Monday, August 5, 2013

Michigan in Radio History, Part II: The Lone Ranger was born in Detroit

The movie "The Lone Ranger" may have been a flop this summer, but the fact that Hollywood shelled out $375 million to make it is a testament to the character's longevity and popularity among audiences. Many Michiganders don't know that the fictional gun-slinging, crime-fighting Texas Ranger and his trusty Native American sidekick, Tonto, began their lives on a radio show that premiered on Detroit station WXYZ in January 1933.

Screenshot from "The Lone Ranger" TV series, which spun off from the radio show,
and starred Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger, and Jay Silverheels as Tonto.

Debate continues over who should receive credit for creating the Lone Ranger: George Trendle, owner of WXYZ, who developed the idea of a radio program featuring a Zorro-like character whose heroism and moral code would be appropriate for an audience of children; or Fran Striker, a writer who fleshed out the characters and wrote the program's scripts. (Striker was eventually forced to relinquish his rights to the character so that Trendle could assume them, further muddying the dispute.) Regardless of their origin, when the Lone Ranger and Tonto hit the airwaves, along with their horses Silver and Scout, WXYZ had an immediate hit, attracting nearly as many adult listeners as children. The show gained a national audience when the Mutual Broadcasting System and NBC's Blue Network began carrying it, and aired nearly 3,000 episodes before ending its run in 1954.

Brace Beemer, who played the Lone Ranger on radio from 1941 through 1954.

The premise of "The Lone Ranger" is well-known, but in case anyone needs a refresher, here it is. The Lone Ranger (real name John Reid) is a Texas Ranger who, along with his fellow lawmen, was ambushed by outlaws, and became the only man in his group to survive the attack (which is how he got the nickname, "The Lone Ranger"). Tonto, a Native American whose life John Reid had saved when Tonto was a boy, happened upon the wounded Ranger, and nursed him back to health. From that point on, Reid, clad in a black mask to conceal his true identity, devoted himself to avenging society's wrongs, adhering to a strict moral code and using weapons only when necessary.

The Lone Ranger eventually became the hero in a series of books, comics, and movies, as well as a TV show that ran from 1949 to 1957. When Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp took over the characters of the Lone Ranger and Tonto, respectively, in this summer's failed blockbuster, they were simply two in a series of men to assume the iconic roles that resonate with Americans to this day--roles that found their genesis not among the craggy cliffs and dusty canyons that were the settings of their adventures, but in a station that made radio history in Detroit, Michigan.

For more information:

Here's the first broadcast of the Lone Ranger, which premiered on WXYZ in late January 1933. The show used a selection from "The William Tell Overture," which was royalty-free, as its theme music.

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