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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of fictional characters)

Mr. MEL BLANC (Voice Actor): (As Bugs Bunny) What's up, doc?

Unidentified Woman #1: Mr. Grant.

Mr. GREGORY PECK (Actor): (As Atticus Finch) It was a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Unintelligible Woman #2: Fiddle-dee-dee.

Unidentified Man #1: I am your father.

BLOCK: This month, NPR is launching In Character, a new series exploring the origins and impact of great American fictional characters. Well, today, a character who's celebrating his 75th anniversary this month.

(Soundbite of program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. CLAYTON MOORE (Actor): (As John Reid) Look up there, it's a headwall(ph).

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

(Soundbite of program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) It's an ambush, men. Scram. Find cover. Quick.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

SIEGEL: Riding on a canyon floor, they came under rifle fire from a gang of outlaws on the cliffs above. 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 program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. JAY SILVERHEELS (Actor): (As Tonto) Lie still. Me not hurt you.

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

(Soundbite of program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. SILVERHEELS: (As Tonto) Why, you — you Kemosabi.

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) Kemosabi? That sounds familiar.

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

(Soundbite of program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) The other rangers, Tonto, are all dead?

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

(Soundbite of program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. SILVERHEELS: (As Tonto) You all alone now. Last man. You are lone ranger.

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) Yes, Tonto. I am a lone ranger.

Unidentified Man #2: The Lone Ranger.

SIEGEL: He has been the Lone Ranger ever since. On radio, in movies, in novels, on television, in comic books. Over the 75 years since he first hit the airwaves, 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 program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) Hi-yo Silver, away.

Mr. FRAN STRIKER JR. (Son of "The Lone Ranger" Creator Fran Striker): 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.

Mr. STRIKER 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 program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) I'll shoot to wound, not to kill. A man must die, it's up to the Lord to decide that, not the person behind a six shooter.

Mr. SILVERHEELS: (As Tonto) That's right, Kemosabi.

Unidentified Man #3: May I offer you gentlemen a drink?

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) No thanks. A man drinks that kind of medicine to forget something he doesn't want to remember.

Mr. STRIKER 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.

Mr. STRIKER JR.: Well, nobody's been west of Buffalo or Detroit either.

(Soundbite of program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. WALTER SANDE (Actor): (Sheriff "Two-Gun" Taylor): Who's there?

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) Open the door, sheriff.

Mr. SANDE: (Sheriff "Two-Gun" Taylor): A masked man…

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) Back inside.

Mr. SANDE: (Sheriff "Two-Gun" Taylor): You've got a lot of nerve…

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) Don't make a move to your guns. They're covered.

Mr. SANDE: (Sheriff "Two-Gun" Taylor): What do you want?

Professor GARY HOPPENSTAND (American Popular Culture, Michigan State University; Editor, Journal of Popular Culture): 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 program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) I reckon we ain't no choice but to sell out to this pole cat and try and find new diggings somewhere.

Unidentified Man #4: $150 is a lot of cash, Jim.

Unidentified Woman #3: Don't you take it, Jim. What would we do when $150's gone? We won't have nothing then, not even this house and the (unintelligible).

Prof. HOPPENSTAND: In the 1930s, the perception was that there was a failure of government to protect the American people, and so this was a character masked who used 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 that wonderful escapist enjoyment as well.

(Soundbite of song "Bob Dylan's Blues")

Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer): (Singing) Well, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, they are ridin' down the line, fixin' ev'rybody's troubles, ev'rybody's 'cept mine.

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 his son, Fran Junior, that posed a problem for creating dialogue.

Mr. STRIKER JR.: The problem being that the Lone Ranger had nobody to talk to if he was a lone ranger. So they suggested that they create a 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 program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) All right, Tonto, you'll be a lot of help. We will ride together.

Mr. SILVERHEELS: (As Tonto) Me glad, Kemosabi. Me fight good for you.

Mr. MOORE: (The Lone Ranger) Take cover, Tonto.

Mr. MARK ELLIS (Author, "Masked Men"): I always looked at the Lone Ranger as like your idealized white man and Tonto as your idealized Native American.

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

Mr. 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 program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. SILVERHEELS: (As Tonto) Me call you Kemosabi. It mean trusty scout.

Mr. STRIKER: 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.

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

Mr. BILL COSBY (Comedian): And I'd always holler on the radio, Tonto, don't go to town, you know. They're gonna beat you up again, man. You know, at just one time, Tonto? Yes, Kemosabi? If you go to town, you go to hell, Kemosabi.

(Soundbite of song "You Don't Mess Around With Jim")

Mr. JIM CROCE (Singer): (Singing) And they say, you don't tug on Superman's cape. You don't spit into the wind. You don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger. And you don't mess around with Jim.

(Soundbite of program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) I'll hide my identity somehow.

Mr. SILVERHEELS: (As Tonto) You mean, like mask?

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) That's it, Tonto. From now on, I'll wear a mask.

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.

Mr. TERRY SALMANSON ("The Lone Ranger" Fan): And in order to keep his identity secret, he used a mask and never used his name so he could go after the gang. And the mask, as the legend goes, was cut from his dead brother's vest.

SIEGEL: That's Terry Salmanson, 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.

Mr. SALMANSON: Over caution.

SIEGEL: Over caution.

(Soundbite of program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) No one is going to know I'm alive. I'm supposed to be dead and I'm going to stay that way.

Prof. HOPPENSTAND: He wears a mask that is the very symbol of the outlaws that the Lone Ranger's - go after.

SIEGLE: Professor Gary Hoppenstand.

Prof. 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 these 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 program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) Mr. President?

Unidentified Man #5: Who are you? Who let you come in here with that mask on your face? Take it off if you want to speak to me.

SIEGEL: Terry Salmanson explains this encounter.

Mr. SALMANSON: President Grant summoned him to a railroad siding in Saint 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 program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) There.

Unidentified Man #5: You know your face is just what I had thought it would be, what I hoped it would be.

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid) Thank you, sir.

SIEGEL: The Lone Ranger was a patriot. In real life, too. Again, Fran Striker Jr., son of the writer.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STRIKER JR.: And this was their P.R. effort for the year, I guess, and Dad said, of course.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #6: (Singing) The adventure of Lone Ranger and Tonto, that mount (unintelligible) rider. Hi-yo Silver, away.

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

Mr. MICHAEL CHABON (Novelist): You got to love the silver bullets. The silver bullets are genius.

SIEGEL: That's novelist Michael Chabon.

(Soundbite of program "The Lone Ranger")

Mr. MOORE: (As John Reid): Silver bullets will serve as sort of a symbol. Tonto suggested the idea. A symbol which means justice by law.

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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 rapt. 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.

Mr. FRED FOY (Radio Announcer): 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.

Mr. FOY: 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.

Mr. FOY: The opening. Okay. And that includes the, all of it. All right. Let's see what happens here.

A fiery horse with a 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 hoofbeats of the great horse, Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again. Hi-yo Silver, away.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You have the magical power to make people feel they're 5 years old once again, sir.

Mr. FOY: Well, thank you.

SIEGEL: "The Lone Ranger" in character for 75 years.

This is Robert Siegel. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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