Call him an old cowboy: Ted Ashby is no stranger to these here parts!
The Valley resident, a retired LAPD police officer and a licensed pilot, has, in the past couple of years, delivered lectures in Pacific Palisades on such topics as the Pony Express, stagecoaches, the state of Wyoming, cowboy star Tom Mix, and even Mix's steed, Tony the Wonder Horse, to local organizations such as the Historical Society and the Palisades' AARP chapter.
The Old West historian returned to town on Tuesday morning–like a silver bullet out of a six-shooter–to chronicle the history of the Lone Ranger, his horse Silver, and his partner in vigilante justice, the Native American sidekick Tonto, at . The lecture was part of the Optimist Club's weekly breakfast meeting.
After a weekend that saw the release of The Green Hornet topping the box office (fun fact: Britt Reid, a.k.a. the Green Hornet, is the Lone Ranger's nephew's grandson), Ashby dug his spurs into a lecture on Tuesday morning––sans visuals and even missing the signature William Tell Overture (he explained that his 16-year-old autistic grandson had accidentally removed it from his iPod last minute). He didn't need the props.
Without so much as a photo of the character, Ashby painted a vivid picture through words of the genesis of the beloved cowboy hero, a large part of the childhood of many Optimists in the room, who made the jump from radio serials to the budding television broadcasting without missing a tom-tom beat.
With a "Hi-yo, Silver! Away!", Ashby explained that the creation of the Lone Ranger was the byproduct of a collaboration between two men: George W. Trendle, managing partner and co-owner of the popular radio station WXYZ in Detroit, and a Buffalo, NY, writer named Fran Striker, a prolific author who wrote for magazines and comics and "wrote over 60,000 words a week. That's the equivalent of the Holy Bible in three months."
After the 1929 stock market crash and the fallout of the Great Depression gripped the United States by its jugular, entertainment became an important form of escape. Radio reigned back then, and Trendle and Striker (an aspiring novelist and journalist who instead settled for a career of writing commercials and half-hour radio dramas) crafted a cowboy version of Zorro; a mysterious masked man who arrived on horseback to combat outlaws. Unlike Zorro, a gay blade, the pair decided to make their hero more serious.
"The Lone Ranger never laughed," Ashby said. "He would smile at young people or a pretty woman, but he would never laugh."
The fact that Striker was assigned to write the adventures of the Lone Ranger was laughable. "He knew nothing about the West," Ashby said. "He had never even been to West Buffalo!"
Without any fanfare, The Lone Ranger radio program debuted on WXYZ on February 2, 1933. There were two primary reasons why William Tell Overture was used as the show's theme song: 1) Trendle loved classical music, and, more importantly 2) "it was public domain, so he didn't have to pay a band or anything for the rights to the music."
A succession of actors portrayed the Lone Ranger on the radio: original voice actor John Barrett; Jack Deeds, an alcoholic who was fired for drinking on the job and slurring his words; Brace Beemer, a station manager with a deep baritone; George Stenius, who lasted on the job for only three months before leaving to write screenplays and direct Hollywood features (as "George Seaton," he won the Oscar on several occasions, including for his screenplay Miracle on 34th Street).
"Earle Graser had a good voice but...he had never seen an Indian in his life and was scared of horses!" Ashby reported. "He was short, chubby, and balding with a mustache––not what one expects when we think of the Lone Ranger!"
As a result, Beemer was brought in for public appearances. Meanwhile, equestrians laughed when they saw Silver, "a horse with a Western saddle and an English bridle."
By 1936, The Lone Ranger became the number one radio program in the nation. Striker pulled in $10,000 a year (a very hefty salary in those days), as did Graser. However, Graser's wife was not satisfied. When Graser, at his wife's urging, demanded a raise from Trendle, the producer wondered out loud how Graser would feel if they killed off the Lone Ranger and replaced him with a younger nephew. Suddenly, the $10,000 salary seemed perfect to Graser.
