The following is an article from Uncle John's Fully Loaded 25th Anniversary Bathroom Reader. And what better way to celebrate the silver anniversary of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader than the "return to those thrilling days of yesteryear," when a masked man rode the plains on a horse named Silver?
THE LONE STATION
In the late 1920s a movie theater owner from Detroit named George W. Trendle convinced his business partner that they should expand into the fledgling medium of broadcast radio. They bought the local CBS affiliate, and promptly named it WXYZ.
Trendle didn't like the restrictions that came with being a network station, so within a year he left CBS and became independent. That meant producing his own radio shows, but in those first few years WXYZ had trouble coming up with anything that could compete with popular shows on CBS and NBC.
Trendle never lost money showing cowboy movies in his theater, so in December 1932 he fired off a letter to Fran Striker, a prolific scriptwriter.
Will you please write up three or four Wild West thrillers, including all the hokum of masked rider, rustler, killer Pete, heroine on the train tracks, fight on top of the boxcars, Indian bad men, two-gun bank robbers, etc.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
That was a lot of detail to cram into a couple of scripts (especially when Trendle was only paying $4 per script) so Striker reworked some old episodes of a show called Covered Wagon Days to include a cowboy who wears a mask. Striker made him a Texas Ranger who traveled and worked alone -a lone ranger.
Striker gave his masked man ivory-handled revolvers, bullets made of silver, and a white stallion named Silver as well. Vivid details like this were known in the radio business as "shiny things for the mind," and were considered essential because they enabled listeners to form sharp mental images of characters they could not see.
Because The Lone Ranger was going to be a children's show, it was important that the character be a strong role model for kids. The Lone Ranger would treat others with respect. Violence would be kept to a minimum: He would use his guns only as a last resort and only to disarm his opponents, not to deliberately harm or kill them. He wouldn't drink or smoke, and he would have no romances. George Trendle was a stickler for proper language, and in all his years on the air the Lone Ranger never used slang or poor grammar. He didn't even have a Texas accent. He also never removed his mask, except to don another disguise. (The one exception: When meeting President Ulysses S. Grant, who refused to talk to a masked man.)
The country was mired in the Great Depression in the early 1930s, and Trendle, a penny-pincher in the best of times, was determined to cut costs wherever he could. The show needed a theme song, but Trendle didn't want to pay royalties to a composer. So he chose a classical selection: the finale to the William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini, who was long dead. That piece of music has been synonymous with The Lone Ranger ever since. The show aired for the first time on Monday, January 30, 1933, at 8:00 PM, and was broadcast three times a week for the next 22 years -2,956 original episodes in all.
Because of the limitations of radio, the Lone Ranger wouldn't remain alone for long. In radio the storyline advances largely through dialogue -or in the case of the first ten episodes of The Lone Ranger, through monologues. When the Lone Ranger was with other characters, he could talk to them, but when he was riding Silver, he rode alone. To prevent listeners from getting bored with one scene after another of the Lone Ranger talking to himself, Striker created the "faithful Indian companion, Tonto," and introduced him in episode 11.
In recent decades the pidgin-talking Tonto has come to be seen as a demeaning, stereotypical depiction of Native Americans and their culture. The Lone Ranger spoke perfect English, while Tonto sounded more like Tarzan. Considering all the character's flaws, it's easy to forget just how far ahead of his time Tonto was for the early 1930s. The Lone Ranger's audience soon grew to nearly 250 stations all over the United States, including in the Jim Crow South, where racial segregation was the law of the land. There, as everywhere, children were being entertained by a white man whose sole trusted companion and kemosabe -"faithful friend"- was an Indian who he respected as an equal. The Lone Ranger would, in effect, slip its subtle message of racial tolerance right past segregationist parents and into the hearts and minds of their children.
It didn't take long for Trendle and Striker to sense that they had a hit show on their hands, but just how big was it? In those days, measuring the size of a radio show's audience wasn't easy. One way to do it was to offer a free premium to listeners and invite them to write in to get it. If the station received a lot of letters, they would know the show had a large audience.
A few months after The Lone Ranger hit the airwaves, WXYZ offered kids a free Lone Ranger pop gun. The station received 25,000 letters in three days. That July, when the Lone Ranger made a public appearance at a local park, more than 70,000 people turned out to see him. The show was on its way to becoming the most popular in the history of radio, enjoyed by nearly as many adult listeners as children. Kids everywhere -girls included- dressed in Lone Ranger and Tonto outfits, joined Lone Ranger safety clubs, played with Lone Ranger cap guns, and sent away for one premium after another, including badges, silver bullets, and the Lone Ranger six-shooter ring, which shot real sparks when "fired" by spinning a flint wheel.
