radio

The Classical/Juvenile Western

Speaking in 1938 before a group of students at Columbia University, comedian Eddie Cantor remarked that the tastes of children determined much of the business of radio. He contended that in the home, kids usually possessed a priority on the family radio. According to Cantor, "If there is one radio in the house the child will probably get the program it wants." The implications of this statement are significant for they suggest that producers, writers, and sponsors were well aware of this pattern among listening families. And given the hours during which children were at home and awake—from the late afternoon following the dismissal of school, until the early evening when they went to bed—Cantor's speech suggested that until approximately 8 P.M. radio sought to entertain mixed audiences of juveniles and adults. Nowhere was this syndrome more obvious than in the western series. From the earliest productions, such as Rin-Tin-Tin Thrillers, The Lone Ranger, and The Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters, to those programs which emerged in the 1950s, like Hopalong Cassidy and Wild Bill Hickok, western heroes sought the attention of young listeners. Invariably, the programs were sponsored by producers of bread or breakfast cereals, both traditionally youth-oriented accounts. The Lone Ranger, for example, which was heard at 7:30 P.M. for most of its life on radio, was sponsored regionally in the 1930s by several bread companies. And throughout most of the 1940s and into the 1950s, it was paid for by General Mills for its Kix and Cheerios cereals.

Not all programs broadcast during the hours dominated by youngsters were specifically aimed at young people. But western series were steadfastly youthful in their character. This was due in part to their similarity to the so-called B (budget) westerns of the cinema. From their earliest years of film—as far back as The Great Train Robbery made in 1903—movie studios churned out hundreds of B westerns. They were inexpensive and rapidly-produced movies whose plots were strongly formulaic, but whose principal ingredient was action. In feature after repetitive feature, stars like William S. Hart, Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, and Tim McCoy managed to "head 'em off at the pass," save the town from "low-down sidewinders," capture "bushwackers," and other assorted clichés of the formula. Film historian William Everson has pointed out that although many such films did appeal to adults, B westerns were produced primarily for youngsters.

One of the formats radio westerns borrowed from such motion pictures was the pairing of the star with a comedic partner. The device allowed writers to blend humorous relief with the seriousness of the heroic undertakings. Sometimes the partner was a crusty old-timer who offered not only mirth, but a grandfather-image to youthful listeners. Characters like Gabby Hayes on The Roy Rogers Show, California Carlson on Hopalong Cassidy, and Packy on Straight Arrow brought to their series not only distinctive personalities, but a mature and reliable strength which was a reassuring balance to the bold forcefulness of the central character. A popular variation on this motif was the elderly man who told stories of the West to children. This was most fully developed on the Tom Mix programs in the early 1930s when "the old wrangler" would sit before a group of youngsters and relate the adventures of the famous western movie star.

The most common pattern in the hero-partner relationship was that in which the "sidekick" produced more laughs than assistance to the central character. Jingles on Wild Bill Hickok was a slow-witted type who offered little essential help to the star. In The Cisco Kid, Pancho was a Mexican buffoon whose strong dialect and penchant for plays on words seemed more appropriate to vaudeville than evening radio. Language difficulties also provided humorous opportunities for other partners. On Hawk Larabee in the mid-1940s, sidekick Somber Jones specialized in puns, and malapropos abounded in the vocabulary of Sleepy Stevens, the partner on the Hashknife Hartley series in 1950.

One of the most interesting arrangements was that in which children assumed the role of partner. This certainly allowed youngsters an easier chance to identify with the program. But it also limited the realistic potentialities of the series. There was always something unbelievable about teenage Bobby Benson being the owner of a ranch and actively solving mysteries with his adult employees in Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders. And somehow Little Beaver, the ward of Red Ryder, seemed incongruous with the action in the Red Ryder broadcasts. Even the occasional appearance of Dan Reid, the young nephew of the Lone Ranger, inhibited the maturity of that program. One early western series, Young Forty-Niners, over WENR (Chicago) in 1933, maximized the effect of injecting children into the genre when it made three youngsters on a wagon train the central characters of the series.

Given the frequency of partnerships in the classical/juvenile western, it was a rare series in which the hero operated alone. Only in a few instances—for example, Buck Jones, the B western personality, in Hoofbeats in 1937; and Jed Sloan, the hero of Tennessee Jed in the mid-1940s—did such westerns appear. Ironically, their failure to gain popularity with listeners rested in part with their inability to generate humor in the personality of a serious hero.

