An American Idiom

He has become a classic in his own time. Like the early Ford car, he is not considered a proprietary product, but a commodity, dissociated from commercialism. Publishers of grade-school books are already picking over the novelized form of the episodes. Mrs. Temple has been allowed to state that it is Shirley's favorite program. Mrs. Roosevelt did not hesitate to write in her column:

"The other evening I offered to read aloud to Buz until bedtime, but there is a program on the air called 'The Lone Ranger,' which seems to be entirely satisfactory."
The curse of radio is its impermanence. Its bounty is like Cinderella's godmother's; little of it survives the stroke of midnight. But one of the Ranger's phrases has already entrenched itself in the national vocabulary: "Hi-Yo, Silver!" No group of children can forgo it long. Hundreds of cartoons have been built around it. Burlesque comedians greet each other with "Hi-Yo, Silverstein!" The papers recently mentioned an Italian grocer in Washington who was heard to summon his wife with "Hi-Yo, Sylvia!"

In a recent Saturday Evening Post story by Paul Gallico, about two Chicago debutantes who go fox hunting in England, occurs this passage:

"The Duke came up and raised his cap... and said..., 'I say, what was that fascinating cry you used--"I say, Silver," or something like that?' So Swing and I called, 'Hi-Yo, Silver!' for him..."
A New York State mounted trooper arrested a youth for mocking him with it. The trooper had no case. His nerves were simply frayed past further tolerance.

A rider in Brooklyn's Prospect Park complained that urchins had thrown rocks at his horse, so that it would go faster, and they could shout it at him.

It has even rung out over a performance by the austere Detroit Symphony. Gabrilowitsch was conducting the William Tell Overture, but someone in the hall knew it only as the Ranger's theme music. Joyfully and heedlessly he gave tongue to the cry.

These spontaneous tributes prove once more that art has gotten the bulge on Nature. Saints aside, no man of flesh and blood has ever had the adoration that the Ranger enjoys, and the Ranger is a man-made man. He was built according to formula, compounded of ingredients chosen and measured as carefully as those in Escoffier's greatest sauce. He was also built to necessity. There is a saying that the times create their own hero. The Lone Ranger was created by hard times at Station WXYZ.

Two men own it: John H. King and George W. Trendle, both of Detroit. King formerly Kunsky, built the second movie theater in the nation, in 1905. Eventually, he had a chain of twenty. Trendle started as a lawyer and came to specialize in movie contracts and leases. When King made him a quarter partner in the Kunsky Theaters in 1928, he dropped law entirely. They sold out to Paramount in 1929 for $6,000,000 and bought WXYZ, a Columbia outlet. Trendle is now an active partner.

Obstacles arose at once. Trendle wanted to reserve evening time for programs of local interest, but Columbia wouldnot allow him. Rebellious, he canceled the contract in June, 932, and became an independent. Presently he found himself losing $4,000 a week. His station could not compete with the symphony orchestras and high-priced comedians offered by the networks. It became a case of "Root, hog, or die," and he rooted--for a program to save his station. There were three factors in his favor: His years of experience with the public taste, his lifelong devotion to pulp fiction, and his Euclidean mind--the kind that erects a logical structure on a solid foundation. In this case, the foundation was that the program had to be dramatic, because drama was inexpensive, required no name-stars, and could be home-cooked.

Now follow his reasoning step by step:

Drama, but what kind of drama --for adults or kids? For kids, because they are less critical, and therefore the program need not be so expensive or elaborate. Besides, Trendle believed that most parents buy advertised products because their kids coax them into it.

What kind of kid drama? Trendle knew that kids' favorites were crime stories and Westerns. He dismissed crime because he wanted his program to be completely wholesome. He also wanted one that would lend itself to premiums from future sponsors. A crime program admitted little more than masks, badges and weapons, but a Western opened the field of costume and saddlery as well.

Western drama of what period? Not contemporary, because the script writer would be cramped by having to defer to probability.

Drama postulates a hero. What kind would this one be? Young or mature? Mature, because it is better to respect than to envy.

Finally, how to distinguish him from a thousand other Western heroes? Trendle wasn't sure about this. He pictured him a composite of Robin Hood and Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro, but the picture was little more than an outline, when he unveiled it before his studio staff, in December, 1932.

Their first objection was that the hero had no mystery and little romance. Why not make him a sort of benevolent outlaw and give him a mask? Fine! Then it was suggested that he needed something distinctive as an identification. How bout a super-horse, possibly a white Arabian?


This article originally appeared in The Saturday Evening Post on October 14, 1939.