The Lone Ranger will ride again

It seems that Hollywood will never get tired of producing films based on characters from popular fiction. Superman, Batman, Zorro and Sherlock Holmes have all received plenty of screen time in both television and motion pictures in recent years, sometimes with very profitable results. Joining the list in 2013 will be one of the all-time greatest western heroes, as Walt Disney Pictures will release “The Lone Ranger,” just in time for the 80th anniversary of the masked man’s creation. The intriguing aspect of the upcoming film is the casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s Indian companion. With Armie Hammer playing the title role, “The Lone Ranger” has just recently started shooting, ten years after the project was first announced. Moving from Columbia to Walt Disney Pictures in 2007, “The Lone Ranger” is expected to cost $215 million to make.

The Lone Ranger originated as a radio show, created by Fran Striker, premiering on Detroit radio station WXYZ on January 30, 1933. Although the program was a western aimed at children, “The Lone Ranger” soon became popular among adults as well, and was successful enough to be picked up by network radio, eventually landing a spot on ABC radio, and lasting until 1954. It was on radio where the most of the Lone Ranger’s most familiar elements were introduced, including the “William Tell Overture” as his theme, silver bullets, and his horse Silver. His trusted friend Tonto was added to the show during its 11th episode, primarily to give the Ranger someone with whom to talk. Seven different actors portrayed the Lone Ranger on radio, most notably Earle Graser (1933-1941) and Brace Beemer (1941-1954). As the Lone Ranger’s persona became established, a back story was created to explain the masked man’s origin. In this backstory, the Lone Ranger was a Texas Ranger named Reid who survived an ambush by the Butch Cavendish gang, an attack that claimed the lives of five other Rangers, including Reid’s brother Dan. Reid is found barely alive by an Indian named Tonto, and after being nursed back to health by his new friend, donned a mask, vowing to devote his life to fighting for law and order.

By the 1940’s, the Lone Ranger had branched out to other forms of media, including newspaper comic strips, children’s picture books and Saturday afternoon matinee serials. But it was on TV where the Lone Ranger made his biggest impact, as the Lone Ranger television show made its network debut on ABC in 1949. Both Clayton Moore as the Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto gained national fame in their roles, and the two remained closely indentified with their characters the rest of their lives.

The Lone Ranger television series lasted eight seasons, filming 221 episodes, but despite its obvious success, it was always considered a children’s show, never receiving the acclaim given to the so-called “adult” westerns, such as “Gunsmoke,” “Maverick,” and “Have Gun Will Travel.” Reruns of “The Lone Ranger” were part of CBS’s Saturday afternoon schedule for several years, and an animated version of the series also appeared on CBS during the mid 1960’s. Finally, in 1981, the masked man was brought to the big screen when Universal Pictures released “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” with Klinton Spilsbury playing the lead role. Not only was the film a financial disaster, but also a public relations nightmare, as the producers were granted a court order that prevented Clayton Moore from making public appearances in the Lone Ranger costume he helped make famous. The film was subjected to additional ridicule when it was discovered that Spilsbury’s lines were dubbed by another actor. Eventually, Moore won a lawsuit that allowed him to continue wearing the mask.

The upcoming version of “The Lone Ranger” has not been without its problems, changing studios, producers and writers several times before production began a few weeks ago. The fact that Johnny Depp is playing Tonto would lead one to believe that the movie could have a less than serious tone. Although the film is months away from being released, I already have one complaint. Publicity photos showing Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger reveal an entirely new look. The Lone Ranger’s traditional light blue outfit has been replaced with what looks like a navy blue blazer. If the Lone Ranger can’t catch an outlaw wearing those clothes, he’ll at least have no problem getting into the Friars’ Club.

Note: Due to a contract dispute, Clayton Moore did not play the Ranger during the third season of “The Lone Ranger.” Producers, thinking that the Ranger’s unique outfit made the role easily transferrable, replaced Moore with John Hart, but the public wasn’t fooled, and Moore was brought back, but not before Hart had completed 52 episodes.

