Batman comic book story. The cover of Detective Comics #144, Feb 1949, shows Batman and Robin with Kay Kyser on the stage of his radio show with a thug in the audience firing a pistol at Batman. “For Menace and Music tune in NOW as Batman and Robin star with Kay Kyser in ‘The Mystery Broadcast’” screams the promo logo.
The first mystery is what the actual title of the story was. Inside, the splash page scene, essentially the same graphics as the cover, uses the title “Kay Kyser’s Mystery Broadcast!”
I know that most of those reading this are not deeply involved comic book collectors, at least not so deeply involved that you are willing to drop two hundred bucks or more to purchase this particular out-of- print rarity, so I hope you will forgive me if I retell the adventure here.
Batman and Robin are hot on the trail of Big Jack Bancroft, Public Enemy number #1. Bancroft has shot his way thru a police cordon and hidden loot from his recent daring robbery. But the heat is on and he needs a safe place to lie low. Kay Kyser is bringing his band and radio show to Gotham City in a series of charity and publicity events. Bancroft hijacks the passing car carrying Kyser and his passenger, a band member named Eddie Blinn, just barely escaping a close trailing Batman.
Bancroft notices that he and Blinn bear more than a superficial resemblance. He decides to play a brazen bluff. “I once fooled around with the sax in the prison band,” he thinks. He has Kyser drive to one of Bancroft’s hideaways at gunpoint, where a member of his gang holds Eddie Blinn prisoner. Bancroft declares he will take Blinn’s place in the Kyser band, and if Kyser tries to give him away, Blinn will be murdered. “A little make-up and I’m all set! Just think—police looking for me everywhere except the one place they’d never think to look—in the spotlight with Kay Kyser!”
Kyser is in a desperate situation. Bancroft watches him like a hawk, but Gotham City is the home of Batman, the world’s greatest detective, so he tries a risky scheme to attract attention. By slightly altering the laughs in “The Woody Woodpecker Song” and dedicating each rendition to ‘Mr. Morse’ he attracts the attention of the dynamic duo.
“I’ve got it!” says Batman after recording the new version off the air and diagramming the new laugh combo on a chalkboard. “I thought those insistent references to Mr. Morse had something to do with the Morse Code! Kyser has been sending an S.O.S!”
Batman arranges to become a contestant on the next Kyser concert. To all appearances this a publicity stunt to aid the fund raiser. Meanwhile Bancroft hears a news broadcast that the old city planetarium, where he hid his loot, will be remodeled beginning immediately. Bancroft telephones one of his buddies that he can trust. He tells Kyser that his pal will be a contestant on the show that night, and that win or lose Kyser will give the guy an envelope as a ‘special surprise gift’. Inside are instructions telling where the loot is hidden and where to move it.
Kyser is up for the situation. When Bancroft’s thug appears as a contestant he calls for another contestant to play against him in the true and false quiz. “That’s my cue!” thinks Batman, “Kyser never pits one contestant against another like that!”
The true or false quiz turns out to be about hep-cat swing musical terminology and expressions, about which Batman knows almost nothing. Luckily Robin, stationed at the back of the auditorium, does. Using his belt radio he feeds Batman the answers to questions such as “In musical slang a flush-pump is a broken down drummer—true or false” “wrong” whispers Robin, “it’s a trombone”.
Bancroft’s thug misses a question, so Kyser gives the envelope to Batman, but Bancroft has skipped out. Kyser rapidly fills in Batman on the kidnap situation and Batman decides to head for the planetarium to prevent Bancroft escaping with the loot. Robin is dispatched to rescue Blinn.
Batman and Kyser rush to the planetarium where Bancroft is spotted on the roof of the building. Batman pounds Bancroft into submission against a backdrop of possible end of the world film footage in the background and appropriate 1940s style comic book wisecracks for dialog.
But alas, things go astray. Kyser has followed, jars the projector which causes the film to run wild, and in the confusion whacks Batman on the head by accident. Bancroft seizes the opportunity to gain the upper hand. He tosses Batman and Kyser into an airtight chamber after chaining them to heavy weights.
Once he shuts the door, he will turn on lethal gas which pores from a tube in the ceiling and both will die. “It’ll all be over in a few minutes” he sneers. “Here’s a clarinet pally! Go ahead and play a funeral march! Me—I’m getting on the first plane to Mexico!”