This is not to suggest that all partners were sub rosa comedians who hindered rather than advanced justice. Tonto, the loyal Indian companion on The Lone Ranger, was a dignified and valuable comrade to his kemo sabe (a Potawatomi phrase meaning "faithful friend"). Tonto was a strong character whose intelligence and dedication often placed him in strategic operations without which the Lone Ranger could not have brought law and order to the West. The friendship between the two men, moreover, demonstrated a depth and honesty which existed in no other radio western. Tonto expressed the profundity of that comradeship in an anniversary broadcast in 1953, when he solemnly pledged to the Lone Ranger, "Kemo sabe, long as you live, long as me live, me ride with you."

Still another debt owed by the radio westerns to the cinematic B western was the exaggerated and simplistic reality they portrayed. The broadcast cowboy in the 1930s or 1940s might just as readily break into song as he would fisticuffs. Several stars of "singing cowboy" films, for example, developed radio series in which music was an integral part of the production. Although Johnny Mack Brown failed in his series in this format, both Gene Autry and Roy Rogers appeared in long-running programs. As late as 1950, the former star of the defunct Tom Mix series continued the pattern of the crooning western in Curley Bradley, the Singing Marshal.

Such programming seemed unable to escape the heritage of the many country-and-western music shows that pervaded early broadcasting. Since the first popularity of country music recordings in the late 1920s, radio had been a favorite medium for singers and musicians of this style. Performers like Bradley Kincaid and Carson Robison and His Buckaroos had well-received programs during the early 1930s. With the increasing popularity of The Grand Ol’ Opry, which debuted on WSM (Nashville) in November 1925, barn dance broadcasts abounded. Series such as National Barn Dance on WLS (Chicago), Barnyard Jamboree on WOWO (Fort Wayne), and Renfro Valley Barn Dance on WLW (Cincinnati) helped establish in the minds of the listeners the notion of western stars as singers.

Into the 1950s Gene Autry and Roy Rogers dedicated half of their weekly broadcasts to music. Perhaps the most striking example of this syndrome was All Star Western Theater, a West Coast series in the late 1940s, which featured B western personalities such as Tex Ritter, Jimmy Wakely, Donald "Red" Barry, and Allan "Rocky" Lane. The program, however, spent most of its time spotlighting the singing of Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage.

Despite the contrivance of a singing hero, the central characters in the radio western had impressive and manly qualities. They were often introduced as the fastest, smartest, or best in the history of the West. The hero of Hopalong Cassidy, which appeared in 1950 as a transcribed series, was presented each week as "the most famous hero of them all." Roy Rogers was billed as "the king of the cowboys." Buck Jones' adventures on Hoofbeats promised young listeners to be "thrillin', red-blooded ... crammed with action and excitement." And Red Ryder always promised "stories of the West that'll live forever." Perhaps the most extravagant cowboy introduction was that which in 1935 presented Bob Sterling, American Ranger.

The early West of 1850 was a fabulous country where gold could be had for the taking, and men could become millionaires overnight. But it was also a lawless country where men lived by the rule of the gun. Against the forces of evil attracted by the easy wealth to be had, the defenders of law and order were almost helpless. The one bulwark standing between the settlers and the criminal element was a body of men who had dedicated their lives to the war against crime. These courageous men, who daily rode hand in hand with death, were the American Rangers. And of all this group whose noble deeds became a tradition, the most outstanding was Bob Sterling. He could outride, out-rope and outshoot any man west of the Rockies. But his life hung constantly by a hair for there was no western bad man who had not vowed to kill him at the first opportunity. But Bob Sterling seldom rode alone—his constant companions were fat, little Mexican, Pablo—as deadly with a knife as most men were with a gun—and weather-beaten old Panhandle, who knew every trick of the gunfighter, including how to beat him to the draw by shooting through his holster.

In the masculine world of the radio western, the role of women was supportive at best. For the most part, females were creatures to be protected honorably, and indulged when it was practical. No hero was married, and none developed serious ties with women. Like medieval knights, these western figures perceived women as images of beauty and domesticity.

In this manner, Red Ryder in one episode was anxious to provide emotional and financial support for his Aunt Duchess who was overworked and seriously ill because "she's a woman and keeps thinkin' she's an iron man." The Lone Ranger and Tonto exhibited nothing but honorable intentions in the broadcast of June 30, 1947, when they picked up two young women stranded in the wilderness and gentlemanly transported them to town. Even after Dale Evans and Roy Rogers were married in real life, their relationship on radio remained that of buddies who sang duets, rather than man and wife in love with each other. But Hawk Larabee best epitomized this quality of western gentility when he defended a young woman in distress, remarking, in stereotypic dialect, "I'm jest a feller from Texas that don't like seein' a dern saddlebum yellin' at a petty girl."

