Yesterday's Magazette

4 – Radio Voices

Radio Voices of Our Lives

By Marshall J. Cook

What does a hero sound like?

If you were a radio kid, as I was, the answer to that question might be “Brace Beemer,” although the name might not be familiar. Perhaps this exchange will help:

The Lone Ranger: “Only you, Tonto, know I’m alive. To the world, I’ll be buried here beside my brother and my friends … forever.”

Tonto: “You all alone now. You the lone ranger.” 

 

The Lone Ranger first rode on Detroit station WXYZ in 1933, the creation of station owner George W. Trendle and studio manager Beemer. They had just dropped CBS network programming and wanted to produce their own programming as inexpensively as possible. They settled on a western for kids and brought in freelance writer Frank Striker to bring the idea alive. The legend they created involved the sole survivor of a brutal ambush of Texas Rangers, nursed back to health by a childhood friend, an Indian named Tonto. Add a mask, silver bullets, an iron code of honesty and integrity, and a great horse named Silver, and the Lone Ranger was ready to ride to the strains of The William Tell Overture (which was safely in the public domain and thus free for the taking).

Beemer was the show’s first narrator. George Seaton (under the name George Stenius) established the role of the masked avenger, and Earle Graser soon made the role his, voicing the heroic masked rider from May of 1933 until his death in a car accident on April 8, 1941, the day after his last broadcast.

The Lone Ranger was wounded and left unable to speak above a hoarse whisper for five episodes while a frantic director searched about for a new Ranger– and found him standing right next to him– Beemer.

The Lone Ranger now had a deeper, more resonant, richer voice, the true voice of a hero.

Tonto didn’t appear until the 10th episode and was voiced by John Todd, a thin, gray-haired Shakespearean actor in his 60s. He would play Tonto for the show’s entire run, into his 80s, establishing Tonto as the only cowboy sidekick ever to achieve full partnership. He was as smart, as resourceful, and as brave as his “Kemo Sabe” (“faithful friend,” or “good scout,” in early episodes the Ranger’s name for Tonto). The two were completely loyal to each other. As Tonto memorably said, “As long as me live, me ride with you.”

The man who served the longest tenure voicing the words of the show’s familiar introduction was Fred Foy, in my view the greatest of all radio narrators. Can you hear him?

“With his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early West. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. The Long Ranger rides again!”

So good was Foy, he even stepped in for Beemer on March 29, 1954 for an episode called “Burly Scott’s Sacrifice.” He wasn’t Beemer, but he was plenty good enough.

As Jim Harmon notes in his fine book, The Great Radio Heroes (Doubleday 1967), in those days “a good voice meant a good man” and vice versa. Beemer’s supporting cast included John Hodiak (he played all the young ranchers), Frank Russell (the old timer who often asked, “Who was that masked man?”) and Elaine Albert, who played almost all the female roles. The villains included Danny Thomas, Paul Hughes, and Jay Michaels as the hateful Butch Cavendish, the man responsible for the deaths of the other five Texas Rangers, including the Lone Ranger’s brother. Roland Parker was a utility player who voiced everything from sheriffs to renegade Indians– and in some episodes even managed to catch himself!

The show was most successful as half-hour self-contained episodes aired three times a week. That meant a lot of scripts for Fran Striker, who also wrote 365 Lone Ranger comic strips a year, 12 juvenile novels, and 30 episodes of two Lone Ranger movie serials. He typed all his own scripts, and pity the poor actor who had to work off the eighth carbon.

After the first performance of each broadcast, the work had only begun for the cast. Networks insisted that all performances be done live, and the actors had to perform each episode three times, for Eastern, Central, and Mountain Pacific time zones. 

Beemer, a sturdy 6‘3” and an expert horseman, appeared in costume at rodeos, circuses, and photo sessions as the Ranger. He played the role through the 3,956th and final episode, September 3, 1954 (my tenth birthday). After the Ranger ended his epic run, Beemer took over the role of Sergeant Preston for The Challenge of the Yukon, another WXYZ creation.

He died in Oxford, Michigan in 1965, reportedly suffering a heart attack while playing bridge with friends at his home, with the great horse Silver, now 27, stabled nearby.

Clayton Moore became the Long Ranger for the television series. Jay Silverheels, a full-blooded Mohawk Indian, portrayed Tonto with great dignity and authority. To prepare for his role, Moore took voice training to try to sound as much like his radio counterpart as he could. He did a wonderful job, taking the role so seriously that he would never appear in public without his mask, and came close to Beemer’s remarkable voice.

But there was only one Brace Beemer, and his was truly the voice of a hero for a generation.

Vol. 38 No. 2 – Copyright © Yesterday’s Magazette

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