The Lone Ranger

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The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger was an early, long-running radio and television show based on characters created by George W. Trendle of Detroit, Michigan and developed by writer Fran Striker of Buffalo, New York. The basic premise is that a masked cowboy in the Old West gallops about righting injustices, usually with the aid of a clever and laconic American Indian called Tonto. Karl May's tales of Old Shatterhand and Chief Winnetou may have influenced the creation of the concept.

Birth of the Radio Series

The first of 2,956 episodes of The Lone Ranger aired on radio for the first time on January 30, 1933 on WXYZ radio in Detroit, Michigan and later on the Mutual Broadcasting System radio network. The Lone Ranger became one of the most successful properties on radio.

The hero is a Texas Ranger named Reid, who, as the series begins, was pursuing the criminal Butch Cavendish and his gang with a group of other rangers. (Some later radio reference books claimed Reid's first name was John, however this name was never used on either the radio or television program. The leader of the group of rangers was stated to be Captain Dan Reid, his brother. The name of "John" Reid's nephew, a later character, was also Dan Reid.) The party finds itself in a murderous ambush arranged by Cavendish and a traitor, Collins, that seemingly leaves every ranger dead. Then Cavendish shoots Collins in the back, reasoning that someone who could betray the rangers could also betray his gang.

Reid's childhood friend, a brave known as Tonto (his tribe was seldom specified), finds the party and finds Reid to be alive. Tonto takes him to safety and nurses him back to health. Tonto reminds Reid of when they were young, and Reid had rescued Tonto after renegade Indians had murdered his mother and sister and left him for dead. Reid gave him a horse, and Tonto insisted that Reid accept a ring. It is by this ring that Tonto recognizes Reid.

While Reid recovers, Tonto buries the dead rangers. Reid vows to bring the killers and others like them to justice. So he asks Tonto to make a sixth grave to make people think that he had died as well. But Collins is also still alive, and tries to kill the pair so he can take Tonto's horse, Scout. But he falls to his death while trying to drop a rock on Reid. Thus perished the only other man who knew that Reid survived.

By happenstance, the pair discovers a magnificent white stallion, wounded by a buffalo. Reid and Tonto nurse the stallion back to health, which is then adpoted by Reid his mount, Silver. Whenever the Ranger mounts Silver he shouts, "Hi ho, Silver, away!" which besides sounding dramatic, originally served to tell the radio audience that a riding sequence was about to start.

They also find an old mentor of Reid's, who discovered a lost silver mine some time back. Reid's mentor is the only one besides Tonto who knows the identity of the Lone Ranger. And he is willing to work it and supply Reid and Tonto as much silver as they want! Reid fashions the mask that would mark him as the Lone Ranger. In addition, the Lone Ranger decides to use only silver bullets, as a reminder of his vows to fight for justice, and never to shoot to kill. Together, the Lone Ranger and Tonto wander the Old American West helping people and fighting injustice where they find it. The Lone Ranger was also a master of disguise, and in particular would often infiltrate an area as the "Old Prospector", an old-time miner with a full beard, so that he can go places where the Lone Ranger would never fit in, usually to gather intelligence about criminal activities.

According to "The Legend of Silver", a radio episode broadcast September 30, 1938, before acquiring Silver the Lone Ranger rode a chestnut mare called Dusty. After Dusty was killed by a criminal that Reid and Tonto were tracking, Reid saved Silver's life from an enraged buffalo, and in gratitude Silver chose to give up his wild life to carry him. Silver's father was called Sylvan, and his mother was Musa. In another episode, the lingering question of Tonto's mode of transport was resolved when the pair found a secluded valley and the Lone Ranger, in a urge of conscience, released Silver back to the wild. The episode ends with Silver returning to the Ranger bringing along a companion who becomes Tonto's horse, Scout.

On radio, the Lone Ranger was played by several actors, including George Seaton (under the name George Stenius) from January 31 to May 9 of 1933; series director James Jewell and an actor known only by the pseudonym "Jack Deeds" (for one episode each), and finally by Earle Graser from May 16, 1933 until April 7, 1941. On April 8, Graser died in a car accident, and for five episodes, the Lone Ranger was unable to speak beyond a whisper, with Tonto carrying the action. Finally, on the broadcast of April 18, 1941, deep-voiced performer Brace Beemer, who had been the show's announcer for several years, took over the role and played the part until the end. Tonto was played throughout the run by actor John Todd, and other supporting players were selected from Detroit area actors and studio staff. These included Jay Michael (as various villains, including Butch Cavendish), Paul Sutton (as the Ranger's friend Thunder Martin and as various army colonels and badmen), future movie star John Hodiak, and others. The part of nephew Dan Reid was played by various child actors, including Ernie Winstanley, James Lipton, and Dick Beals.