Only in two important series did the central character approach women in sensual terms. In both cases the relationships were no more than flirtations which never prevented the resolving of injustices. On Gene Autry's Melody Ranch, women were often attracted to the singing cowboy. These romances led inevitably to a serenade, but never to more serious involvement. The one series that did produce a philandering hero was The Cisco Kid. The program premiered on WOR (New York City) in 1942 and became a Mutual and syndicated feature for many seasons. Although Cisco performed the traditional chores of righting the misdeeds of villains, in the first seasons he essentially was cast as the "Latin lover" who spent as much time kissing senoritas. Insincerity permeated Cisco's relationships with women, however, and the role was basically unbelievable. Interestingly, the series was more successful when, in a later version, it appeared in a traditional vein, with Cisco toning down his functions as a Casanova and paying stricter attention to chasing desperadoes.

Although the Cisco Kid was a Mexican character, the stars of radio westerns were champions of a society that was dominated by Anglo-Saxon standards. And for the most part, radio offered WASP heroes, attuned to the fundamental mentality of the nation. Although in the history of the authentic West there were Swedish, German, and African-American characters, they were not to be found among the principals of the radio western. Traditional Irish names like Mix, Cassidy, Dalton, and Reid linked central characters with one of the more industrious nationalities to settle in the United States. British names also abounded—Rogers, Jones, Hartley, Preston, Sterling, Adams—and established the kinship of such heroes with the Founding Fathers and the Pilgrims.

In many instances, moreover, it was possible to know the villain immediately by the non-English nature or questionable character of his name or nickname. Tennessee Jed in episodes in 1947 struggled against the greatest cattle rustler named Sanchez de los Riveros-York. The Cisco Kid bested a fiendish criminal called El Culebra ("the snake"). Hopalong Cassidy captured evil-doers such as a Chinese named Chung who shotgunned his victims, a confidence man named Skaggs, a murderer and bank robber with the harsh name of Bart Cranbaugh, and a "sweet bunch of cutthroats" called the Three Jacks Gang and composed of men with "shady" monikers such as Link, Slim, Big-Ear, Soapy, and Frenchy. And the Lone Ranger, who fought bad men for twenty-two years, encountered villains with names such as El Diablo, the Crimson Prophet, the Hawk, Jackal, the Cimarron Kid, and the Sandusky Gang.

Despite the fact that most classical /juvenile westerns were formulaic and repetitive, it would be incorrect to consider them inflexible. In several instances these series altered their formats and improved because of it. During World War II, for example, it was possible to reflect concern for the war in western dramas set in either contemporary contexts, or in the days of the Old West. This was most effectively accomplished by Tom Mix and The Lone Ranger.

In September 1939, less than one month after the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, the producers of The Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters announced their intention to use the series to foster patriotism and "clean thinking" among their youthful listeners. According to their statement, the program would be made more relevant by promoting "wholesome entertainment," "worthwhile educational information," and "inspiration for better living." What it became, however, was one of the strongest propagandizing programs during the war. Throughout the conflagration Mix and his ranch hands battled Axis spies and saboteurs. In 1942 the sponsors of the show even offered, as a premium from Ralston cereal, a Tom Mix Commandos Comic which strongly asserted the American cause.

Mix struggled until the end of the war. Lest his audience feel that the victory over Germany meant the end of combat, Mix was there on V-E Day to boast of victory over Germany, but remind youthful listeners that the war in the Far East was not finished. On the broadcast of May 8, 1945, he lectured, "We've shown Hitler and his gang that we know how to lick bullies and racketeers, but we've still got a big job to do for our brothers, and our cousins, and our uncles, and our dads who are still fighting the Japs."

To reflect national concern with World War II in a western set in the nineteenth century was a more difficult achievement. Still, The Lone Ranger accomplished this through the use of allegory. The series had a history of involvement with the war. During the month before the United States entered the global battle, Kix cereal offered as a premium a "Lone Ranger Blackout Safety Belt." And at the end of the war, in broadcasts of August 10 and 13, 1945—less than a week after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and one day before the Japanese government surrendered on August 14—the series dealt allegorically with the implications of the impending peace. The first program dealt with a meek sheep rancher named David Bell who was actually a physician who had lost his medical self-confidence. Bell's sheepish peacefulness contrasted dramatically with a belligerent neighbor whose bullying of his son precipitated a nearly-fatal accident. Only when Dr. Bell regained his professional confidence and administered to the wounded child was death averted. The story ended on a compassionate note with the headstrong father, now defeated and contrite, reciting the Lord's Prayer.

