Thursday, January 31, 2013

Who Was That Masked Man?: The Lone Ranger Turns 80

It was 80 years ago yesterday that a brand new radio show made its debut on WXYZ in Detroit, Michigan. It was The Lone Ranger, and over the years it would become one of the most successful radio shows of all time. It would not be long before the character would be adapted to other media. In the end The Lone Ranger would appear in a pulp magazine, two movie serials, comic books, a highly successful television series (now perhaps the best known incarnation of The Lone Ranger), three feature films (with another one on the way), and two Saturday morning cartoons. Merchandising for The Lone Ranger in the 20th Century was huge, with everything from Halloween costumes to play sets to games to lunch boxes on the market. One would be hard pressed to find a character as successful as The Lone Ranger.

The creation of The Lone Ranger remains a matter of debate. The owner of WXYZ George W. Trendle often took credit for the character's creation, although there is evidence to suggest that it may well have been writer Fran Striker (who wrote most of the radio show).  A letter from the very date of the debut of The Lone Ranger, 30 January 1933, from George W. Trendle to Fran Striker, clearly credits Mr. Striker as the creator of the character. A year later, however, Fran Striker signed over his rights to The Lone Ranger and George W. Trendle assumed credit as the show's creator. While precisely who created The Lone Ranger would remain a subject of controversy for decades, it seems like that both men, as well as others, had a role to play in the creation of the character.

The roots of The Lone Ranger go back to circumstances surrounding George W.  Trendle's radio station WXYZ. The station was opened in 1925 as WGHP in Detroit and eventually became a CBS affiliate. In 1930 it was  bought by George W. Trendle's Kunsky-Trendle Broadcasting and received the new call letters WXYZ. Unfortunately, in the early days of the Depression WXYZ was not doing particularly well. George W. Trendle thought that a drama broadcast in the evenings would bring more money into the station than if they simply depended upon programming from CBS. Unfortunately, CBS did not like the idea of George producing a radio show independent of the network. As a result in June 1932 WXYZ ended its affiliation with CBS. No longer affiliated with a network, WXYZ then went to work producing its own radio dramas, such as the police drama Manhunters and the comedy Hank and Honey.

It was later in 1932 that George W. Trendle decided that WXYZ needed a Western. It was sometime during December 1932 that Mr. Trendle called together his staff to develop a Western series. Given there is no transcript for that meeting, it can not be said with any certainty who attended, much less who came up with what ideas. Similarly, it seems apparent that The Lone Ranger was not created all at once at that meeting, but developed over time. Various sources do credit George W. Trendle with coming up with certain key concepts behind The Lone Ranger. George W. Trendle wanted a hero who was a cross between Robin Hood and Zorro, but at the same time was honest, upstanding, and pure of heart. Various sources also suggested that it was George Trendle who wanted his hero to be masked and who thought he should be a former Texas Ranger. It was someone else who suggested that he ride a white horse and still later the idea of the hero using silver bullets was suggested. Precisely who named the character "The Lone Ranger" has been lost in the annals of history.

Following these early meetings The Lone Ranger was handed off to director James Jewell and writer Fran Striker for further development. It was Jim Jewell who chose "The William Tell Overture" as the show's theme song (Fran Striker had wanted "Beyond the Blue Horizon"). In the earliest episodes The Lone Ranger was literally a lone ranger--he travelled the West alone fighting outlaws. It was James Jewell who suggested to Fran Striker that The Lone Ranger should have a partner, "an Indian halfbreed" who would help him. Fran Striker then created the character of Tonto. Initially Tonto was an old wise man, although eventually he would evolve into a character who was about the same age as The Lone Ranger. Initially The Lone Ranger was also rather violent, having no problem killing bad guys. George W. Trendle put a stop to this, making it clear that he did not want The Lone Ranger to ever shoot to kill, but only to disarm or wound his opponents.

Despite the controversy over whether it was George W. Trendle or Fran Striker who created The Lone Ranger, it would appear that the show was created by committee. While Mr. Trendle would provide the initial idea for the show, various staffers at WXYZ would contribute their own ideas, while director James Jewell and writer Fran Striker would flesh it out. In some respects it can be easily understood why both George W. Trendle and Fran Striker wanted to take credit for the show's creation. As the owner of WXYZ who came up with the idea for a Western series, George W. Trendle probably felt he should have credit for the character's creation. As the writer of The Loner Ranger, who fleshed out the show and its characters, Fran Striker probably felt he should receive the credit. Regardless, it appears both men, as well as director James Jewell and others at WXYZ, played a role in the show's creation.

