The Lone Ranger
From a cramped Detroit radio studio, the Lone Ranger galloped into the imaginations and hearts of millions of listeners
(page 2 of 4)
By the following episode, a new masked man was in place — George Stenius, a soft-spoken 21-year-old stage actor more comfortable with writing than performing. Stenius soon left Detroit for Hollywood. There, as George Seaton, he achieved success (including a pair of Oscars) as the writer and director of such movies as Miracle on 34th Street and Airport.
Earl Graser next settled into the saddle. Graser was a young law student who enjoyed badminton and singing. According to the late Dick Osgood, a longtime WXYZ staffer who wrote a history of the station, Graser had “blue eyes, fair skin, and was inclined to be chubby. Born in Canada, he had never been west of Michigan, couldn’t ride a horse, and shot a gun only once in his life.”
Nonetheless, starting on April 16, 1933, and continuing for the next eight years, the mild-mannered Graser was the voice of the hard-riding protagonist. Meanwhile, Beemer — a strapping 6-foot-3 Illinois native who could handle horses, guns, and bullwhips with ease — portrayed the character outside the studio. When 70,000 kids showed up on Belle Isle one July day for the Lone Ranger’s first public appearance, Trendle realized he had an emerging hit on his hands.
The program soon moved from Trendle’s fledgling statewide network of stations to a coast-to-coast feed. He offered Striker — who had been mailing in his scripts — a full-time job for $100 a week. As a condition of employment, the writer reluctantly surrendered all rights to the character. Striker moved his family to Detroit just in time to see the windows of Hudson’s fill up with Lone Ranger merchandise for the 1933 Christmas season.
Trendle’s coffers filled up as well. He quickly copyrighted The Lone Ranger and raked in millions of dollars over the life of the show. To discourage employees looking for a raise, he kept a doctored ledger showing the profitable program losing money. The show’s dizzying success eventually begat The Green Hornet and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, WXYZ dramas that borrowed many of their themes, story-lines, and voice actors from The Lone Ranger.
Trendle issued strict directives regarding the Ranger’s comportment. He was to speak in perfect English, could never cuss, drink alcohol, or tell a lie, and had to be respectful of all nationalities and religions. In this theater of the mind, listeners were to see a level-headed pursuer of justice, not some vigilante wildly blasting his trademark silver bullets off saloon ceilings and canyon walls.
“I’ll shoot if I have to,” the Lone Ranger would say. “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.” To which Tonto would reply, “That right, kemo-sabe!” The much-parodied word, which in the show was interpreted as “faithful friend,” was borrowed from the name of a Camp Ke-Mo-Sah-Bee that Jewell’s father-in-law owned in northern Michigan. Tonto’s pidgin English clouded the fact that the character was written as being roughly the Lone Ranger’s equal, not a subservient sidekick. For the first year or so, the two even rode Silver together, until Tonto got his own horse, Scout.
To Patsy Horan of Lansing, the noble and loyal Tonto was simply “good ol’ Uncle Fred” — a pudgy, balding, veteran Shakespearean actor who happened to be her godfather, Fred McCarthy. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1877, and went by the stage name of John Todd. During his vaudeville days he actually met Buffalo Bill.
“He’d come over to our house in Detroit for Sunday dinner,” says Horan, 73. “I remember sitting on his lap. A real kind man. He’d give us kids elocution lessons. I thought it was kind of funny that Tonto always had shiny, manicured fingernails and smelled like cologne. But then I figured, well, he was an actor.”
Todd played Tonto throughout the radio show’s entire run. He often said he was grateful for such steady work, especially during the Depression.
“We were the stars of the neighborhood,” Horan says. “The family next door had a priest. But we had Tonto.”
Few people even in Graser’s Farmington neighborhood knew of his secret alter ego. But the Ranger’s identity was tragically exposed in the early-morning hours of April 8, 1941. While driving home on Grand River, the 32-year-old actor — who had urged millions of kids to join the Lone Ranger Safety Club — fell asleep at the wheel and plowed his car into a parked trailer. Graser’s untimely death rattled a country grown comfortable with his deep, rich voice and shocked children convinced of the Lone Ranger’s invincibility. Warmhearted obituaries were published coast to coast and 10,000 mourners attended the funeral.