As I noted in the first installment in this series, a major part of Americana— The Lone Ranger— began on Detroit-based radio station WXYZ in 1933.
According to Dave Holland in From Out of the Past: The Pictorial History of the Lone Ranger, (page 108), WXYZ not only was a part of the Michigan Radio Network, but was also a founding station of the Mutual Network. It officially formed Sept. 15, 1934. The other Mutual stations were WGN in Chicago, WOR in New York and WLW in Cincinnati.
By the way, not only did station owner George W. Trendle break free of CBS, but he also changed the call letters from WGHP (named for original owner George Harrison Phelps) to WXYZ. According to From Out of the Past (pages 48-49), Trendle wanted the call letters WYXZ, since he was going to make the station “the last word in radio.” However, he had to convince both the Army and Navy— which held those call letters in reserve— to release them. It took some doing, but he did it.
Many decades later, when the station switched to a talk radio format, it would change its call letters to “WXYT”, with the T standing for “talk.” Not nearly as imaginative as fast talking the Army and Navy into giving up a set of call letters kept in reserve.
But let’s get back to The Lone Ranger.
Over the last several months, I’ve listened to more than 500 Lone Ranger episodes. People who never listened to the program, or who haven’t listened in years, might think the stories are simplistic, with two-dimensional characters. Not so. Oh, sure, the 30 minute time slot (including commercials) meant Fran Striker and other writers couldn’t give the characters as much depth as they’d have had in an hour-long program; but even so, the bad guys weren’t melodramatic villains. Yes, some robbed and/or killed because they could and just didn’t give a damn about anyone else; but some acted as they did because they believed they were in the right. As they say, every villain thinks he’s the hero.
Also, in many episodes the conflict might revolve around a man’s stubborn pride getting the better of him, something a bad guy (who might be a fellow rancher or farmer or Army officer or Indian or lawman or stage line owner or prospector or whatever) might try to exploit.
The Lone Ranger was also a relatively enlightened program, given the era in which it aired. Yes, pretty much every member of non-WASP ethnic groups tended to refer to himself or herself in the third person (“Me Tonto” or “José will get you for this” and so forth); and yes, there are several instances where the narrator refers to Indians in the story as “savages.”
There wasn’t a “cowboys vs. Indians” mentality in The Lone Ranger (with the cowboys as the good guys). Indians described as “savages” were the villains of a particular story; but there were several episodes where a particular tribe was minding its own business and/or living up to the terms of a treaty, but were being wronged by renegade Army officers, duplicitous ranchers, corrupt government officials, or others. The narrator didn’t describe them as “savages.” Bad guys might, but they were also shown to be ignorant.
It’s also interesting how often the bad guys’ prejudices were used against them. Bad guys often assumed Indians (and/or members of other minority groups) were stupid, so they weren’t always concerned if, say, Tonto should happen to overhear something.
Good guy characters, by contrast, had more positive attitudes. Say “Smith” was injured or ill and hesitant about Tonto treating him. “Jones” would “endorse” Tonto by saying something like “some Indians know a lot about medicine.”
And the Ranger himself was respectful of other cultures and belief systems.
That whole speaking in third person thing? It wasn’t just limited to minority groups in radio. In some Silver Age comics (and even some published as recently as the 1980s) concerning Superman as a toddler (AKA Superbaby), the toddler Clark Kent and his friends would all talk that way. If the story concerned an Easter egg hunt, young Clark or Lana Lang or Pete Ross or whomever might say, “me find shiny blue egg.”
No child talks like that. What on Earth were those writers thinking?
As I noted in the first installment of this series, A Lone Ranger movie is coming out next year. It stars Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp as Tonto. As with any other movie, I’ll wait to see it before venturing an opinion about it (for the record, my biggest complaint about The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) was the balladeer. Get rid of him and the film improves a thousand-fold).
I’m sure the movie makers will make changes— subtle or otherwise— to the mythos. That’s fine in and of itself. As I noted last time, the Lone Ranger has endured a convoluted origin story. However, I hope the movie at least treats the characters of the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and the source material, with respect.
(One possible change: The Ranger is shown wearing a badge in one publicity photo. However, we don’t know the context. In one radio episode a sheriff gave the Ranger his badge and deputized him. Could be a situation like that. Or maybe it’s meant as a symbol, representing all lawmen.).
I also hope the Ranger and Tonto aren’t unrealistically “perfect.” On the radio show, the Ranger made mistakes from time to time. Some nearly proved fatal. In the Lone Ranger and Tonto Graphic Album, written by Joe R. Lansdale (and which has an afterward by Dave Holland), the Ranger makes some big mistakes which leads to a split with Tonto. But that’s realistic. He’s still human, however fast he is with his guns, and however idealistic his goals.
There’s a balance between a Lone Ranger who’s either a joke or little more than a “grim and gritty” thug (I’m sure more than one person in Hollywood has suggested either interpretation as a way to “improve” the character) and one who is all but perfect. I hope the movie strikes that balance, giving us someone who’s inspirational but has his share of flaws.
Whether the movie is a hit or a flop, The Lone Ranger will remain a key part of Americana. I’ve no doubt that in the decades and centuries to come, future generations will tell new tales of the masked rider of the plains.
Copyright 2012 Patrick Keating