SO THAT'S WHY HE WEARS IT
For the first five years that The Lone Ranger was on the radio, the series made no attempt to explain his true identity, or why he wore a mask. It wasn't until the first movie serial, produced by Republic Pictures in 1938, that fans finally learned who their hero was. According to the script, six Texas Rangers were ambushed by outlaws as they rode through a canyon. The only survivor, named John Reid, was found and nursed back to health by Tonto, an Indian whose life Reid had saved when they were younger ("You only ranger left," Tonto tells Reid after the attack. "You lone ranger.")
Reid's older brother Dan was one of the rangers killed in the ambush. Reid makes a mask out of fabric taken from his dead brother's vest and wears it to prevent the outlaws from realizing he is still alive. Then he and Tonto set out to bring the murderers to justice. The origin story was so popular that it was adopted by the radio show and subsequent films as well.
KEEPING UP APPEARANCES
The first person to play the Lone Ranger was George Seaton who left the show after three months. He was replaced by a radio actor named Earle Graser, who signed on in April 1933. Graser sounded like the Lone Ranger, but didn't look like him at all. He was short and fat, he couldn't ride a horse, and he didn't like guns, either -not exactly the kind of guy you'd want to send out on public appearances. So WXYZ gave that part of the job to the show's announcer, 6'3" Brace Beemer, a skilled rider who looked great on a horse and was good with guns. When Earle Graser died in a car accident in 1941 -"LONE RANGER DEAD, AUTO HIT TRAILER," read the headline in The New York Times- Beemer took over the voice job as well. He played the Lone Ranger for the rest of the radio show's run.
AS SEEN ON TV
But the actor who would become the most closely associated with the Lone Ranger in the public mind was former circus acrobat Clayton Moore. Moore played the Lone Ranger on TV from 1949 to 1952, and, after sitting out a season over a pay dispute, again from 1953 until the show's end in 1957. Playing Tonto on the TV show was a Canadian Mohawk actor named Jay Silverheels (real name: Harold J. Smith. He got the nickname "Silverheels" years earlier, from his teammates on Canada's national lacrosse team, who were impressed with his speed and his shiny athletic shoes).
The Lone Ranger was the first Western produced for television and ABC-TV's first big hit. But Moore isn't the best-remembered Lone Ranger just because he played the character on TV. After the show ended in 1957, he continued to make personal appearances as the Lone Ranger for the next 40 years. And in all that time he never made a public appearance without wearing a mask… at least not until 1979. That's when the producers of the upcoming film The Legend of the Lone Ranger went to court to force him to give up the mask, out of fear that he would confuse moviegoers into thinking that he, not the much younger actor they'd hired, was starring in the upcoming film.
Big mistake: Moore gave up the mask, only to switch to oversize sunglasses that looked like a mask, and then gave one TV interview after another generating terrible publicity about the film. All those kids who grew up watching Clayton Moore as their Lone Ranger boycotted what might have been a sure moneymaker. Result: The film lost $11 million, and actor Klinton Spilsbury, who played the Lone Ranger, never worked in Hollywood again.
The Legend of The Lone Ranger
So how is it that a show that was so beloved for so long went absent save for occasional TV reruns for three decades? The fact that The Legend of the Lone Ranger bombed at the box office in 1981 certainly didn't help, but much of the trouble rests with Tonto. The character has not aged well. Even Jay Silverheels, who was popular in the role during the TV show's original run, came to be derided in later years as an "Uncle Tomahawk" for perpetuating negative Indian stereotypes.
When the 2013 Disney film The Lone Ranger was in the early stages of production in 2002, there was talk of tackling the issue by casting a woman as Tonto. Later it was decided that Tonto would be the lead character in the film, and Johnny Depp was cast in the role, with an actor named Armie Hammer playing the Lone Ranger. If the big screen reboots of Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man are any guide, this latest film won't be the last time that the story is freshened up and presented to a new generation of fans.
"The Lone Ranger will never die," Clayton Moore told an interviewer not long before his death in 1999. "It's Americana: the cowboy, the cattle drive, the sheriff, the fight for law, order, and justice -it's part of our history, and what that stands for can never be extinguished."
This article is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Fully Loaded Bathroom Reader.
Get ready to be thoroughly entertained while occupied on the throne. Uncle John has ruled the world of information and humor for 25 years, and the anniversary edition is the Fully Loaded Bathroom Reader.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!