What The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven Show Teaches People

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The episode that I chose to watch was the first episode in Season 1 titled, “Enter the Lone Ranger.” The story focuses around six Texas rangers who are unexpectedly ambushed in a canyon by the outlaw, Butch Cavendish and his gang. The Texas rangers are killed except for Reid, who is badly injured. Tonto, a Native American scout, discovers the massacre and nurses Reid back to health. While they are having a discussion, it is revealed that Tonto is a childhood friend of Reid’s, who then decides to hide his identity and catch criminals by wearing a mask made from a vest of his deceased brother. He declares that his life is now devoted to bringing criminals to justice.

The genre of the program is a western. The elements that a typical western film contains are: vast landscapes, the conquest of the wilderness, a society based on honor rather than law, the Hero, the sidekicks and helpers, villains, cowboy boots/hats, spurs, horses, saddles, stagecoaches, guns, trains, and posse chase scenes (Wood, 2019). The Lone Ranger contains all of the western elements as it has a hero (The Lone Ranger), a sidekick (Tonto), the setting is in the vast landscape of the West, has villains (various gang members and criminals), and has many of the iconography listed such as: horses, guns, saddles, cowboy boots, and violence.

According to the textbook, however, the program might have even been categorized as a thriller drama that was often viewed on the evening programs with crime and police series, fantasy/action, and mystery/adventure series (Hilmes, 2014, p. 115). These programs received harsh criticism by the public due to them all involving and emphasizing “violence and/or horror” (Hilmes, 2014, p. 115). The Lone Ranger was originally broadcast in 1933 on the WXYZ radio station in Detroit, Michigan (Siegel, 2008). The show was created by WXYZ owner George W. Trendle and writer Fran Striker and proved to be a popular hit with both children and adults as it had an exciting plot and the main character displayed good morals (Bak, 2019).

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The Lone Ranger character was heavily inspired by Texas Ranger Captain John R. Hughes and due to different time zones, each episode was performed live on air three times (Bak, 2019). The In 1934, WXYZ, WGN, WOR, and WLW stations agreed to form a program-sharing radio network and re-labelled the Quality network as The Mutual Broadcasting System (Sterling, n.d.). This network presented local adventure-thrillers from the station’s annex-studios, ran a news service, and a variety of popular commentary shows from the mid 1930’s until 1999 (Sterling, n.d). Mutual had the largest number of affiliates but lacked financial support to expand into television (Sterling, n.d). By the mid-1930’s, WXYZ dropped out of Mutual and became a new affiliate for the NBC Blue Network radio. In 1946, WXYZ was sold and purchased by the American Broadcasting Company where it provided “the best quality programming on the TV dial” (Feliciano, 2012). The Lone Ranger made a smooth transition from radio to television screens nationwide by 1949. The show created 221 episodes over the course of five seasons and were filmed in various locations in California and Arizona (Bak, 2019). The Great Depression hit the economy and affected the media outlets throughout the nation. Radio, however, was one of the few industries that wasn’t affected by the Depression and had become a means of escapism during this period (Hilmes, 2014, p. 92).

During the 1930’s, radio was a popular, commercial medium and was expanding its audience (Hilmes, 2014, p. 92). By 1931, over half of U.S. households owned at least one radio; by the end of the decade that percentage had reached over 80 percent (Hilmes, 2014, p. 92). It soon became a popular media outlet that many individuals would often turn to for entertainment and even the president used it to speak to every American directly in his fireside chats (Hilmes, 2014, p. 92). Radio virtually excluded African Americans and other minorities, and ethnic differences continued to be emphasized in vaudeville-based comedy shows (Hilmes, 2014, p. 102). Later, programs began to focus on the American family where the working-class life was acknowledged and showed the struggles of assimilation (Hilmes, 2014, p. 102). Radio created serial narratives that “used the art of sound and voice alone to create vivid characters, in stories that played out each week over long periods of time” and listeners were encouraged to tune in on a regular basis (Hilmes, 2014, p. 115). In the late 1930’s, comedy series emerged, nighttime thriller dramas gained popularity, quiz shows became a unique genre, sports were being broadcasted, soaps, and daytime talk programs became successful mediums.

International news and the radio feature began to emerge during 1940 to 1945 when the Japanese dropped bombs on the American Naval base at Pear Harbor. Congress declared war against Japan and then against Germany and Italy (Hilmes, 2014, p. 133). “Radio played a central role in American life during the war-torn years of the 1940’s” (Hilmes, 2014, p. 163). Airwaves were beginning to be restricted on what political discussions they aired but allowed the addressing of racism and prejudice in the U.S. to be brought to light (Hilmes, 2014, p. 168). Government agencies, networks, and advertisers helped to speed wartime information and encouragement (Hilmes, 2014, p. 168).

After the Cold War, broadcasting had to make changes. They transitioned into prosperity and active consumption as new families were moving to the suburbs, demands for cars and other goods were increasing, and rising wages emerged (Hilmes, 2014, p. 169). Film industry executives soon took an early interest in television as they had previously done on radio (Hilmes, 2014, p. 170). A technique called ‘theater television’ was used to broadcast television signals onto movie screens in theaters. ‘Subscription television’ was also used to bring movies and programs into home TV sets for a fee (Hilmes, 2014, p. 170). The film industry developed techniques such as wide-screen formats, 3-D techniques, and most prime-time TV shows were produced on film by major Hollywood studios by the late 1950’s (Hilmes, 2014, p. 170). Radio became music-dominated, local, and a diverse industry. The number of radio stations expanded after the war and by 1953, and nearly 60 percent of cars were equipped with radios (Hilmes, 2014, p. 173). Between 1948 and 1956 however, there was a drop by 50% in American families listening to radio which were now recordings and not live broadcasts (Hilmes, 2014, p. 173). Radio networks soon repositioned themselves as TV networks and many popular radio shows transitioned to television (Hilmes, 2014, p. 173).

During TV’s golden age, variety shows, westerns, and situation comedies were shot on film and were well-received by the public (Hilmes, 2014, p. 176). Chapter 8 in the course textbook examines the rise of westerns and states that, “many have speculated on the dominance of this particular genre during these years, unparalleled either before or since. Some attribute its popularity to the way it lent itself to the Cold War mentality, with the stalwart freedom-loving lawman, cowboy, or homesteader in a battle of resourcefulness and values with the godless Indians, one-dimensional black-hatted bad guys, and all those who would attempt to thwart the spread of good old American manifest destiny. Westerns were an island of masculinity, urging self-sufficiency, grit, and self-discipline in the spaces between commercials… One of its main attractions seemed to be the way the western could take current social issues and problems, transport them back into a safe yet heroic American past, and resolve them the old-fashioned way…” (Hilmes, 2014, p. 224).

The Lone Ranger TV program demonstrated to the audience the good qualities in people, such as responsibility, and humanitarianism, as well as carrying out the theme of racial tolerance. During this time, television reflected society with an emphasis on the nuclear family and consumerism. The Western genre had the audience exposed to themes such as poverty, domestic violence, and racism (Young, 2011). Like radio, it was another means of escapism for American society after WWII, the rise of the Cold War, and the harsh realities of the post-war era. America was avid to embrace a form of entertainment that reflected an era when things were less complex. It’s important, especially with The Lone Ranger, to look back on the history and events that occurred of how radio emerged and how television took over as the popular medium. The program was able to evolve as the main broadcasting medium and evolved throughout the years.

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