In the days before television rose to prominence, radio ruled the airwaves, and some radio shows have contributed to popular culture and/or our shared vocabulary. For example, the expression “coming on like Gangbusters” refers to the noisy and chaotic opening of the Gangbusters radio show.
Ever hear the phrase “The Shadow knows”? A reference to the Shadow radio series.
But one series in particular remains a popular culture touchstone. It aired on radio from 1933-1954 (with re-runs until 1957); on television from 1949-1957; was the subject of 15-chapter serials in 1938 and 1939; and of theatrical movies in 1956, 1958 and 1981 (with a new one due out next year).
To say nothing of adventures on stage, in comics and on Saturday morning cartoons.
And it first aired right here in Detroit.
This series was called The Lone Ranger.
The Lone Ranger debuted on WXYZ radio on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 1933, according to Terry Salomonson’s Lone Ranger Log (Page 1; Dave Holland goes into even more detail in From Out of the Past: The Pictorial History of the Lone Ranger (pages 78-87). He goes so far as to argue that the first official broadcast was Thursday, Feb. 2, 1933).
For years, the accepted date of the first episode was Monday, Jan. 30, 1933. After all, it was a Monday-Wednesday -Friday show. However, it began as a Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday show, and didn’t begin airing M-W-F until November 25, 1933, according to The Lone Ranger Log (page 9).
The Lone Ranger was one of the programs airing on the brand new Michigan Radio Network, consisting of WXYZ, Detroit; WIBM, Jackson; WKZO, Kalamazoo; WJIM, Lansing; WBCM, Bay City; WFDF, Flint; WASH & WOOD, Grand Rapids; and WELL, Battle Creek. (Lone Ranger Log page 224).
WXYZ had been a CBS affiliate, but as David Rothel writes in Who Was That Masked Man? The Story of The Lone Ranger, Revised Edition (page 27), owner George W. Trendle, who’d purchased the station in 1930, broke away from CBS in June 1932 with the goal of creating local programming with local sponsors. Trendle felt this would fill the station’s coffers with far more money than it received carrying network programs.
A risky gambit, considering the country was mired in the Depression. According to From Out of the Past (page 37), WXYZ began to lose some $4,000 a week. Holland points out that a six-room house cost less in those days.
In order to survive, WXYZ needed a hit program— fast.
The Lone Ranger was it.
On the Tuesday, May 16, 1933 program, actor Earle Graser, in character as the Lone Ranger, offered “genuine Lone Ranger six-shooters” to the first 300 people to write in, as part of a giveaway promotion. Thousands of letters poured in. Even after the notice on the May 18 program that all of the toy guns had been given away. The final count was 24,905 letters in response to that one announcement (From Out of the Past page 93).
According to From Out of the Past (page 100), an outdoor Children’s Circus held on Belle Isle on July 30, 1933 was to have concluded with a grand parade of 1,200 costumed youngsters. In part to kill time as organizers prepared, the Lone Ranger was supposed to make a brief appearance.
However, when the Ranger left the field, everyone followed him. Including those 1,200 kids.
Trendle is credited with creating The Lone Ranger, but as Holland writes (From Out of the Past pages 55-68), it was more of a collaborative effort, with contributions from dramatic director James Jewel, announcer Harold True, and Buffalo, New York-based writer Fran Striker.
Jewell, for his part, told Rothel (Who Was That Masked Man, page 40), “Mr. Trendle had nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of ‘The Lone Ranger.’ He never wrote a word. He never put anything on paper but his signature to a check.”
Regardless of who contributed what, as Holland observes (From Out of the Past, page 58), “The creation of The Lone Ranger was a process, not an event.”
I’ve always felt Striker deserves more credit than Trendle. However, in 1933 Striker signed a contract that said he’d get paid $100 a week (as opposed to $4.00 a script), and that WXYZ would own whatever he wrote. (From Out of the Past page 103). A bad move on Striker’s part, given that he previously hadn’t sold his scripts, but allowed stations to broadcast them for a fee? Probably, but it was the Depression.
All that lay in the future when Jewell wrote Striker on Dec. 28, 1932, asking him to “write up three or four Wild West thrillers, using as the central figure the Lone Ranger…” Selected letters are reprinted on pages 73-76 of From Out of The Past.
Trendle had wanted to create a new program for kids, but The Lone Ranger wasn’t a “kiddie” program. At least not any programs made in 1938 (when episodes began being recorded) or later. A footnote on page 278 of From Out of the Past notes that “in the ‘40s, aspiring radio writers were told ‘don’t write down to your audience… The Lone Ranger program is NOT written from the juvenile viewpoint but rather from the adult. Today’s boys and girls demand the same high standards of story and drama their elders are accustomed to hearing.”
The footnote goes on to say that a 1941 survey found that adults comprised 63 percent of the radio audience; and that they made up 52 percent of the combined radio and TV audience in 1953.
By 1937, The Lone Ranger was airing coast to coast. The “masked rider of the plains”— who’d started out on a small, independent, Detroit-based radio station— was well on his way to nationwide (and later international) recognition.
Three years after the debut of The Lone Ranger, on Jan. 31, 1936, The Green Hornet (also the subject of a TV series, serials and a movie) would debut on WXYZ radio. Challenge of the Yukon (later Sergeant Preston of the Yukon) would follow on Jan. 3, 1939.
While all three shows used the same reparatory cast (save for the respective lead actors), the Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet had an in-universe connection, established in the Nov. 11, 1947 Green Hornet episode “Too Hot to Handle”: Britt Reid, the Green Hornet, was the son of the Lone Ranger’s nephew, Dan Reid, Jr.
Next time: A look at the character of The Lone Ranger himself.
Copyright 2012 Patrick Keating.