Hi-Yo Silver; The Lasting Effect of the First Ride of the Lone Ranger
It was on ABC, Thursday, September 15, 1949, when the Lone Ranger first premiered on television. It was before many homes had a television, long before cable TV, and lifetimes before streaming video.
For some, it was that precious time when America was last great. For those audience members, characters like the Lone Ranger remain symbols of moralistic American values.
For others, it was an insensitive and oppressive time in U.S. history, one Americans should be glad is in the rear view.
Like telling the story of Shakespeare’s Shylock, in “The Merchant of Venice,” the Lone Ranger tells a good story while inadvertently mistreating one its main characters. It’s one of the best arguments for Hollywood’s insistence on reinvention.
One fascinating legend about the Lone Ranger is that they based the character on a real dude, Bass Reeves, a black lawman. There is no proof that this is true, but it would be interesting if it were.
In fact, the best we can tell is that the Lone Ranger was not based on any one person, but the brainchild of several contributors over years of development. The aspects of the Lone Rangers character emerged as the story unfolded, forged by the writers and producers, but also the actors who played the character.
The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) credits George W. Trendle with creation, but there were many hands on the final product. We’ll come back to Trendle in a second…
The greatest reality of this is that the character of the Lone Ranger is a flexible one. As audiences witnessed with the 2013 reboot, starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, the story is wide open.
For the first five years of the radio show, they did not record anything. It was a live-to-feed broadcast. What remains are scripts.
It was January 1933 when the Lone Ranger first aired on WXYZ, a Detroit radio station. The station owner, George Trendle, hired Fran Striker, a script writer, to help him create a Robin Hood or Zorro-like western hero.
Neither man knew anything about the Wild West, but they knew how to create heroic characters. The Lone Ranger would be a good guy like only the 1930s could produce a hero.
There were no Breaking Bad anti-heroes back then. The Lone Ranger spoke in clear English, no slang he would never have touched drugs or a bottle. He didn’t even swear.
The Lone Ranger always did the right thing, down to the silver bullets he carried. Those reminded him of the preciousness of life. Thus, he never shot to kill.
The show was so popular, the produced almost 3,000 radio episodes (2,956). Those radio episodes would be the foundation upon which the TV series would build the character.
The Small Screen
As the technology behind television ramped up in the ‘40s, many radio programs looked for ways to scale up their productions.
Trendle and Striker moved their show to a black and white production, starring Clayton Moore as the masked man. Moore gave up the role for 52 episodes over creative differences or contract disputes, depending on who you ask, but he took the role back after audiences complained.
The Lone Ranger TV show was a huge hit, just like the radio show. It stayed on the air seven years, until 1957, not bad for a first try.
By the time it went off the air, television had changed. The final season of the show aired in color, even though many homes still didn’t have color televisions. They would soon enough.
In the end, it was the show that set the tone for the American Western, TV series and films, which producers would emulate for decades afterward.
The hardest aspect to forgive was the treatment of Tonto, the Native American character. When reprised in 2013, Johnny Depp gave Tonto his due, but the 2013 film didn’t fare so well. Tonto remains in a limbo between the famous series and less famous movie.
Don’t despair. Someone will try again. We’ve not seen the last of that masked man and his noble companion. The exciting part is imagining how will the next creator reimagine the pair. The Lone Space Ranger?