Regardless of who created The Lone Ranger, the show proved a recipe for success. The background of The Lone Ranger varied only a little over the years. Six Texas Rangers were ambushed by outlaw Butch Cavendish and his gang. The only survivor, Reid (whose first name was never given on the show) of the ambush is later discovered by Tonto. Tonto nursed Reid back to health and the two men dug six graves for the rangers, the extra one so that Cavendish would think all of the rangers had perished. Tonto then creates a mask from the vest of one of the dead rangers (Reid's brother, Captain Daniel Reid) to keep Reid's identity hidden. The two then bring the Cavendish gang to justice and continue fighting crime throughout the West.

The Lone Ranger proved phenomenally successful not long after its debut. It would become one of the cornerstones of the Mutual Broadcasting System when that network was formed by WOR in Newark, New Jersey, WGN in Chicago, and WXYZ. It would later move to the NBC Blue Network, which would become ABC after the FCC forced NBC to divest itself of it due to anti-trust concerns. In the meantime it would be adapted to other media. In fact, the show would be successful enough to produce a spin off of a sort. In many respects The Green Hornet was essentially The Lone Ranger set in modern times. The Green Hornet was The Lone Ranger's great nephew, newspaper publisher Britt Reid. With his valet Kato he fought crime as The Green Hornet. Like The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet used a special weapon (a gas gun) and had a special means of transportation, the car Black Beauty. The Green Hornet debuted on 31 January 1936,  a day after the third birthday of  The Lone Ranger.

As mentioned above, it would not be long before The Lone Ranger was adapted to other media. The Lone Ranger appeared in his first Big Little book in 1935, The Lone Ranger and His Horse Silver. Big Little Books featuring The Lone Ranger would continue to be published into the Sixties. The Lone Ranger would be adapted into other books as well. In 1936 the novel The Lone Ranger by Gaylord Dubois was published. It was followed by 17 more novels, which were written by Fran Striker himself.  From April 1937 to November 1937 Trojan Publishing published 8 issues of The Lone Ranger Magazine.

Of course, it was inevitable that The Lone Ranger would reach the big screen. In 1938 Republic Pictures released the first movie serial featuring the Masked Man, The Lone Ranger. The Lone Ranger's origin not having been established yet, the serial is very different from The Lone Ranger mythos as we know it. As the plot unfolds there are six different men who could possibly be The Lone Ranger. In 1939 Republic Pictures released a second "Lone Ranger" serial. The Lone Ranger Rides Again also departed from what would later be the established mythos of the show, with the Masked Man being homesteader Bill Andrews (played by Robert Livingston).

Not only was The Lone Ranger adapted into movie serials, but also into a newspaper comic strip as well. In  September 1938 King Features Syndicate distributed a Lone Ranger comic strip. It proved fairly successful, running until 1971. The Lone Ranger would also find its way into comic books. The Lone Ranger would first appear in comic books in 1939, in three issues of Large Feature Comics published by Dell Comics. In 1940 David McKay Publications began reprinting The Lone Ranger newspaper comic strip in its various comic book titles. The reprints would continue to appear in various McKay publications until 1950. In 1945 Dell Comics featured The Lone Ranger in their Four Colour Series. It was in 1948 that Dell Comics gave the Masked Man his own title, The Lone Ranger. Initially Dell's Lone Ranger comic book consisted of newspaper reprints, but in 1951 it began featuring all news stories. That same year Tonto received his own comic book, which lasted for 33 issues. Even Silver would receive his own comic book in 1952, which lasted for 34 issues. Dell's The Lone Ranger lasted until 1962. In 1964 Gold Key started its own Lone Ranger comic book, reprinting material from Dell's Lone Ranger until 1975 when it started featuring new material. Gold Key's Lone Ranger comic book ended in 1977. Since then both Topps Comics in the Nineties and Dynamite Entertainment in the Naughts published Lone Ranger comic books.

Of course, the most famous incarnation of The Lone Ranger is perhaps the television series starring Clayton Moore (except for two years in which the Masked Man was played by John Hart) and Jay Silverheels. George W. Trendle hired former MGM film producer Jack Chertok (who would go onto produce the TV shows Sky King, My Favourite Martian, and My Living Doll) to produce the television series. It made its debut in 1949 on ABC. The Lone Ranger TV show proved very popular; in the early Fifties it was the only ABC show to appear in the 30 top rated programmes for the  year. Even when the show was in its first run Clayton Moore became identified with the role. When Clayton Moore had a dispute with the producers in 1952, he was replaced by John Hart. Audiences did not accept John Hart as The Lone Ranger. Not only did Clayton Moore return to the role in 1954, but the episodes featuring John Hart would not be seen again until the Eighties. The Lone Ranger ran until 1956. The reruns air in syndication to this day.