After tossing in the clarinet, the door slams, the gas is turned on and things look bad. Kyser notices there are blobs of putty on the floor, evidentially used to make the room completely air tight. He hastily strips down the clarinet as Batman looks on in amazement. The black core now resembles a blow pipe. Kyser jams a wad of putty into the end, takes aim and fires the putty into the gas tube sealing it off and saving the pair so Batman can radio Robin to release them. “This is nothin’!” Says Kyser. “You should have seen me handle a putty blower as a kid in Carolina!”
The police nab Big Jack as the plane is about to take off. The loot is recovered, and the final panel shows Batman and Robin on stage with Kay Kyser and his band as Kyser dedicates the broadcast to Batman and Robin. [The End].
Well, great literature it ain’t. In fact, it wasn’t even a great Batman story. Many of the story points were clearly forced to jam Kay Kyser and his radio show into the confines of a crime adventure plot. After finishing the story readers might wonder, for example, about that convenient wad of putty on the floor of this air tight chamber, which, also amazingly enough, seems to have this ready-made lethal gas tube in the ceiling, which Big Jack just happens to know about. And where did Big Jack get that clarinet which he luckily tosses into the death chamber? It was also amazing to me that the old planetarium just happened to have chains and shackles laying around. I guess there are lots of things about the astronomy field I never knew.
Going farther back, if Big Jack Bancroft was able to telephone his gang pal to appear on the stage show that night, why didn’t he just take a couple of seconds to tell him to rush over to the roof of the planetarium and pick up the money, avoiding all this convoluted quiz-show-secret-envelop-instructions stuff in the first place. The bit with the extra laughs in the Woody Woodpecker song as an SOS was also pretty weak.
Still, what do you want? Clearly the writer, not credited, and the artists, also not credited, were trying to work in the familiar Kay Kyser background and somehow jam it into a Batman crime adventure. Perhaps with more time and more background development the story could have been plotted more coherently, but it moves right along, it’s entertaining, and it displays strong character parts for both Kay Kyser and for Batman.
My questions, for years, have yet to be answered. I would like to know how, exactly, Kay Kyser came to be worked into a Batman comic book adventure. Obviously this had to be something that was approved in advance with Kay Kyser and his manager, but how this was arranged, and more important, why this was arranged has never been explained. I’d also like to know who the writer for this story was. The art looks mostly like the work of Winslow Mortimer on pencils and Charles Paris on inks, but I could well be mistaken.
Back a few years ago when I was producing THE COMIC WORLD and THE FOUR COLOR FLASH in the world of comic fandom, I asked various people at DC Comics for information on this story. I got some halfhearted promises, but I never got any answers.
My last request was made in 1990 to Paul Levitz, long time comic book fan who joined DC and rose thru the ranks to become president of the company. He wrote that he would look into the situation and get back to me. A mere sixteen years later, after I sent along a copy of this article, he wrote back that he had not been able to turn up any information concerning the genesis of this story, so this fifty-seven year old mystery is still unsolved.
Batman never had another music-radio connection, although five issues later, with Detective Comics #149, the Joker, Batman’s long time arch enemy, did use radio inspired sound effects to commit a series of daring robberies. One wonders what might have happened if Kay Kyser had become a regular DC comic, or what might have happened if DC had decided to use other radio personalities in comic book crossover adventures. Cross promotion usually benefits both parties, and something exciting and interesting might have developed, but, none of these things did happen. This story remains a bizarre example of a radio-music-costumed hero hybrid that was not revisited by DC Comics.
Batman still lives on, as popular as ever, and the legacy of Kay Kyser lives on thru his band’s huge musical catalog of hit songs. The Kay Kyser films play the old movie cable television channels regularly, but except for “Stage Door Canteen”, none have been released commercially. Plenty of pirate copies can be found on ebay or thru film collector magazines, with the most desirable title being “You’ll Find Out” featuring Karloff, Lugosi and Lorre.
I just wish there were more of the actual radio shows available so we could listen today to what was one of the all time most popular variety music programs every broadcast. Maybe we should ask Batman to investigate leads to those lost transcriptions. I can’t seem to find any clues on my own.
Robert "Bob" Jennings is an OTR collector and researcher. He owns and operates Fabulous Fiction Books in Worcester, MA specializing in comics, science fiction, and fantasy war games. Bob is a linchpin of the Radio Collectors of America and can be found at most OTR conventions wearing a tall, striped Dr. Suess hat.