The second program was even more directly related to the war. It concerned a range war between cattlemen and homesteaders that was thwarted by the Lone Ranger and by the transcending love of a rancher's son and a farmer's daughter. The pacifistic point of the program was underscored when Tonto suggested that the West was a vast territory where with tolerance and understanding people of differing persuasions could live together. The farmer's daughter summarized the spirit of the broadcast, and the feeling of most Americans, when she noted at the conclusion of the fighting, "Farmers can get along with cattlemen. It's a big West.... There'll be no more fighting, no more blood on the land." Aired at the end of three and one-half years of international warfare, these broadcasts were striking appeals for humility, gentleness, tolerance, and peace, now that the United States, reluctant at first to go to war, had tamed the bullies and resolved the global dilemma.

Few western series were adapted to treat military themes of World War II. But it was not the case in their treatment of social issues that confronted postwar America. This was especially true with respect to matters of racial tolerance and equality. Throughout the 1930s, Mexicans, East Asians, blacks, and Native Americans were usually portrayed as inferior to the bold white heroes. With the major exception of Tonto, prewar westerns presented few flattering images of non-white characters. Tom Mix's black ranch hand, Wash, was pictured as a slow-witted dolt who added little to the action of the program. Bob Sterling's "fat, little Mexican" assistant, Pablo, sounded like a Latin Stepin Fetchit. Both the Cisco Kid and Pancho were modeled after common stereotypes of the Latin American as a rascalish lover and a lazy clown. And a local series in 1933, Pat Barnes' Bar-Z Ranch on WENR, featured Barnes providing all the male voices on the show, including "a Chinese cook, grunting Indian, and a nasal cowboy called Adenoids."

When non-white characters were enemies, their images were harshly portrayed. Maverick Jim, which appeared in 1933, pictured Mexican "greasers" as diabolical sorts who used murder and torture—specifically, the application of a hot iron to the eyes of captured gringos—to effect their villainous ends. Even in the 1950s such stereotypes and prejudices persisted. In one episode Hopalong Cassidy captured a "China-boy" who had murdered several men, assuring the “Oriental” that the courts would now handle him and "he'll soon be taking a long, long journey to join his ancestors." Western Caravan, which in the summer of 1950 featured singer Tex Williams in a dramatic role, portrayed Apache Indians as merciless butchers of white men. One white character in this program went so far as to state, without being challenged by the hero: "The only good Indian is a...," he stated before catching himself. The anachronistic quality of such characterizations led a reviewer in Variety to suggest in 1950 that in Curley Bradley, the Singing Marshal, "the stereotyped colored boy and Chinese house boy were unnecessary."

While racial slurs persisted, the radio western by the late 1940s made a concerted effort to project a more positive image of ethnic groups in America. The revised Cisco Kid series was much less stereotypical; and on Tom Mix even Wash became more intelligent and less subordinate. But in regard to Indians, the new attitude was especially noticeable. Perhaps the first appearance of the new sensitivity came in the Red Ryder series which debuted on the Mutual network on May 4, 1942. The existence of Little Beaver as Red's "adopted son" created one of the first racially mixed families in radio. Although Little Beaver spoke pidgin English and was often referred to as "Injun" and "the redskin," he was a warm and sincere character who operated equally with children and adults in white society.

One of the more dignified portrayals of American Indians occurred in a broadcast of The Cisco Kid entitled, "The Battle of Wagon Box Corral." The program involved a racially-prejudiced Commission of Indian Affairs and an Army colonel who resolutely defended the honor of the Indians. During the broadcast, the announcer praised the military genius of several Native American leaders, including Cochise, Chief Joseph, and Chief Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux. He equated their intelligence and strategic skills with those of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, and Napoleon.

The most consistently positive image of Indians, however, appeared on Straight Arrow, a popular series which came to Mutual in 1948 and ran until 1951. Straight Arrow was a stalwart Comanche brave who "when danger threatened innocent people, and when evil-doers plotted against justice," rode the trail for law and order. In reality, the heroic Indian was a white man, cattle rancher Steve Adams, who had been raised by Comanches and who was familiar with their language and culture. Whenever he sensed danger, Adams rode to a mysterious cave on his Broken Bow Ranch where he underwent a transformation to become Straight Arrow. The dual character personified assimilation and equality. As a white man, Steve Adams was prestigious and a source of stability and authority within his community. As an Indian, Straight Arrow was pictured as "honest, fearless, and loyal to the land of his fathers."

