“In the early days of the western United States, a masked man and an Indian rode the plains, searching for truth and justice. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when from out of the past come the thundering hoof beats of the great horse Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!” The Announcer’s introduction to the original The Lone Ranger radio broadcast.
Contrary to what many moviegoers will come to believe this summer, Johnny Depp did not invent the Lone Ranger. The exploits of the Texas Rangers have been fodder for radio and television shows, books and movies for generations. A reputation for relentless pursuit of criminals and capturing some of the most deadly bad men in Texas history was already well established.
In fact, there is an apocryphal tale that during World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm the Chancellor of Germany, received a report that the United States was ‘sending in the Rangers’ to do battle with his forces along the Western Front. Apparently the Kaiser grew agitated and fearful until he was convinced that it was U.S. Army Rangers and not the Texas Rangers who were joining the fight. Of course the Army Rangers caused the Kaiser enough problems on their own, but it goes to show the power of a reputation.
In 1933 that reputation traveled from Texas to Detroit, Michigan and the legendary lawmen gave writer Fran Stryker the inspiration for his character of The Lone Ranger. Stryker worked at Detroit radio station WXYZ and in the Golden Age of radio, had already created numerous successful shows. But when he came up with the idea of the masked lawman, little did he know that he had created a character and a legend that would far outlive him.
The show became an almost instant hit on radio. Though it was aimed at children, over fifty percent of its audience was adults. The show was picked up by a major network and broadcast around the country, not just in Detroit. This made it an even bigger hit and brought the legend of the Texas Rangers to even more people. Voiced by several actors, most notably Brace Beemer, the masked lawmen became a pop culture phenomenon.
And like most movie or television productions the radio show got a lot of things wrong. Most glaring was the character of Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s partner or as it was phrased on the radio show his ‘faithful Indian companion.’ Tonto was identified as a member of the Potawatomi tribe. Unfortunately, the Potawatomi are native to Michigan and the Great Lakes area, not Texas. In the local tribal languages “Tonto” means ‘wild one’ but in Spanish, Tonto means ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’ so the characters name was changed to “Toro” (which means bull) in Spanish broadcasts. Many Native Americans also found Tonto’s stilted Pidgin English style of speaking to be insulting.
But in other ways creator Stryker was far more sensitive to minorities than many other shows from the era could claim. Native Americans were never portrayed as the enemy. Though the real Texas Rangers fought many battles with local tribes like the Comanche and Kiowa, the Lone Ranger focused on criminals for the most part. In some episodes he did go up against foreign agents from other, always unnamed countries to avoid cultural stereotypes. And the thieves and murders chased down by the Lone Ranger and Tonto (both on the radio and later in the television show) were never shown to have benefited from their crimes. They gained no wealth, power or influence and if they did, the Lone Ranger made sure it was not long lived. In short, like his real life counterparts, the Lone Ranger made sure that crime didn’t pay.
Next Time—Texas Ranger Captain Bigfoot Wallace.
Purchase a copy of The Texas Rangers: Legendary Lawmen here.