The Lone Ranger

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The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger was the creation of George W. Trendle, a theater manager and a former lawyer, who, in partnership with John H. King, purchased radio station WXYZ, Detroit, in 1930. When CBS balked at some of Trendle's attempts to include innovative programming in the schedule, he decided to sever his affiliation with CBS and transform XYZ into an independent station with its own acting company and its own productions. One of Trendle's ideas, developed with studio manager Harold True and producer James Jewell, was a new show about a western hero, a larger-than-life Robin Hood of the West, whose personal code of ethics and morals would set him apart from ordinary heroes. In collaboration with Fran Striker, a writer who had earlier produced a Western program with a similar theme on a radio station in Buffalo, New York, Trendle's group transformed the idea into the most familiar and enduring fictional legend in American popular folklore.

In the legend thus created, the Lone Ranger was originally one of six Texas Rangers who were ambushed at Bryant's Gap by the evil Butch Cavendish Gang. Five rangers were killed, but the severely wounded John Reid was discovered by Tonto, an Indian who had been a boyhood friend. Reid's brother, Dan, had been the Captain of the Ranger squad. Before the ambush, Dan had said that his wife and son were coming west, and that they would need help running their silver mine if anything should happen to him. While nursing the wounded ranger, Tonto prepared six graves, leaving one empty so the Cavendish Gang would believe that they had killed all of the Rangers. After four days, the wounded lawman gained consciousness and discovered that he was the only surviving ranger, the lone ranger. He decided to wear a mask to disguise his identity. As the program evolved over the next few months, the Lone Ranger acquired a great, white stallion, which would become his dependable mount, Silver, and together with the ever faithful Tonto, he journeyed about the western United States quashing criminal activities and bringing evildoers, always referred to as owlhoots, outlaws, and low down coyotes, to justice. Eventually he used silver bullets from his brother's silver mine not only as ammunition, but also as a signature and calling card. On occasion, the Lone Ranger's nephew, Dan Reid, rode with the pair.

The program was aimed at juvenile listeners. The Lone Ranger used perfect grammar and pronunciation, and never smoked or drank or associated with women, except to save them from evil. He never shot to kill; bad guys were always "winged" in the arms or shoulder. The exception was Butch Cavendish, whom he eventually killed in self-defense. The program featured classical music as background themes, because the station did not have to pay royalties on music that was in the public domain. Rossini's "William Tell Overture," the musical theme of the program, became, in fact, a part of popular Americana. The plots were formulaic. The bad guys were always brought to justice. Each show ended with one of the townspeople asking, "Who was that masked man?" An authority figure would announce, "He's the Lone Ranger!" and in the distance the audience heard the Lone Ranger's deep voice intoning, "Hi yo Silver, awaaaaay!" as he rode off to his next adventure.

The program first aired on January 30, 1933, without a sponsor. After trying out several actors in the role, in May 1933, Trendle settled on Earl Graser, a law student, as The Lone Ranger. John Todd, a former Shakespearean actor, played Tonto throughout the program's twenty-two year run. In 1941, Graser was killed in a car accident and was replaced by the deep-voiced Brace Beemer, who had been the announcer/narrator of the show and who had appeared as the Ranger in public appearances because Graser was too short. Beemer played the part until the show went off the air in 1955. In 1946, the voice of Fred Foy was added as the announcer/narrator. The sponsor of the program for the final 15 years on radio was General Mills, thus the breakfast cereals Wheaties and Cheerios were indelibly linked with The Lone Ranger by schoolboys everywhere.

By 1934, the fame of the Lone Ranger traveled beyond the lower Michigan area to Chicago. WXYZ contracted with Chicago's WGN to receive the show via telephone. Shortly thereafter, New York's WOR joined them. These three stations then formed the Mutual Radio Network and added stations throughout the country. The half-hour show was broadcast on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:30 PM. Before tape or wire recording became available, each show had to be broadcast three times, once each for the Eastern, Central, and Pacific time zones. Before his death in 1965, Beemer estimated that over 6,000 Lone Ranger programs were broadcast. Throughout most of its run, the programs were written by Fran Striker and directed by Al Hodge, Charles Livingston, and Fred Flowerday. In 1949, the Lone Ranger came to television. The introduction and closing, by Fred Foy, and the theme music were recorded in Detroit and superimposed on half-hour filmed programs, which were produced in California. Clayton Moore, a former B-movie actor, and Jay Silverheels, a Mohawk Indian who had played small parts in several films, were the lead actors. The television program lasted from September 15, 1949 through September 12, 1957. The opening episode recounted the Bryant's Gap story of the ambush of the Rangers and the adoption of the name and the mask. Reruns of the show continued well into the 1970s on many independent stations.

In 1937 and 1939, Republic Pictures released fifteen part Lone Ranger serials, but they varied somewhat from the radio formats. In 1956, Warner Brothers released The Lone Ranger, starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. They also appeared in The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold, a 1958 United Artists feature. In 1980, the ITC/Wrather Corporation released The Legend of the Lone Ranger, a big budget film starring Klinton Spilsbury and Michael Horse in the lead roles, with Jason Robards as President U.S. Grant. It was a pretentious and overblown film, which quickly dropped from circulation. Spilsbury, whose entire spoken dialogue had to be dubbed by another actor, won two Golden Raspberry Awards, one for Worst Actor and the other for Worst New Star. The film won an additional award for Worst Musical Score. A controversy arose when the Wrather Corporation, which by then owned the rights to the Lone Ranger, sought an injunction against Clayton Moore, ordering him to cease presenting himself as the Lone Ranger because he was too old and too fat, even though he weighed fifteen pounds less than he did when he was in the TV series. Shortly before Jack Wrather's death in 1985, the court order was suspended. Clayton Moore, wearing wrap around sunglasses instead of a mask, continued to tour during the injunction period and, after the suspension in 1985, he donned the mask again for personal appearances.

Another Trendle creation, which began on WXYZ on January 31, 1936, was the Green Hornet. Britt Reid, son of the Lone Ranger's nephew Dan Reid, was a big city newspaper publisher by day. By night he was a masked, caped crusader who fought urban corruption in his super-fast car, "The Black Beauty," which was driven by his Japanese valet Kato. (According to some sources, after December 7, 1941 Kato became a Filipino.) The Green Hornet went off the air in 1952. The same production team also created The Challenge of the Yukon (1939-1955), WXYZ's other long running adventure series. It consisted of little more than Lone Ranger plots set in the snow of the Yukon, just as the Green Hornet contained the same familiar plots in a modern urban setting. The same troupe of actors played various roles on all three programs.

—James R. Belpedio

Further Reading:

Buxton, Frank, and Bill Owen. The Big Broadcast, 1920-1950. New York, Viking Press, 1972.

Dunning, John. Tune in Yesterday: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio, 1925-1976. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, Inc., 1976.

Lichtman, Jim. The Lone Ranger's Code of the West. Palm Desert, California, Scribbler's Ink, 1996.

Moore, Clayton, with Frank Thompson. I Was that Masked Man. Dallas, Texas, Taylor Publishing, 1996.

Osgood, Dick. WYXIE Wonderland: An Unauthorized 50-Year Diary of WXYZ, Detroit. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981.

Rothel, David. Who Was That Masked Man?: The Story of the Lone Ranger. New York, A.S. Barnes & Company, 1976.

Van Hise, James. Who Was That Masked Man?: The Story of the Lone Ranger. Las Vegas, Pioneer Books, 1990.

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The Lone Ranger

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