The nobility with which Indians were portrayed in the series was strikingly demonstrated in the broadcast of January 7, 1950. In that program, Straight Arrow and a Blackfoot guide, Skywalk, risked their lives by moving through a blizzard and high snows to rescue a wagon train full of settlers. The pioneers had been abandoned high in the mountains by evil white men, unscrupulous speculators who intended to purchase the land to which the settlers were headed. If listeners failed to understand the imagery of bad white men and good red men, the following exchange of views certainly underscored the message:

    First person: How, Skywalk! You sure saved our lives.
    Second person: You sure did.
    Third person: Hadn't been for you, Straight Arrow would never had come to our rescue.
    Skywalk: You better now?
    First person: Oh, that mountain goat the Comanche brought to stave off starvation. And on top of that, all the grub your tribe toted up. Yeah. And Rufus said Injuns wasn't any good. Heh, I reckon you folks got the proof that they are good, eh?
    First person: We sure have, Packy!

Not only did Straight Arrow offer a positive image of Native Americans on the radio, but for years its sponsor, Nabisco Shredded Wheat, enhanced this message with its free Straight Arrow Injunuity Cards. These were oversized cardboard dividers placed inside the Shredded Wheat boxes. Printed on the cards were how-to-make-it lessons that ranged from outdoors suggestions (Making Fire, Swimming Do’s and Don’ts, First Aid), to Western history (Western Hats, Types of Western Bridles, Frontier Pistols), but mostly to the intricacies of Native American culture (Smoke Signals, Indian Spurs, Indian Arrow Making, Drum Signals, Indian Snow Shoes, Indian Face Markings, Comanche War Bonnet). Through the 144 different cards issued between 1949 and 1952 Indians were presented to a generation of young Americans with unusual respect and dignity.

In the strictest sense, the western is set in the past. In literature this historical flavor ties the stories to the pioneer spirit which is essential to the mood of the genre. Certainly, the broadcast western reflected the literary antecedents of the genre. But many radio series were set in the contemporary world, thereby adding modern dimensions to the western ethic. The hero of Sky King, a former FBI agent and a military officer during the World War II, now operated as a rancher and amateur sleuth who flew an airplane to capture criminals. The Cisco Kid, in the version which premiered in 1942, made frequent use of the telephone in tracking down outlaws. The world of the TM-Bar Ranch, the home and headquarters of Tom Mix, was a modern environment complete with automobiles, telephones, and other technological advances.

The series that most stretched the boundaries of the western, however, was The Roy Rogers Show. Although it had earlier appeared in a traditional western context, by the 1950s the series was written in an adventure, or even a detective format. Programs centered about such plots as the adversities encountered by Roy and Dale Evans when they visited Washington, D.C.; prospecting for uranium with Geiger counters; investigating a stolen stamp collection; resolving the tensions that arose at a roadside diner during a tornado; and breaking a smuggling ring which used railroad refrigerator cars to transport diamonds from Mexico.

Although the western most properly offers an insight into American values, on radio the genre occasionally was set in Canadian surroundings in stories dealing with the North-West Mounted Police. That federal police force had been instrumental in the settlement of the Canadian wilderness, and its parallel with American history made it a propitious institution for the radio western. Stories of the Mounties were familiar fare in the 1920s to readers of pulp magazines such as Argosy, All-Story, and Adventure. One of the first radio series to adopt the context was Red Trails which lasted a few months on WJZ (New York City) in 1935. More popular, however, was Renfrew of the Mounted, a radio version of the popular stories created by novelist Laurie York Erskine. Renfrew appeared in 1936 on CBS, and was heard intermittently until 1940.

By far the most successful radio series about the Red Coats was Challenge of the Yukon (popularly known as Sgt. Preston of the Yukon) which was produced at WXYZ (Detroit) by the same unit that created The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet, and the short-lived Ned Jordan, Secret Agent. This series debuted in 1939 as a regional sustaining program, but by the mid-1940s was a regular feature on ABC. The producers did not deny speculation that the stories of Sergeant Preston and "his wonder dog, Yukon King" old plots from The Lone Ranger and set in the snow and tundra of the Canadian Northwest. Nevertheless, the appeal of tales of the Yukon and Northwest Territories was so strong that Challenge of the Yukon lasted until 1955. It is interesting, moreover, that a Mountie theme was chosen for one of the last western series introduced by ABC, Silver Eagle. This program, which concerned the adventures of Sgt. Jim West of the North-West Mounted Police, debuted in July 1951, and remained on the network for four years.

