The Lone Ranger

From a cramped Detroit radio studio, the Lone Ranger galloped into the imaginations and hearts of millions of listeners
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Brace Beemer, center, with The Lone Ranger crew in the WXYZ studios. Courtesy Richard Bak

On a particular Monday evening in 1964, the game-show panel on television’s I’ve Got a Secret was stumped. So was the national viewing audience. Who was this tall, heavyset man with the craggy good looks? It didn’t help matters that host Garry Moore wouldn’t let the mystery guest answer any questions himself.

Finally, Moore allowed him to utter a single word — “No” — and millions of ears around the country instantly perked up at the sound of an old friend’s voice.

“Brace Beemer!” panelists shouted. “The Lone Ranger!”

Such was the influence of radio during its golden age, and such was the remarkable staying power of the medium’s greatest fictional lawman.

“Brace Beemer had a voice that was unforgettable,” says Mert Oakes, who grew up in Iowa during the ’30s. “We had a 3-foot-high cabinet radio in the living room, and I’d sit there on the floor and listen to every episode. It wasn’t like television. You had to use your imagination as to what was going on.”

From 1933 to 1954, a period that spanned the Great Depression, World War II, and the early years of the Cold War, The Lone Ranger threw an enormous electronic lasso over a country hungry for heroes, roping in as many as 15 million listeners every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday night. America’s sweetheart, child star Shirley Temple, gushed that it was her favorite program. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover loved the simple cowboy morality sandwiched between pitches for Silvercup bread, one of the show’s sponsors. Even atomic spy Julius Rosenberg was tuned to the Ranger on the evening that real-life lawmen burst through the door of his dingy flat to arrest him for selling secrets to the Russians.

Over time, The Lone Ranger franchise grew to include movies, books, comics, and the first made-for-TV Western series. A saddlebag full of merchandise found its way under American Christmas trees, including cap guns, clothing, lunch boxes, radios, watches, board games, puzzles, flashlights, and toothbrushes.

“I had to have everything — The Lone Ranger outfit, the guns, the mask, everything,” says Oakes, now 75 and living in Vancouver, Wash. “I was crazy about the show. I memorized the preamble and I never forgot it.”

That preamble remains the most famous in radio history. Each episode began with the horn blast from the rousing “cavalry charge” finale from Rossini’s William Tell Overture and continued with the announcer’s breathless introduction:

“A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty Hi-Yo, Silver! The Lone Ranger, with his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early western United States. Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a greater champion of justice. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!”

The Lone Ranger debuted on the evening of Jan. 30, 1933, live from WXYZ studios in the Maccabees Building (now a Wayne State University office building) on Woodward and Putnam. The show’s exact origins have been the source of eternal debate. However, it’s safe enough to say that the principal creators were station owner George W. Trendle, who had made his money managing local vaudeville houses and movie theaters; Buffalo-based writer Fran Striker, who fleshed out the characters and storylines for a few dollars per script; and WXYZ’s drama director, James Jewell, who, like several others involved in the show’s beginnings, went to his grave feeling he was robbed of proper credit.

To accommodate different time zones, each half-hour Lone Ranger episode was performed live three times. Although Beemer’s voice is the one most closely associated with the show, he actually was just one of several radio Rangers. A dapper little actor named Jack Deeds played the title role in unconvincing fashion for the first six episodes. When Deeds arrived at the station drunk one evening, he was fired on the spot by Jewell, who took over for that night’s broadcast.

 

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.

 

With a schedule of live broadcasts looming, the tragedy had station officials scrambling to rewrite scripts while searching for a replacement. Several candidates were considered, including a staff announcer recently graduated from the University of Michigan — Myron “Mike” Wallace of future 60 Minutes fame.

In the end, Beemer — who by now was the station manager and the longtime public face of the Ranger at parades, rodeos, and school functions — was the logical choice. Looking to soften the transition to a different voice, Striker’s revised storyline had the Ranger seriously wounded and unable to speak in anything other than an occasional moan or whisper. Tonto carried much of the action for several episodes until finally, a couple of weeks after Graser’s death, a healed Lone Ranger was able to speak with bold, renewed vigor.

With Beemer at the reins, The Lone Ranger continued to ride righteously through the ether, picking up sponsors, listeners, and merchandisers along the way. By 1947, it was being heard on nearly 250 radio stations. One giveaway that year resulted in a record 3 million letters and postcards, bearing postmarks from as far away as Mexico, New Zealand, and Singapore.

