Visitors to the national Museum of American History’s "Popular Culture" exhibition may imagine hearing ghostly strains of the William Tell Overture as they look at a black felt mask labeled: "This mask was worn by Clayton Moore during his television career as the Lone Ranger between 1949 and 1957. . . ." Adults of a certain age and late-night TV viewers everywhere know the rest. How the ultimate masked man brought peace and goodwill to the Old Wild West. How he and Tonto rode up on their fiery horses to bring varmints to justice, and then disappeared as that most perfect of Rossini overtures swelled and faded.
At the Smithsonian, the mask’s story began with a letter from Dawn Moore, daughter of the late Clayton Moore, television’s best-known Lone Ranger, to the Institution. Before his death in 1999 at the age of 85, Moore had instructed Dawn to donate one of his three original masks to the museum upon his passing. Who would say no?
How this mask attained treasure status in the first place is a tale of another sort. In the early 1930s, George Washington Trendle, the enterprising co-owner of Detroit radio station WXYZ, conceived of a masked hero blending aspects of film hero Zorro, Robin Hood and the Texas Rangers.
Fran Striker, Trendle’s crack scriptwriter, developed a story set in the 1880s. The tale evolved as the show developed and jumped media, but the most familiar goes like this. A Texas Ranger unit on patrol is ambushed by the notorious Butch Cavendish gang. The lone survivor, John Reid, is nursed back to health by a passing Indian (who, remarkably enough, had known Reid as a child). To hide his identity while he pursues Cavendish, Reid dons a mask cut from his dead brother’s vest. Thus concealed, he sets out to bring the gang to justice, and after them, a host of other rogues and desperadoes who prey on honest, simple folk. After a roundup, the selfless, anonymous Lone Ranger leaves behind a single silver bullet, a reminder of his steadfast vigilance against evil. "Who was that masked man?" some bystander would ask.
From 1933 to 1954, the voices of several Lone Rangers, most notably the deep, steady cadences of Brace Beemer, chased bad guys across the radio dial three nights each week. Republic Pictures began producing Lone Ranger serials, short films in episode format, in 1937.
The leap to television in 1949 was altogether natural for a radio and film success story. The Lone Ranger’s dedicated fan base followed him to the new medium to "return...to those thrilling days of yesteryear" all over again. Once more, a narrator intoned those spine-tingling words, "A fiery horse with a speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty ‘Hi-Yo, Silver!’. . . The Lone Ranger!"
The new program needed a new Lone Ranger to suit the new medium. Trendle found his man in Clayton Moore, born Jack Carlton Moore 35 years earlier on Chicago’s south side. Moore had worked as a trapeze artist at Chicago’s 1933-34 World’s Fair and later as an actor in a number of movies, including quite a few westerns. He was a fit specimen, but above all, Moore knew horses, and he knew Hollywood.
The televised series also needed a new Tonto. The radio versions of Tonto had featured actors who were decidedly non-Indian, and both the radio and film roles had been cast as a wise elder. Striker, still the chief scriptwriter, argued for an authentic, youthful Native American.
One who fit the bill was Harold J. Smith, then 30, who had appeared in small roles in Singing Spurs, Yellow Sky and, most notably, Key Largo. Smith was a full-blooded Mohawk from the Six Nations Reservation near Brantford, Ontario. An accomplished boxer and lacrosse player, he had picked up the moniker Silverheels Smith in Canada and later changed his name to Jay Silverheels.
As TV’s Tonto, Silverheels dropped the eagle feather from behind his head but retained the leather headband that, with his buckskin shirt, came to define his costume. What defined his role was a strength and self-reliance that shone through the stilted, broken English of Tonto’s lines.