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26 February, 2011

MY COUSIN DONNA AND THE LONE RANGER


Me at four-years-of-age with cousin, big sister Donna and new pet puppy Spot.

One of the bonuses of being a member of the Facebook community is that it affords a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with family and old acquaintances.  Due to some of my nostalgic writing, I have recently enjoyed connecting with three second cousins from Michigan and in particular, a couple of third  cousins whom I have never met. 

When I was growing up some 65-70 years ago, I was blessed to be a part of an extremely large family that consisted of my grandparents Harriet and Nelson Perry, five aunts, four uncles (and spouses) and 27 cousins.  My mother Grace was the youngest of the Perry brood and I, the youngest of the cousins.  We were an extremely close-knit family that gathered faithfully for special occasions -- Christmas, Easter, summer reunions, Thanksgiving and numerous times in between.  It would be nothing to have 30-40 of us under one roof at any given time, all hugging, kissing laughing, singing and eating lots of good food.  By contrast, families seem to break up and go their own way today and personally I think that it is a shame. 
 
I was so young and had no brothers and sisters, several of my then teenage cousins just naturally seemed to adopt me as their second little brother, Dickie.  Certainly to me, they were the equivalent of big sisters and brothers in every way possible and I spent a lot of time with them in my formative years.  Sadly, they are all gone now and I am the only one left to savor the happy memories of what used to be.  One of my favorite big sister cousins was Donna Phelps Cox (Reed), then of Detroit; and for the benefit of her daughter Betsy Priest and grandchildren Jennifer and Matt Pleva I pass on a story, the details of which may not be fully known to them.  It is a story that has special significance for me because Donna involved me at one point, helping to forge my lifetime fascination with cowboys of the wild west frontier.

Brace Beemer, shows trusty six-shooter to an admiring fan.
After graduation from school, Donna interestingly enough secured a job as a receptionist with WXYZ Radio Station in Detroit.  It just so happened that at the time WXYZ had come into prominence as the host and creator of the increasingly popular Lone Ranger series.  The star of the show in the 1940s was a strapping fellow by the name of Brace Beemer.   Donna would regale us with stories of how Beemer  would make it a point to stop and talk to her on his way into the studio.  She was a very petite, attractive, personable young lady and the six-foot, three-inch Beemer would loom over her threatening to put her in his vest pocket and take her home with him.  He had a pet name for her which completely escapes me at the time of this writing.


On one of my many Easter visits to my aunt Edith's home on Inverness Ave. in Detroit, Donna took me with her to the radio station on a day off from work.  She had arranged for me to meet Beemer following one of his three-times-a-week broadcasts.  I was spell-bound as Donna took me by the hand and led me into the studio where "The Lone Ranger" himself (minus his mask and dressed in a business suit and white shirt open at the neck) greeted me with an already-signed photograph that included sidekick Tonto (then played by John Todd). 


"Good to meet you, young man," said the radio legend, patting me on the back as he hurriedly made his way out the front door enroute to his farm outside nearby Pontiac, Mich.  It was absolutely one of those special occasions that a young lad never forgets.  It still gives me chills to think that I actually met the elusive Lone Ranger.  No where in the annals of radio history can one find a more popular voice than that of Brace Beemer as he portrayed the Lone Ranger in the 1940s and early 50s. In real life Beemer was known to be an all 'round outdoorsman who was both an expert horse rider and a crack shot, a combination that gave him a rugged and virile charm.  Although it was WXYZ station manager George W. Trendle who created and enhanced the Lone Ranger idea, it was my boyhood hero that carried the radio program so successfuly over the airwaves for more than 21 years. After the Lone Ranger series ended in 1955, he portrayed "Sergeant William Preston of the Yukon" on the television program Challenge of the Yukon, for a brief period.  He died in 1965


A little more about the Lone Ranger

With the stirring notes of the William Tell Overture and a shout of "Hi-yo, Silver!  Away!" The Lone Ranger regularly came into the living room of my home in Dresden just before our 6 o'clock supper time and I was glued too the old floor-model radio that seemed to burst at the seams with the vibrations.


The show, as stated, was the creation of station-owner George Trendle and writer Fern Striker.  Neither Trendle nor Striker had any connections to or experience with the cowboys, Indians, and pioneers of the real West, but that mattered little to them.  The men simply wanted to create an American version of the masked swashbuckler made popular by the silent movie actor Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro, arming their hero with a revolver rather than a sword.  Historical authenticity was far less important to the men than fidelity to the strict code of conduct they established for their character.



The Lone Ranger never smoked, swore, or drank alcohol; he used grammatically correct speech free of slang; and, most important, he never shot to kill.  More offensive to modern historical and ethnic sensibilities was the Indian scout Tonto, who spoke in a comical Indian patois totally unrelated to any authentic Indian dialect, uttering ludicrous phrases like "You betchum!"    


"Howdy pardner!"  Me in my best cowboy get up, including a Lone Ranger pistol and holster.  I could be the Lone Ranger one minute and at the drop of my straw hat transition to Red Ryder, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry or Roy Rogers.  When I wasn't in a Wild West frame of mind I could easily become The Phantom, Zorro, GI Joe and yes, even Robin Hood.  I was truly "the great pretender" as a kid -- still am, I guess. 

Historical accuracy notwithstanding, the radio program was an instant hit.  Children liked the steady stream of action and parents approved of the good moral example offered by the upstanding masked man.  Soon picked up for nationwide broadcast over the Mutual Radio Network, over 20 million North Americans were tuning into The Lone Ranger three times a week by 1939. In an early example of the power of marketing tie-ins, the producers also licensed the manufacture of a vast array of related products, including Lone Ranger guns, costumes, books, and a popular comic strip.



The Lone Ranger made a seemingly effortless transition from radio to motion pictures and television.  The televised version of The Lone Ranger, staring Clayton Moore as the masked man and Jay Silverheels as Tonto, became the ABC netowrk's first big hit in the early 1950s.  Remaining on the air until 1957, the program helped define the golden age of the TV Western and inspired dozens of imitators like The Range Rider, The Roy Rogers Show, and The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok.  Although the Lone Ranger disappeared from American television and movie screens by the 1960s, he lived on in a popular series of comic books well into the 1970s.



Cousin Donna would eventually introduce me to a number of other special things like my first movie, my first game of bowling and milkshakes but to my mind the greatest thing she ever did for me was to introduce me to her friend, The Lone Ranger.
"They went thata way, Kimosabe...We'll head em off at the pass!

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