Time, an afternoon this past summer. Place, a suburb of Detroit. Scene, a drugstore crowded with thirsty children.
A young man found a table and ordered, "A chocolate soda, please."
The waitress stared at him, then whispered, "If I give you extra-good service, will you give me your autograph?"
"Me?" he asked. "Who do you think I am?"
She whispered again, "You wouldn't want me to say with all these kids here, would you?"
The young man had shot his way through an ambush of desperadoes only the night before. Time and again he had bearded murderers in their lairs and haled them to justice. He could not remember how often a mere glance of his eye had cowed a swaggering bully.
But kids were different. You can't cow a swarm of hornets. He knew that a word, a hint even, could turn the store into a shambles. Screening a paper napkin with his hand, he wrote on it: "Faithfully yours, THE LONE RANGER."
The waitress had recognized his voice, of course. It is the most famous voice in America. Some 20,000,000 people hang upon it every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, when it echoes from 140 stations--the greatest number carrying a single program in the history of radio. But only a few dozen people--his family and his home studio, WXYZ, Detroit--can couple his voice with his face. The ear's memory is so short and treacherous that he has not been challenged ten times in his career and, except in such emergencies as that afternoon's, he has always been able to sidestep with "Me, the Lone Ranger? Why, nobody knows who he is!"
WXYZ has guarded his identity for practical reasons. He wears a figurative mask on the street because he wears a hypothetical mask on the air. Mystery is vital to his role; much of the illusion would be lost if his face were familiar. More of it would be lost if the audience were allowed to compare an actual face, no matter how noble, with their idealized conceptions.
Even so, the offstage life of Public Hero No. 1 is almost like a public enemy's. Lacking only the legend WANTED! his name glares at him from the marquee of every movie theater that is an outlet for Republic Pictures. He can read it on sweatshirts and soap, balloons and buttons, and the innumerable other products of sixty-six licensed manufacturers. It leaps at him from the pages of the 123 newspapers that carry his cartoon strips. He could not escape it in Montreal or Mexico City. In Belgrade, the Paja Patek spellbinds Jugoslavs with his deeds of derring-do.
It is a paradox that this idol of young America could walk into any schoolroom in the nation and cause less stir than the janitor. For an idol he certainly is. No secular myth has ever grasped the popular fancy with such strength. It is hard to see why. Chevalier Bayard, "without fear and without reproach," suffered from his own perfection. Some stain, however tiny, would have made his purity the whiter and the more human. The Lone Ranger is carved from the same cold marble. He has no vices; he hasn't even any relaxations. He never laughs; he never even smiles.
And yet he is the hero from whom all other heroes take fresh luster. The stock comparisons have been reversed. The Ranger's aim is not so unerring as Robin Hood's; Robin Hood shot as well as the Ranger. Buffalo Bill rode like him. Tarzan was as strong and resourceful. Jack Dempsey was as fearless. The Ranger escapes their faults and combines their virtue.
This article originally appeared in The Saturday Evening Post on October 14, 1939.