The last new radio episode of the Lone Ranger was aired on September 3, 1954.

Other media

The series also inspired numerous comic books, two movie serials, books, a live action television series (1949-1957) best known for starring Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger (though with John Hart as the Lone Ranger from 1952-1954) and Jay Silverheels as Tonto, and a Saturday morning animated cartoon. The TV series featured Fred Foy as the announcer, a role he also served in the later years of the radio series. Later adaptations are notable for their efforts to remove the stereotypical elements of the Tonto character (e.g. his broken English) and change him into a proud and articulate warrior who is treated by the Ranger as an equal partner. So far, no modern remake of The Lone Ranger has proven popular, with 1981's Legend of the Lone Ranger causing much upset among fans when a movie studio filed a suit to prevent Clayton Moore from appearing as the Lone Ranger anywhere else; the film was a spectacular failure. It did not help that the lead actor's lines had to be overdubbed by another actor. A 2003 made-for-TV version was also unsuccessful.

The radio series also created a spin-off called the Green Hornet which depicts John Reid's grand nephew, Britt Reid, who in contemporary times fights crime with a similar secret identity and sidekick, Kato. However, the properties have been acquired by different interests and the familial link has been downplayed.

Each episode begins with the catch phrase "Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear.... The Lone Ranger Rides Again!", and invariably ends with one of the characters lamenting the fact that they never found out the hero's name ("Who was that masked man?"), only to be told, "Why, that was the Lone Ranger!" as he and Tonto ride away. The theme music was the "cavalry charge" finale of Gioacchino Rossini's William Tell overture, now inseparably associated with the series, which also featured many other classical selections as incidental music including Wagner, Mendelssohn, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky.

Lone Ranger lore

Tonto greets the Lone Ranger with the expression "kemosabe", which has also been written "Kemo Sabe" or "Kemo Sabhay". The origin of this expression is somewhat unclear. However the writer of the Lone Ranger scripts, Fran Striker, said the actual expression was Ta-i ke-mo sah-bee, which he said meant "greetings trusty scout". In the pilot television of the Clayton Moore TV series, "Enter the Lone Ranger", Tonto explictly states that "Kemosabe" means "trusty scout".

Various investigators have found other sources for this saying, some of them humorous and usually centering around the idea that "Kemo Sabe" is actually an insult or vulgarity. For instance, a Far Side comic strip has a long since retired Lone Ranger discovering (in an Indian dictionary) that "Kemo Sabe" is an Apache expression for a "horse's patootie".

The widespread popularity and admiration of the radio and TV series lent itself to inevitable parodies and takeoffs in cartoons and other popular media. Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels were not above joining in the fun, playing their own characters in TV ads from time to time, for modern products such as Aqua-Velva after shave lotion and Amoco "Silver" gasoline.

In the early 1970s, Jay Silverheels appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, playing Tonto, with Johnny Carson playing a career counselor. Tonto was seeking a new job after having spent "thirty lousy years" as the Ranger's faithful Indian companion. ("Him let me peek under mask once. No big deal!") As to why he was no longer working with the Masked Man, Tonto said, "Him find out what Kemo Sabe means!"

Conventional wisdom about the character of the Lone Ranger is that it fits closely with the view of how America sees itself as a nation: believers in law and justice, and using only a "legitimate" amount of force to subdue a presumably lawless and evil enemy, and acting as a "lone" voice of reason in the world, if it comes to that. This theory is underscored by this exchange from the very first TV episode. Right after the Ranger puts the mask on (which Tonto had fashioned from Captain Dan Reid's vest), Tonto starts handing equipment to the Ranger:

Tonto: Here, guns, to kill bad men.
Reid: I'm not going to do any killing.
Tonto: You not defend yourself?
Reid: I'll shoot if I have to. But I'll shoot to wound, not to kill. If a man must die, it's up to the law to decide that, not the person behind a six-shooter!
Tonto: That's right, Kemo Sabe!
Tonto: You all alone now. Last man. You are lone Ranger.
Reid: Yes, Tonto... I am... The Lone Ranger!

Resources

  • Reginald Jones, The Mystery of the Masked Man's Music, ISBN 0810839741
  • CD with all the incidental music: Music of the Lone Ranger