The virile, strong-willed Beemer, who liked to wind down after shows with a few martinis and beer chasers at the Van Dyke Club, could be a handful when mask-less. But he was the perfect role model while in character, making unpublicized visits to hospitals and nursing homes and always putting on spirited public performances. He had been wounded while serving as an underage soldier in World War I and absolutely believed in every syrupy syllable of the Lone Ranger’s code, especially those homilies concerning duty, honor, and patriotism. He was the ideal pitchman for the show’s major sponsor, General Mills, which offered such premiums as the Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb Ring. Kids ate it all up — the cereal along with the myth.

Announcer Bob Hite once remembered a 1951 appearance at Madison Square Garden. Beemer, now nearly 50, “rode around the whole runway, and then he dismounted and walked to the microphone, and he was all alone in this huge arena, with a white light down on him, with his white hat on, the white horse, the silver guns — very impressive. The kids just went wild.”

Over the years the show featured its share of “before they were famous” names, including future screen star John Hodiak of Hamtramck (“one of the best villains on the station,” recalled Osgood) and a hook-nosed entertainer born Muzyad Yakhoob, destined to find fame as actor-philanthropist Danny Thomas. Detroit native Dick Beals played the role of the Ranger’s nephew, beginning in the late 1940s; he later lent his distinctive high-pitched voice to the famous “Speedy” Alka-Seltzer commercials, as well as to numerous cartoon characters. Another now-familiar voice belonged to a local college student named Kemal “Casey” Kasem, who years later would make his pop-culture mark as host of the long-running American Top 40 countdown show.

Paul Carnegie, known as “Paul Cannon” during his years as a disc jockey and program director at WKNR (“Keener 13”) radio in the ’60s, is another alum. Today he lives and works in Peoria, Ill.

“I remember sitting on the floor, playing with my toy cars, and listening to the show,” says Carnegie, who was born in Detroit six months before The Lone Ranger first went on the air. In early 1951 — by which time the show’s production had shifted to studios inside the converted Mendelssohn mansion in Indian Village — the Southeastern High School grad was hired to work in the sound-effects department, considered one of the best in the business. That was “pretty heady stuff” for the teenager, who got paid $1 an hour.

“Whenever some character was socked on the jaw, I’d smack the palm of my hand with this little pad of rubber,” he says. “It hurt like hell.” Galloping hoofbeats were created by pounding small toilet plungers into a box of dirt.

Carnegie’s most important duty was making sure Tonto was awake. “John Todd was in his 70s by then, and he’d sit in this chair in the corner. So on my script I’d always write ‘John’ in big letters a couple of pages before one of his scenes. That reminded me it was time to go over and nudge John. He’d say, ‘Sheriff ride to town, kemo-sabe’ or something like that and then doze off again.”

Trendle also was getting on in years, and growing concerned with certain estate implications of owning The Lone Ranger franchise. On Aug. 3, 1954, all rights to the property were sold to Wrather Corp., the Texas-based production company that had already brought the radio show to television. Out of that $3-million windfall, Trendle wrote Striker — the man who at one time mass-produced 60,000 words of copy a week for the various Lone Ranger commercial properties — a “bonus” check for $4,000.

 

The final live broadcast was on Sept. 3, 1954. It ended a 21-year run that featured some 3,000 original episodes. Afterward, Todd said, “It’s just as well. We were getting into a rut.” WXYZ would continue to broadcast repeats of old shows until 1957, the year Todd died, but the era of the live radio Ranger was over.

One by one, the rest of the show’s principals joined Todd in that Great Bunkhouse in the Sky. Striker died in a car accident in upstate New York in 1962. Three years later, Beemer succumbed to a stroke while playing bridge with friends at home. Trendle died in 1972; to the very end he threatened to sue anyone who challenged his claim as the sole creator of The Lone Ranger.

Meanwhile, TV’s version of The Lone Ranger, starring Clayton Moore with Jay Silverheels as Tonto, took hold in the public consciousness. The show ran on ABC from 1949 to 1957; the same actors also appeared in a pair of Lone Ranger movies.

“You watch those shows today and they’re just terrible,” Carnegie says. “You get sick of seeing the same phony rocks and phony trees. That was the advantage of radio. You saw things in your mind, not with your eyes.” Nonetheless, thanks to seemingly endless syndicated reruns and thousands of personal appearances by Silverheels and Moore until their deaths in 1980 and 1999, respectively, the characters from the TV show are the ones best remembered by baby boomers today.

All modern remakes of the Lone Ranger story — including a recent made-for-TV movie that featured kung fu and rap sequences — have flopped. Although technology has the ability to enrich creativity in ways that would astonish the original cast, fans of old-time radio say it’s impossible to improve on a classic Western drama whose clomping hooves and signature line — “Who was that masked man?” — came out of a cramped studio in Detroit.

“The show had all the right elements,” Carnegie says. “There were great sound effects and a wide variety of voices, so you could identify characters. There was fine acting, good writing, and a little bit of mystery.

“And good triumphed over evil. Always.”

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