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HEARTS OF THE CITY | Essay / Robert A. Jones

Masked History

November 27, 1996|Robert A. Jones

Kimo Sabe, me see snoke sniggle."

And so it went on the 1949 set of "The Lone Ranger." Jay Silverheels was supposed to jump off his horse, run up a hill and warn the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains that bad news had been spotted in the sky.

But it wasn't coming out right. Time and again, Silverheels flubbed his line. If you think it's easy to say, "Kimo Sabe, me see smoke signal," after jumping off a horse and running up a hill, just try it. Anyway, Silverheels had to ride, run and emote five times before getting his Tonto to utter something other than gibberish.

So here's the culture quiz for today: Why is this story important? I lifted it from Clayton Moore's new autobiography, "I Was That Masked Man," but it hardly differs from a hundred other botched-line scenes we have seen repeated on TV. And when Moore came to the Bookstar in Studio City for a signing this week, the crowd wanted to talk about all things Lone Rangerish except retakes.

Moore, now 82 years old, sat at a table signing and smiling as a long line extended out the door. A huge response, the store manager said, one of the biggest in memory. The boomers had come in droves, bringing their babies to see the ancient hero of their own childhoods.

One man stood toward the side of the signing table and repeated Long Ranger trivia to anyone who would listen. "Do you know," he asked, "what Kimo Sabe means?"

Everyone knew. Being in Studio City, this was an industry crowd. They also knew the spinoff joke with the famous punch line, "what do you mean we, Kimo Sabe?" They knew about the silver bullets and they knew about the reasons for the mask.

They didn't know about the meaning of the retakes. So here's the answer to the culture quiz: The retakes represent history in the making. "The Lone Ranger" was among the first--and probably the first--television serial to be recorded on film. As such, it was in the vanguard of Hollywood's attempt to snatch prime-time television away from New York.

At that time, New York dominated prime time by airing original, live dramas each week. Incredible as it may seem today, the New York producers rejected film because they saw it as a loser. They believed television was destined to remain a live medium, composed of shows such as "The Texaco Star Theatre" and comedy revues.

In Los Angeles, producers such as George Trendle of "The Lone Ranger" decided to bet the other way. They saw television as evolving from radio and movie serials shot on film, where the hero ends each week's episode dangling from his heels. It was a far trashier view of the medium, founded in the philosophy that no one ever went broke underestimating the tastes of the American public.

And, of course, it won. Trendle, one of the L.A. television pioneers, had already made a small fortune with the radio version of "The Lone Ranger." He took his television crew out to a ranch in Chatsworth--Chatsworth was mostly ranches then--and told them he wanted three episodes a week. Finished. In the can. Economy was the watchword. Everyone was expendable.

I had the occasion to talk to Moore several years ago about the experience. He said he always believed that Trendle had insisted on the use of the mask so he could fire his leading man without the audience being any wiser. Eventually, Trendle did just that, firing Moore for 52 episodes before hiring him back.

"He also wanted my voice very low, much lower than my normal voice. That was because the radio voice of the Lone Ranger had been low and he wanted mine the same. He had me stand in a corner and sing the scales until I got it low enough."

Trendle further ordered that the Lone Ranger would never smoke, drink or kiss girls. In one amazing and refreshing requirement, he insisted that the hero use correct grammar to set a good example to young children. "He must make proper use of who and whom, shall and will, I and me, etc." he told his writers.

This was not an environment meant to encourage dramatists such as Paddy Chayefsky. But it carried the day. Flubbed lines would be re-shot until the actors got it right. And once filmed, the show could be broadcast again and again and again.

*

Within a year or two, "The Lone Ranger" was followed by the huge hits "I Love Lucy" and "Dragnet." These shows made money beyond the dreams of the New York producers, and prime time shifted forever to Hollywood.

It amounted to one of the greatest cultural coups in history. Over the next decades, television's worldwide audience saw mostly Los Angeles on their television screens, not New York.

The LAPD, and not the NYPD, grew into the archetypical police department because of the outcome of the TV war. We got the suburban Ozzie and Harriett, and not an urban family, for the same reason. We got the Beaver. We got the televised version of Disneyland. And on and on.

Lovers of early, live television find this result most depressing. But, surely, New York producers would have been forced into film sooner or later. And forced into junk. The only question was which city would produce the junk.

The city was L.A., thanks to the likes of George Trendle and "The Lone Ranger." So the next time you hear the hearty "Hi-Yo Silver," remember it's not just the masked man you're watching. It's the evolving, trashy soul of television.

' "The Lone Ranger" was among the first--and probably the first--television serial to be recorded on film. As such, it was in the vanguard of Hollywood's attempt to snatch prime-time television away from New York.'

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