Despite the fact that the classical/juvenile western was produced for more than twenty years for audiences with large youthful components, it provided poignant reflections of life in the United States. Perhaps because they were aired with impressionable children in mind, they were even more obviously indicators of the dominant values and attitudes of American civilization. Further, millions of adults listened regularly to radio westerns. This was especially true of those series heard in the early evening. In such programs as The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid, mature listeners found not only a momentary perpetuation of their own childhoods, but also vital social messages that were applicable to citizens of all ages. Thus, western series were significant communications to all listeners. Specifically, radio westerns transmitted societal standards in three distinct ways.

Despite the fact that the classical/juvenile western was produced for more than twenty years for audiences with large youthful components, it provided poignant reflections of life in the United States. Perhaps because they were aired with impressionable children in mind, they were even more obviously indicators of the dominant values and attitudes of American civilization. Further, millions of adults listened regularly to radio westerns. This was especially true of those series heard in the early evening. In such programs as The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid, mature listeners found not only a momentary perpetuation of their own childhoods, but also vital social messages that were applicable to citizens of all ages. Thus, western series were significant communications to all listeners. Specifically, radio westerns transmitted societal standards in three distinct ways.

Champions of the Oppressed and the Weak: In a fully democratic society with respect and equality for all its citizens, there would be no necessity for altruistic champions. Yet, within the historical realities of American society, as well as of Western civilization, injustice, repression, and exploitation commonly occurred. At least since Beowulf in the eleventh century, Western literature has lionized those who have stood against oppression. It might even be legitimately contended that Christianity and its literature were heroic reactions among the repressed and weak factions of the Hellenistic-Roman world.

The radio western was related to these traditions for, of all the genres popularly broadcast, the western most consistently projected its central characters as protagonists of justice and defenders of the mistreated. Whether it involved defending the legal right of a woman against unprincipled land-grabbers, as did Wild Bill Hickok in one episode in 1952, or answering the desperate plea of an elderly senora—"If we only had the strong arm of an hombre.. where does one find such a caballero these days?"—as the Cisco Kid did in a program entitled "Valley of Intrigue," western heroes rode out of the obscurity of the desert or the mountains and into the troubled lives of the downtrodden. It was an egalitarian impulse that seemed to motivate these heroes. Encountering the inequities created by evil men, these champions intervened to rectify the situation. In doing so, they became metaphoric social agents whose function was to restructure the democratic harmony disrupted by conscienceless bad men.

It might be Hopalong Cassidy rousting a perfidious sheriff whose power intimidated the townspeople. It could be Straight Arrow inspiring his fellow Comanches to clear their good name by capturing a band of white marauders posing as Indians. It might be Tex Williams thwarting the evil plans of a ranch foreman scheming to exploit his employer. Whatever the good deed accomplished in each regular broadcast, the heroes of the radio western brought momentary resolution to a world of distress. Buck Jones on Hoofbeats captured much of this spirit when, in inviting youngsters to join his special Buck Jones Club, he opened the membership to any one, "if you're a boy or girl who's interested in clean living, outdoor exercise, and seeing that the underdog gets a chance."

Such an altruistic message, learned by a generation of radio-listening American children, remained a lingering ideal in many adults. That radio westerns might have been partially responsible for inspiring a heroic mentality in mature Americans was suggested by one publication in the closing months of World War II:

For millions of American boys—and their fathers—the courageous spirit of the old West has never died. Not as long as The Lone Ranger's famous battle cry of "Hi-Yo Silver" rings out on the airwaves.... A whole generation of lads has grown up inspired by his ideas. Many of them are now overseas fighting in a different kind of crusade. But they haven't forgotten the daring hero of their childhood. From the mud of Italy to the sands of the Pacific, "Hi-Yo Silver" has served them as a rallying call, password, identification. The Lone Ranger is on the job.

The message of self-sacrifice and concern for the abused was an integral part of the western formula. But long before World War II it was employed explicitly as a counterforce to the oppressive social and political problems of the Great Depression. In a guest appearance on June 5, 1933, on the NBC variety program, Hollywood on the Air, Buck Jones spoke to the youth of America and tied together the western ethic and the role of children in combating the stresses facing the nation. In this remarkable speech, only a partial recording of which exists today, Jones called upon his Rangers—his fans who believed in "Americanism, good fellowship, and helpfulness"—to come to the rescue of the nation.

Far be it from me to make a patriotic speech. But we've got a man in the White House that's doing a mighty sweet job of organizing America, and headin' her back towards prosperity. With summer vacation time coming around, I want to call your attention to a few little things you can do to help Mr. Roosevelt put this big job over in a big way. Times have been pretty tough, times have come when every youngster—boys and girls, too—must pitch in and do something that will help ma and pa make the home a little happier, and the going a little easier. This Depression is like a kink in a rope, and you youngsters can straighten it out by doing a little fancy roping yourselves, that is if you set your mind to it. You're growing up, you children, and you've got to look years ahead.