The Lone Ranger TV show would prove so popular that it would lead to the Masked Man's first appearance in a feature film. The Lone Ranger (1956) was a colour film produced by Wrather Productions and released by Warner Brothers. The film would prove successful enough to warrant a sequel, The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958).  Both starred Clayton Moore as The Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto. The last feature film adaptation of The Lone Ranger  was  The Legend of the Lone Ranger in 1981. The film caused controversy among fans when the producers filed suit against Clayton Moore to keep him from appearing as The Lone Ranger anywhere. In the end The Legend of the Lone Ranger would prove to be a failure with both audiences and critics. It perhaps did not help that star Klinton Spilsbury's voice had to be re-dubbed by James Keach. Later this year a new feature film, The Lone Ranger, will be released, starring Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp as Tonto.

The Lone Ranger would also be the subject of two Saturday morning cartoons. The first was The Lone Ranger, produced by Format Films and running from 1966 to 1968. It featured Michael Rye as the voice of The Lone Ranger and Shepard Menken as Tonto. It also featured some famous actors as guest voices, including Hans Conried,  Agnes Moorehead, and Paul Winchell. The series differed a great deal from most interpretations of The Lone Ranger in that it had a science fantasy bent much like the contemporaneous prime time series The Wild Wild West. Indeed, on the show The Lone Ranger's archnemesis was Tiny Tom (voiced by Dick Beals), a little person and criminal mastermind not unlike Dr. Miguelito Loveless on The Wild Wild West. The second Lone Ranger animated series was produced by Filmation and ran from 1980 to 1982. It featured William Conrad as The Lone Ranger and Ivan Naranjo as Tonto.  This series had a much more realistic tone than the Sixties series, with The Lone Ranger and Tonto firmly rooted in the context of the Old West.

The Lone Ranger would be adapted to television one more time, in a television movie meant to serve as a pilot for a prospective series. Airing on The WB, it starred Chad Michael Murray as The Lone Ranger and Nathaniel Arcand as Tonto. The TV movie departed from the Lone Ranger mythos a great deal, not only altering his origin, but also his identity (rather than a Ranger named Reid, he was law student named Luke Hartman).

 Beginning with the radio show in 1933, The Lone Ranger would prove to be one of the most successful franchises of all time. In many respects the appeal of The Lone Ranger is easy to see. While characters such as Robin Hood and Zorro influenced his creation, The Lone Ranger would appear to be a modern day Percival or Galahad. The Lone Ranger never shot to kill, treated everyone with respect, and always sought to help others. In many respects, one can imagine he was what most boys from the Thirties to the Fifties wanted to be. Of course, this is not to say that The Lone Ranger did not have its flaws. For much of the franchise's history Tonto was something of a stereotype, speaking in broken English and never really displaying any cultural traits of his tribe (the Potawatomi on the radio show, the Apache in other sources, and often some unidentified tribe). That having been said, when compared to other portrayals of Native Americans in the mid-20th Century, Tonto was a more positive one than most. He was intelligent, resourceful, and for most of the franchise's history as The Lone Ranger's equal.

Regardless, in the end The Lone Ranger would prove to be one of the most successful fictional characters of the 20th Century. It must be pointed out that he was also perhaps one of the most influential. Pre-dated only by a few characters such as Zorro and The Shadow, The Lone Ranger can be seen as one of the earliest superheroes. His influence would then extend well beyond his great nephew, The Green Hornet. The convention of concealing one's identity, the use of special weapons (in The Lone Ranger's case, silver bullets), the use of a special mode of transportation (the horse Silver), and even a partner to assist in crimefighting would become common place in superhero comic books from the Golden Age to today. Indeed, while Zorro and The Shadow have often been acknowledged as an influence on Batman, one has to wonder that The Lone Ranger wasn't as well. Both use special weapons (indeed, Batman has a whole arsenal of them, from Batarangs to capsules containing gas), both have special modes of transportation (in Batman's case, the Batmobile), and both have partners who help them in their fight against crime (in Batman's case, Robin).  One has to wonder how many other superheroes weren't also influenced by The Lone Ranger.

While The Lone Ranger is not nearly as popular he once was, as the production of a new movie shows, he remains a popular character. The TV series starring Clayton Moore are rerun to this day, while comic books featuring the Masked Man have been published as recently as 2010. One can still buy a Lone Ranger costume come each Halloween. After the radio show first aired 80 years ago, it would seem that The Lone Ranger could last for another eighty years.

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