Unfortunately, Graser did not live long enough to spend all of his money. After pulling a long day to do the program live for East Coast and West Coast audiences, Graser fell asleep at the wheel on his drive home and was killed in a car accident. Beemer, who was about to open an advertising agency in 1941, was roped back into the part thanks to the lure of a very hefty salary. He continued to portray the Lone Ranger on the radio until it was abruptly ripped off of the air on September 3, 1954. Beemer died in 1965.
In 1948, television really came into the fore. They signed on "Clayton Moore, who I knew personally," Ashby said. "I did go to his house...seen him at book signings and film festivals."
For a season, Moore's salary demands got him fired. He was replaced with John Hart, a San Diego resident in his later years who has died recently. Unlike Moore, who "lived Lone Ranger," according to Ashby, Hart, who lived close to the studio where they shot the show, would ride home to meet his wife for lunch on his bike, still in Lone Ranger costume. This was all wrong for Ashby, the recipient of Hart's anecdote. "Why didn't you take Silver home?!" He exclaimed, laughing.
Silver, in fact, was two horses. The original Silver was a big, slow-moving, muscular horse that Moore rode on TV. When Hart briefly replaced Moore, he requested a new horse, and Silver II was decidedly more hyper. Jay Silverheels, a 100-percent Mohawk Indian who portrayed Tonto on the show was, in real life, an accomplished lacrosse player living in the San Fernando Valley. He hated the original Silver because, when they shot the riding scenes, he had to slow his horse down to keep up with Silver. He welcomed the quicker Silver II. When Moore returned to the show, he also appreciated that Silver II...because he came with a more comfortable saddle. Each of the two Silvers lived to the ripe old age of 32.
In 1954, Trendle sold the rights to the Lone Ranger to Jack Rather for $3 million. Then he hit him with a whammy: "Would you like Silver and the saddle? That's my own private property and it'll cost you $25,000." Rather suggested they settle the matter with a coin flip. Rather than risk losing money, Trendle slashed his price in half and Rather purchased Silver and the accessory for $12,500.
Like the Lone Ranger getting Silver to stand on his hind legs, Ashby reined in his lecture to present day, mentioning that National Treasure producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Walt Disney Studios currently have a Lone Ranger movie in development for 2012-13...with Johnny Depp attached to play Tonto! (No word yet on who will play the star character or his horse.)
Speaking of horses, Optimist Club member Lester Wood, recovering from a freak horse accident, introduced Ashby before his talk. Joe Aponte, president of the organization for the 2010-11 term, commented after Ashby's talk that "back in the 1970s, I was the administrator of a hospital and Clayton Moore was a patient...he would really play the role at the hospital." Indeed, Moore rarely broke from character in public.
Optimist president Aponte enjoyed Ashby's presentation: "We're fortunate," he said, to hear another great speaker who reminded us of our childhood growing up."
On Tuesday morning, the Club also paid their respects to member Jay Foster's sister, who has passed away; and Mary Lou Blackwood, a former employee of the Palisades and Malibu Chamber of Commerce offices whose memorial service will be at Pepperdine University this weekend.
The Optimist Club has operated in Pacific Palisades for more than 50 years. In recent years, the home of the Club has shifted from the now-defunct Mort's Deli, to breakfast-time at Gladstones Malibu, to its destination of the past year, Aldersgate Retreat. Aldersgate is a perfect fit, said Aponte, president of the organization for the 2010-11 term, who appreciates the place's "good friendly staff and consistently great food." The former included Aldersgate general manager Chris Erickson while the latter came courtesy of Chef Anthony Leff.
"We're fortunate," he continued, "to have another great speaker who reminded us of our childhood growing up."
Next up for the busy Ashby: He will talk about the Pony Express at San Marino's Rotary Club on Thursday.
After the lecture, Aponte explained that the Optimist Club will soon prepare for its major 2011 events, including a May track meet with the YMCA, and the Fourth of July 10K run.
In the meantime, Optimist Club members rode out into the sunset (more like sunrise, this was an a.m. gathering...) until next week's meeting. "Hi-yo, Silver! Away!"