Communicators of Morality: Despite its secular structures, American civilization is based upon the Judeo-Christian ethic which is most succinctly epitomized in the Ten Commandments. Through whatever cultural medium this fundamental morality is transmitted, it is communicated continuously to the citizenry. Children, of course, are heavily exposed to such messages, and they are usually the most credulous targets. This exposure is part of the socialization process in which youngsters are introduced to the values of the society. Adults, however, are neither immune to, nor without need of, moral reaffirmation. The radio western, therefore, served as a noteworthy and engaging means of cultural validation.

Radio westerns avoided distinctively religious philosophizing. The spectrum of moralizing in them ranged from simple secular wisdom to paraphrasing of the Scriptures. The most common types of moral messages were those that implored listeners to work hard, to respect the ways of elders, and to be honest in all dealings. The writers of Red Ryder, for instance, used the relationship between Red and Little Beaver as a positive analogy for all father-son relationships. If Red remonstrated or punished the child, it was for transgressing standards that were familiar to youthful listeners. In one episode Red scolded Little Beaver for interrupting his conversation, telling the boy that "Children are to speak only when spoken to." Later, he set up definite boundaries with respect to wagering money when he noted, "Gambling is one thing we don't do around here." And Red's aunt continued the lesson in values with her remark on the importance of love in society, testifying to "the finest medicine any woman ever had—the love of her friends and family."

Children had their place in the radio western as well as in society. Even when youth was the center of attention, western dramas reminded listeners of the social hierarchy and the responsibilities of the various generations. Bobby Benson was twelve years of age, owned the B-Bar-B Ranch, and was the central character in his series. Nevertheless, he was treated as a child. Although his opinions were solicited and considered by the adults in his world, they were still the ideas of a youngster. His colleagues called him "son" and "kid," and he was sheltered from the occasional brutalities of mature life. In one broadcast, for example, he approached the scene of a gory murder, but his adult employees would not allow him to enter the blood-smeared room.

Another type of guidance children received in radio westerns was encouragement to prepare for the future. By deed and word radio characters suggested the necessity and inevitability of children becoming the social leaders of tomorrow. Whenever Sky King extended himself to capture a villain, he presented a model in responsible adulthood to his audience. But when Little Beaver or another juvenile character entered upon the trail of a criminal, he was unable to carry out fully his pursuit because the apprehending of desperadoes was a function of adult life. One of the most glowing calls for youth to prepare for responsible adulthood appeared in a Lone Ranger episode in January 1953. Although the Lone Ranger was pleased to be a model for his nephew, Dan Reid, he warned that the young man should not try to follow in his footsteps. Instead, the Lone Ranger declared:

Our great country will progress only so long as there are leaders. You and young people like you must educate yourselves to be the leaders. Son, I want you to go to college, to study science and law, history and the problems of government. I want you to learn the many things required so you'll be ready to take your place as a good citizen and carry on where we leave off. Knowing that you're in school preparing for the future, I'll be content to continue helping others bring law and order to the West until you young men can take over.

Religion was rare in the radio western. Although listeners might assume their heroes were all God-fearing, devout believers, writers avoided identifying their characters with a specific faith. A major exception was The Roy Rogers Show. In real life, both Rogers and his wife, Dale Evans, openly testified to the intensity of their Christian faith. In occasional episodes from their series in the 1950s this personal sentiment became a part of the radio western. In one program in particular, the couple successfully used religious faith to persuade a young doctor to confront his fear that a patient had died because of an overdose of drugs he had prescribed. Referring to Biblical passages and Christian adages, Roy and Dale persuaded the doctor that mortals cannot judge when and why death comes, that "It isn't for us to judge, only to have faith and believe." They added that "The Lord works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform."

Despite its avoidance of the "Sunday School" quality that is created when plots become openly religious, the radio western was closely allied to the generalized religious morality basic to American social morality. Nowhere was this more obvious than in Gene Autry's Cowboy Code, a statement on the intent of the radio western that Autry composed in 1951 as a western Decalogue.

    1. A cowboy never takes unfair advantage, even of an enemy.
    2. A cowboy never betrays a trust.
    3. A cowboy always tells the truth.
    4. A cowboy is kind to small children, to old folks, and to animals.
    5. A cowboy is free from racial and religious prejudice.
    6. A cowboy is always helpful, and when anyone's in trouble, he lends a hand.
    7. A cowboy is a good worker.
    8. A cowboy is clean about his person, and in thought, word and deed.
    9. A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents and the laws of his country.
    10. A cowboy is a patriot.

