This week, we will abandon our usual Fine Arts mandate to observe the 80th anniversaries of several glorious examples of American Pop Culture.
So as not to disappoint usual Jade Sphinx readers who expect a certain amount of grousing about the deplorable conditions of the world in which we live – let me take this moment to pour the mixture as before. At one time, American Pop Culture was a great and glorious thing: though made to be disposable and never with the pretentions of High Art, occasionally Pop Art created things of great and lasting beauty. The Great American Songbook, for example, was art of the most popular kind … and may end up being our sole, enduring legacy. Movies, too, when they were made for adults and weren’t special-effects laden pap made to sell toys, were also Pop Art of a significant and lasting kind. All of this, of course, was before the rot set in. Today, “disposable” is perhaps the kindest thing that can be said for the rancid and diseased corruption crafted to amuse the groundlings in our movie theaters and in front of their television sets. The fall from Cole Porter to rap music, or from Ernst Lubitsch to J. J. Abrams is a precipitous one – and quite possibly fatal.
But as potent as music and movies were in the 1920s-through-1960 or so, so were pulp magazines and radio drama. Many people today consider pulp magazines to be the precursors of comics, but that’s an oversimplification of a more intellectually challenged time. In fact, pulp magazines were monthly novels and short story collections – already more demanding of even the most casual reader than comics – and the magazines could be devoted to western stories or science fiction or romance or detective tales or the recurring adventures of a single character, like The Shadow or Doc Savage. (More on Doc later this week.)
Similar to the pulps and equally important was radio drama. Before television, people sat around their radios … looking at them. Radio was truly a theater of mind because gifted actors and often brilliant sound effects men were utterly invisible to the listener. It was the art of the radio writer to create landscapes out of the airwaves and people them with compelling stories and captivating characters. Unlike the spoon-fed tosh found on any (most? all?) television stations, radio drama demanded from the audience attention, imagination, and most of all, participation.
Few radio icons have left a deeper or more mythic footprint on our subconscious than The Lone Ranger. Created by writer Fran Striker (1903-1962), The Lone Ranger first appeared in 1933 on radio station WXYZ, owned by George W. Trendle (1884-1972), who also claimed credit for creating the Ranger. The show was an enormous hit – it was geared towards kids, but more than half of the audience was made up of adults. The show would last on radio until 1954 – but, as is often the case, the Lone Ranger was to ride again in a television show from 1949 to 1957. The Lone Ranger was also the subject of two movie serials, three motion pictures (with a fourth one on the way), and one execrable TV movie.
The Lone Ranger also was featured in eight novels by Striker, countless comic books and Big-Little-Books, and the daydreams of boys without number, including your correspondent.
Though the mythos has often been tweaked over the past 80 years, the basic origin of the Lone Ranger remains the same. He was one of a band of Texas Rangers who were ambushed in Bryant’s Gap by the notorious Butch Cavendish gang. All the other rangers died in the attack; their bodies found by an American Indian named Tonto.
Tonto buried all of the rangers, and also made a fake grave for the surviving ranger, so that Butch and other bad men of the West would not seek him out and finish the job. As Tonto said, “you only ranger left; you Lone Ranger.”
Donning a mask to keep his identity a secret, the Lone Ranger and Tonto first set out to bring Cavendish to justice. And when that job was completed, the duo realized that – having no real fixed or official identities – that they could…. well, as various announcers for the series said, 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 hoof-beats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again!
The Lone Ranger is a remarkable creation for a number of reasons. First off, Striker and company obliviously hit some kind of nerve in creating a kiddie show character that so resonated with adults. To understand the Lone Ranger’s popularity at the time with both children and adults, think of our contemporary obsession with Batman – and then realize that the Lone Ranger was even more popular in his prime.
I suspect that one of the reasons for this is that the Ranger was his own man in his own time. He had no secret identity (at least, not once his life changed so dramatically), he had no hideout or regular supporting cast, he had no superpowers that rendered him ridiculous. And, more importantly, he had freedom. The Lone Ranger and Tonto ride the West without thought of the necessities of making money or advancing careers or of the real needs of wives and children. They were free men in a seemingly more free time.
They also were equal partners. Most people unfamiliar with the actual radio or television series believe Tonto was a monosyllabic stooge; but actually listening or watching the series would dispel this notion. Tonto was the Ranger’s superior in woodcraft and outdoorsmanship, and was an excellent scout and information resource. More often than not, it was Tonto who did the initial reconnaissance and told the Ranger who and where the villains could be found. It was also a true friendship – both men cared for and loved each other. (As is often the case with these long-lasting sagas, there is some debate as to how the two actually met. The adopted story is that they were boyhood friends and it was chance that brought Tonto to Bryant’s Gap after the ambush. Each man calls the other Kemo Sabe, which means “faithful friend.”)
Another key, I think, was the duo’s famous mounts, Silver and Scout. Tonto rode Scout, an incredibly capable paint horse, but the Ranger rode a magnificent white stallion, Silver. The Ranger rescued Silver when the horse was beset by an enraged Buffalo, and then Silver would never leave his side. The Lone Ranger also used silver bullets, and the overriding theme of silver helped underscore the character’s sense of purity.
Most famously, the Ranger had a very strict moral code. The Lone Ranger never took a life, never shot to kill, never took unfair advantage. Today, a concept like that would never fly, when even the most innocent of family movies have a high body count. But these were different times and a different America – a more aspirational land when we wanted people to emulate rather than feel smugly superior.
I had the great good fortune to interview Clayton Moore (1914-1999) who played the Lone Ranger on television and in two feature films, around the time he wrote his autobiography, I Was That Masked Man. Aside from being an amusing and intelligent man, the thing that stuck most with me was how he felt the Ranger had changed his life. While no saint, Moore spoke candidly of how he tried to “live up to” the Ranger and his ideals. The stories of Moore taking his role very seriously are legendary – a particularly amusing one can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KFabfnfhIaY.
When closing the interview, Moore, in complete sincerity, asked if I would like for him to recite the Lone Ranger’s Code. How could I refuse! Taking a pause, Clayton Moore/The Lone Ranger said:
That to have a friend, a man must be one.
That all men are created equal and that everyone has within himself the power to make this a better world.
That God put the firewood there, but that every man must gather and light it himself.
In being prepared physically, mentally, and morally to fight when necessary for that which is right.
That a man should make the most of what equipment he has.
That 'this government of the people, by the people, and for the people' shall live always.
That men should live by the rule of what is best for the greatest number.
That sooner or later...somewhere...somehow...we must settle with the world and make payment for what we have taken.
That all things change but truth, and that truth alone, lives on forever.
In my Creator, my country, my fellow man.
I will be the first to admit that there was as much corn as gold in our Golden Age of Pop Culture. However… there is something about the Lone Ranger that still resonates, still has the capacity to touch some more innocent and hopeful self. And I say without shame and certainly without irony that I miss him.
Who was that Masked Man? He was the best part of ourselves.