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The Man Behind The Mask: A Profile Of The Lone Ranger

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

My colleague, Robert Siegel, is off today for the holiday. But, we're going to return with him now to a thrilling day of yesteryear. Yesteryear being five years ago. That's right it's a shameless re-run. And our excuse is the new "Lone Ranger" movie, which has opened to mixed reviews. The old TV show, which aired in the 1950s, was a favorite of Robert's when he was a boy. So, for our 2008 series, In Character, Robert marked "The Lone Ranger's" 75th anniversary.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In 1874, six Texas Rangers were betrayed by a guide and ambushed at Bryant's Gap.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS AND A NEIGHING HORSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

SIEGEL: Five died, the sixth was left for dead and would have died that day but for an amazing coincidence. After the shooting was over, an Indian man happened upon the scene of the ambush.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

SIEGEL: The ranger who was wounded but still clinging to life had saved that Indian from outlaw raiders for a few years earlier, when the two were just boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

SIEGEL: The Indian recognized his voice companion, carried into a nearby cave and nursed him back to health.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

SIEGEL: Including Captain Dan Reid, the Ranger's own brother. The Indian did the subtraction.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC)

SIEGEL: He has been The Lone Ranger ever since. On radio, in movies, in novels, on television, in comic books, his story has been embroidered, embellished and rewritten. But he always wore a mask, he always pursued justice and he never accepted praise or payment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

FRAN STRIKER, JR.: Well, my name is Fran Striker, Jr. And my father's name was Fran Striker and he was the creator and author of "The Lone Ranger."

SIEGEL: In 1933, Fran Striker - a self-described hack writer - was in Buffalo, New York, writing radio scripts for, among other stations, WXYZ in Detroit.

JR.: And they were buying five programs a week from him. Some of them were mystery series. Some of them were Secret Service series.

SIEGEL: And the owner of WXYZ, George Trendle, wanted a Western. Fran Striker started writing and, over the course of a dozen episodes, a character took shape - a paragon of virtue.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

JR.: The Lone Ranger always used dead-on perfect English. That's what George Trendle read the scripts for.

SIEGEL: He didn't even have a hint of a Texas accent about him, as he spoke.

JR.: Well, nobody has been west of Buffalo or Detroit, either.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

GARY HOPPENSTAND: My name is Gary Hoppenstand and I am a professor of American Studies, who specializes in popular culture studies. And I am also currently editor of the Journal of Popular Culture, which is the largest scholarly journal of its type in the world.

SIEGEL: Professor Hoppenstand ranks The Lone Ranger among a handful of important iconic figures in American popular culture. A vigilante lawman who protects the criminal justice system by working outside it, a hero made for radio audiences of the Great Depression.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

HOPPENSTAND: In the 1930s, the perception was that there was a failure of government to protect the American people. And so, this is a character - masked - who use vigilante techniques to basically protect those who can't help themselves. And so, this was a character who found a decided audience, experiencing those kinds of things in their daily lives, while also having been wonderful escapist enjoyment, as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOB DYLAN'S BLUES")

SIEGEL: For the first 10 episodes of "The Lone Ranger," the Ranger actually rode alone. This was before they cooked up the back-story of the ambush at Bryant's Gap. As writer Fran Striker told us son, Fran Jr., that posed a problem for creating dialogue.

JR.: The problem being that The Lone Ranger had nobody to talk to, if he was a lone ranger. So they had suggested that the creative sidekick for The Lone Ranger. Script 11 introduced Tonto, and he was developed solely for the purpose of giving the Lone Ranger somebody to talk to.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

MARK ELLIS: I always loved The Lone Ranger is like your idealized white man. And Tonto is your idealized Native American.

SIEGEL: Writer Mark Ellis compiled the fictional timeline of The Lone Ranger's life.

ELLIS: As a kid, my idea of a Native American was based on basically Tonto, who was a good person. He was very moral. He was very smart even if he spoke rather broken English.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

JR.: If The Lone Ranger accepts the Indian as his closest companion, it's obvious to the child listener that great men have no racial or religious prejudice.

SIEGEL: Fran Striker, Jr. says in all "The Lone Ranger" episodes there is never a disparaging word about any minority group. Of course, what had sufficed as racial equality in 1933 could easily provoke cynicism by the time the show was on television in the 1950s or in reruns in the '60s.

Again, Mark Ellis.

ELLIS: Bill Cosby used to do a routine where he could never understand why Lone Ranger would always send Tonto into town for supplies, and then would get beaten up.

