With the stirring notes of the William Tell Overture and a shout of “Hi-yo, Silver! Away!” The Lone Ranger debuts on Detroit’s WXYZ radio station.
The creation of station-owner George Trendle and writer Fran Striker, the “masked rider of the plains” became one of the most popular and enduring western heroes of the 20th century. Joined by his trusty steed, Silver, and loyal Indian scout, Tonto, the Lone Ranger sallied forth to do battle with evil western outlaws and Indians, generally arriving on the scene just in time to save an innocent golden-haired child or sun-bonneted farm wife.
Neither Trendle nor Striker had any connections to or experience with the cowboys, Indians, and pioneers of the real West, but that mattered little to them. The men simply wanted to create an American version of the masked swashbuckler made popular by the silent movie actor Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro, arming their hero with a revolver rather than a sword. Historical authenticity was far less important to the men than fidelity to the strict code of conduct they established for their character. The Lone Ranger never smoked, swore, or drank alcohol; he used grammatically correct speech free of slang; and, most important, he never shot to kill. More offensive to modern historical and ethnic sensibilities was the Indian scout Tonto, who spoke in a comical Indian patois totally unrelated to any authentic Indian dialect, uttering ludicrous phrases like “You betchum!”
Historical accuracy notwithstanding, the radio program was an instant hit. Children liked the steady stream of action and parents approved of the good moral example offered by the upstanding masked man. Soon picked up for nationwide broadcast over the Mutual Radio Network, over 20 million Americans were tuning into The Lone Ranger three times a week by 1939. In an early example of the power of marketing tie-ins, the producers also licensed the manufacture of a vast array of related products, including Lone Ranger guns, costumes, books, and a popular comic strip.
The Lone Ranger made a seemingly effortless transition from radio to motion pictures and television. The televised version of The Lone Ranger, staring Clayton Moore as the masked man, became ABC’s first big hit in the early 1950s. Remaining on the air until 1957, the program helped define the golden age of the TV Western and inspired dozens of imitators like The Range Rider, The Roy Rogers Show, and The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok.