METROPOLIS, Ill. — Passing through southern Illinois on their way to Nashville, Diana Brown and her son Colin saw the signs pointing the way to this town's Superman Square and its colorful bronze statue of the Man of Steel.
Thanks to the media buildup ahead of Wednesday's opening in U.S. theaters of "Superman Returns," Clark Kent's alter ego was already on Brown's mind. So last week, mother and son got off the highway and visited this Mayberry-meets-Disney town on the Ohio River, near Paducah, Ky.
"The movie motivated us to stop," says Brown, 59, of St. Charles, Ill. "I wasn't sure what to expect, but it's a cute little town."
Off Interstate 24 midway between St. Louis and Nashville, this 167-year-old tourist trap has no real connection to the fictional crime-fighter, beyond that Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel happened to choose the name "Metropolis" when he first wrote the comic in the 1930s.
But three decades ago Metropolis adopted Superman, and now he's big business here -- or as big as business can get in a town of 6,500 people across the river from Kentucky.
Nearly 10 times that many folks turned out earlier this month for Metropolis' yearly four-day Superman Celebration, which dates to 1979 -- the year after the first Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve was released. Attendance this year was up about one-third over last year, in part due to the buzz about "Superman Returns."
"It has certainly been a big help," says Clyde Wills, editor and publisher of the town's weekly newspaper, the Metropolis Planet. "Every time a new movie has come out or there was a new TV series or anything drastic happened in the comic books, it piqued an interest in our town."
The Illinois Legislature declared Metropolis to be Superman's home in the early 1970s. The local newspaper was The Metropolis News until 1972, when it changed its name to echo the fictional Daily Planet where Clark Kent and Lois Lane worked.
Superman's image appears on the water tower and billboards, leading tourists into downtown and Jim Hambrick, proud proprietor of a storefront souvenir shop and Super Museum billed as "the Largest Superman Collection on the Planet," with the 75,000 items on display.
The museum has props and wardrobe items from Superman television episodes and movies, plus displays that include Clark Kent's office as seen on TV in the 1950s. A mural on one side shows all the actors who have portrayed Superman.
'It's a small town and not the Metropolis of the comics'
Inside the store, the Superman theme blares across a wide collection of comic books and the typical tourist fare of T-shirts, shotglasses and action figures.
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Even before the arrival of "Superman Returns," the store was stocked with promotional items ranging from a stencil book with stickers to a water gun dubbed the "Superman Returns Shield Blaster," asking price $19.95.
Hambrick's Web site has built up its inventory to more than 1,500 different items, twice what it was at this year's start. The stuff runs the gamut, from Superman Band-Aids to wigs and steering wheel covers.
Hambrick hopes the stuff flies off the shelves, though he suspects sales of the "Superman Returns" items -- and any effect the movie might have on local tourism -- could rest with how the flick and its star, unknown actor Brandon Routh, are received.
"We're kind of speculating, like a stockbroker," said Hambrick, who wore a baseball cap sporting the superhero's trademark "S." "Our concern is that if it's a bad movie, we're guilty by association, and folks won't come."
Wills says the town's friendly persona won't change. "We've tried to handle it in a very professional way and honor the superhero but, at the same time, realize it's a small town and not the Metropolis of the comics," he said. "We're going to be what we are and make it as enjoyable as we can."
The film didn't matter to Nancy Smith and her 26-year-old daughter, Heather. While the Atlanta women were St. Louis-bound recently, Metropolis' allure was just too great to resist.
"It looks like every quaint small town," Nancy Smith, a first-grade teacher, said as her daughter emerged from Hambrick's shop with keepsakes -- a little Superman piggy bank and a tiny telephone booth.
"It's so cool," Nancy Smith said of the town. Then she smiled and added, "Cheesy, but cool."
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