The classical/juvenile western proffered a code of ethics to its listeners. In a world in which values were constantly challenged and questioned, these series stood resolutely for traditional Judeo-Christian concepts of honesty, fairness, goodness, and compassion. It was a moral guidance that adult society could not help but notice. In one of the more elaborate approbations of the morality inherent in the radio western, CBS and General Mills established in April 1949, a National Lone Ranger Council of Honor "to encourage America's youth to adhere to the principles of good citizenship and clean living." To underscore the seriousness of the Council, its charter members were listed as including Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor, Harold Stassen, Father John J. Cavanaugh (president of Notre Dame University), Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Dr. Lewis T. Wright (noted African-American surgeon) , Dr. Abba Hillel Silver (Jewish statesman and humanitarian) , Jane Froman, Gene Tunney, and Robert Ripley.

Representatives of Civilization: Ultimately, the radio western was the drama of civilized men and women pitted against the forces of anarchy. It was the tale of "the Battle of the West" that was also the story of the effort of a society to establish and maintain order. In the opening declaration to the broadcast of The Lone Ranger on October 18, 1943, the narrator effectively delineated the issues at stake in all radio westerns.

The life of a pioneer man was rugged at best. If a man did survive the perils of the long trail—the sickness and disease, the Indians, the chance of losing his team, his wagon, and even his life on the steep, rocky passes—he had by no means won the Battle of the West, for even after he had found his peaceful valley, cleared the land, built his cabin, and finally enlarged all this to a sizable, paying cattle ranch, there were those who sought by fair means and foul to take it all away from him.

With this purview, the plot of the western could extend from the experience of the trek from the overly-civilized East to a new home in the wilderness, to the villainous efforts of a minority to upset the social harmony established by hard-working pioneers in the unprotected frontier. Regardless of the setting, however, the heroes of these series regularly acted as catalysts in restoring civil stability.

Some came as official representatives of law enforcement agencies. Tennessee Jed, for instance, was designated a "secret agent of the President of the United States." Wild Bill Hickok was a United States marshal. And the Lone Ranger—an erstwhile member of the Texas Rangers—was such a believable lawman that on January 18, 1955, Senator Price Daniels of Texas placed in the Congressional Record a tribute to the series for serving "as a vital factor in keeping alive in the minds of people... the traditions and ideals of the Texas Ranger organization and its work in maintaining law and order."

Most of the champions, however, were drifters who moved from site to site, always encountering injustice to overcome. Even if they owned property or had a personal stake in a specific settlement, these heroes wandered the wilderness in pursuit of criminality. They never sought to explain their wanderings since their beneficial achievements seemed always to justify their unconventional lifestyle. Perhaps the closest thing to an explanation of this wanderlust were the words of Hopalong Cassidy in describing his frequent absence from his Bar-20 Ranch: "A man has to move around once in a while; he gets stale if he doesn't."

It was a rough, male world which the champions encountered. Although female characters were often the victims of crime, they seldom were the perpetrators. Law and order were conditions created and disrupted by men. Fistfights, shootings, robberies, swindles: these were the common crimes, and they were crimes of men. It is interesting that in only one instance did a major network develop a western series with a woman as the central character. In March 1946, CBS introduced Calamity Jane and featured Agnes Moorehead in the title role. The scripts may have been poor, but the image itself was an incongruity. The series lasted only three broadcasts.

The heroes of the radio westerns were civilizers. From the outposts of civilization they visited, they pruned those evil influences that would retard development. The essence of this social mission is found in a short film sold in the 1930s to owners of 16mm movie projectors. In two minutes the Lone Ranger and Tonto ride into a lawless situation, save innocent life, capture evil-doers, prove again that crime does not pay, and with their mission accomplished, they leave the world a happier, more civilized place.

By their actions western heroes suggested that social perfection was possible if only imperfect elements were removed. These stalwarts were direct descendents of those thinkers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment who also maintained that utopian society was possible. Man is basically good, they claimed; it is social environment that corrupts this innate goodness. Change that environment by reforming or removing social corruptors, and heaven will be made on earth.

Certainly, none of the western champions ever enunciated such a philosophical position. Rather than envision an idealized future, they acted always as if their tasks would never be completed for, in the words of the Lone Ranger, "There will always be bad men." Yet, with enough brave men like Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers the ideal was theoretically achievable. Perhaps, then, the long-range function of the classical/juvenile western was to produce within each child and adult an understanding of justice and the perfectibility that was only possible when civilized men and women lived without crime.

Continue Reading        Previous