BILL COSBY: And I'd always holler at the radio: Tonto, don't go to town.

(LAUGHTER)

COSBY: They're going to beat you up again, man.

(LAUGHTER)

COSBY: You know, just one time: Tonto. Yes, Kemosabe. You go to town. You go to hell, Kemosabe.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T MESS AROUND WITH JIM")

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

SIEGEL: Why the mask? Well, the idea was that the Butch Cavendish Gang - the bad guys who had killed his comrades in the ambush - shouldn't know that one of them had survived and was out to seek revenge.

TERRY SALOMONSON: And in order to keep his identity secret, he used a mask and never used his name, so he could go after the gang. The mask is, as the legend goes, was cut from his dead brother's vest.

SIEGEL: That's Terry Salomonson, lifelong fan and collector of "Lone Ranger" memorabilia. Of course, that doesn't explain why he always wore the mask, even when he and Tonto were riding alone across the Texas wilderness.

SALOMONSON: Over caution.

SIEGEL: Over caution.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

HOPPENSTAND: He wears a mask that is the very symbol of the outlaws that the Lone Rangers go after.

SIEGEL: Professor Gary Hoppenstand.

HOPPENSTAND: I think what it plays into is the audience's sense of escapist fantasy. The idea is that in their imagination all they need to do is don their own mask and they, too, could have the sort of grand and exciting adventures, where they're doing exciting and good things.

SIEGEL: So who actually knew The Lone Ranger's face? Well, his nephew did and, of course, Tonto did. And, this may be surprising, but President Ulysses S. Grant did.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

SIEGEL: Terry Salomonson explains this encounter.

SALOMONSON: President Grant summoned him to a railroad siding in St. Louis because of the actions of a particular group of individuals that were trying to carve out their own country, so to speak, in the West. And that started off a 64-episode series entitled "The Legion of the Black Arrow." And President Grant requested that the Lone Ranger come in for a meeting to say is there something we can do, and how can you fight against it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

SIEGEL: The Lone Ranger was a patriot - in real life, too.

Again, Fran Striker, Jr., son of the writer.

FRAN STRIKER JR.: Interestingly, during World War II, my father was called to Washington by the War Department and they had a favor. He had a number of Ranger programs where the Lone Ranger would help the Calvary out at the end of the program. And the War Department thought that it would be nice if the Calvary could help the Lone Ranger out.

(LAUGHTER)

JR.: And that was their PR effort for the year, I guess. And dad said, of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SIEGEL: Something else about the Lone Ranger, he rode a white stallion named Silver and his six-shooter fired silver bullets.

MICHAEL CHABON: Gotta love the silver bullets. The silver bullets are genius.

SIEGEL: That's novelist Michael Chabon.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE LONE RANGER")

SIEGEL: It didn't hurt that the Lone Ranger had inherited a silver mine. Writer Mark Ellis says these props were designed to be indelible in the mind's eye.

MIKE ELLIS: The silver bullets, the mask and the white stallion, Silver, those were what was known, I guess, in the old days of radio as shiny things for the mind so that the imagination could latch onto and made it easier to visualize the characters and the places.

SIEGEL: And people did. Time was, kids had Lone Ranger rings, hats, masks, Lone Ranger giveaways from cereal boxes. Novelist Michael Chabon says the charm still works.

CHABON: My 4-year-old son and I just stumbled upon some books we have from the 1950s. We have two Lone Ranger Golden Books and my son was just immediately enrapt. There's something about the mask and the hat and the horse and the silver bullets and the faithful Indian friend. And there's something really powerful there in that character.

I mean, there's some reason why the Lone Ranger continues to endure, even though he's far less visible now than he once was.

: We never dreamed that this would become a legend when we were doing the show.

SIEGEL: Fred Foy is 86. In 1948, he got the job at WXYZ in Detroit to be the announcer on "The Lone Ranger" and he filled the same job on the TV show that followed.

: And it's so beautiful to know that you had so many people who sat back and enjoyed your work. And I'm very flattered to hear that.

SIEGEL: I was wondering if you could give us up in the clear, a rendering of the opening.

: The opening. Okay. And that includes all of it. All right. Let's see what happens here. A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty Hi-yo Silver. The Lone Ranger, 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 comes the thundering hoof beats of the great horse, Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again. Hi-yo, Silver, away.

SIEGEL: You have the magical power to make people feel they're five years old once again.

: Oh, well, thank you.

SIEGEL: That was announcer Fred Foy back in 2008. Foy died three years ago. Everyone else I mentioned is five years older now, including the Lone Ranger. He's 80. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.