Trivia: “The Green Hornet,” introduced on radio in 1936, was actually a spinoff of “The Lone Ranger.” It was explained that Britt Reid (the Green Hornet) was the grandson of Dan Reid, the brother of the Lone Ranger who was killed during the Cavendish gang ambush. The ABC television version of the Hornet made no mention of the Lone Ranger connection. The 1966-67 series featured Van Williams as Britt Reid/The Green Hornet and martial arts legend Bruce Lee as Kato. Lee once joked that he got the part because he was the only Asian in Hollywood that could pronounce “Britt Reid.”

“The Three Stooges”…..irreplaceable

On April 13, 20th Century Fox releases “The Three Stooges,” the much publicized attempt to recreate one of Hollywood’s greatest comedy teams. Whether the film should be seen as a tribute the original Stooges, or an attempt to reestablish a new version of the trio, one thing is certain…it will be almost impossible to duplicate the success of the real Moe, Larry and Curly. In a career that spanned over 50 years, The Three Stooges went from vaudeville, to motion pictures and eventually to television, and although their physical prime years were 1935-1941, it was in the late 1950’s that they achieved their everlasting status as Baby Boomer icons.

The Stooges started out in 1925 as part of a vaudeville act headed by comedian Ted Healy. Moe Howard, his older brother Shemp and Larry Fine combined with Healy to form, “Ted Healy and his Stooges.” It was Healy who originated the Stooges tradition of physical abuse, as he constantly pounded on his three associates onstage, whenever they seemingly stepped out of line. Shortly after the act began receiving small parts in motion pictures, Shemp quit the group, pursuing a solo career. Moe convinced his younger brother Jerry to join the team, and soon the character of Curly was born. After appearing in several movies alongside Ted Healy, the Stooges accepted an offer from Columbia Studios to star in a series of 20 minute shorts without Healy. Now billed as “The Three Stooges,” the trio’s “Woman Haters” (1934) was the first of 190 comedy shorts that the team would do for Columbia over the next 23 years. It only took a small handful of films for the Stooges to develop their own comic style as well as their individual personas. Moe was the self appointed leader, who took over Healy’s role of slapping and eye-poking his two partners. Larry, with his wild hair, was the neutral Stooge, whose main goal was to somehow stay on Moe’s good side. But it was Curly who usually stole the show, as Jerry Howard, despite no show business experience prior to becoming a member of the team, quickly establishing himself as a comic genius. Portraying the ultimate man-child, Curly was a energetic marvel, performing all sorts of physical stunts, as well as having the ability to convey a wide range of emotions without using actual words. His signature laugh (nyuk-nyuk-nyuk) and his high pitched “woo-woo-woo-woo,” heard whenever he became overly excited are still often imitated today.

The beauty of “The Three Stooges” was that they could be placed into any setting. Even though their characters seemed totally incapable of even the simplest tasks, Moe, Larry and Curly would be cast as plumbers, carpenters, cooks, airplane mechanics, and even doctors. It was certainly a surreal world where such incompetent men could consistently find employment, but such is poetic license. Of course, some of the most memorable “Three Stooges” episodes occurred when the boys were placed within high society, where the more fancy the setting meant to more intense the inevitable the food fight. Although “The Three Stooges” did not invent pie throwing, they probably perfected it.

Despite the success of the “Three Stooges” comedies, and the team’s popularity as a live act, Columbia never elevated the team to the level of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, keeping the trio in Saturday afternoon minor-leagues.

Problems developed for “The Three Stooges,” in the late 1940’s as Curly Howard’s deteriorating health forced him leave the team in 1947. Shemp Howard reluctantly rejoined Moe and Larry, returning only because he knew the Stooges would probably fold without his help. Shemp stayed with the team until his untimely death in 1955. Although Moe and Larry soldiered on, replacing Shemp with Joe Besser, their days with Columbia were numbered, as television began to eat away at what was left of the 20 minute, comedy short-subject market. In December of 1957, Columbia Studios did not renew the trio’s contract. Now middle-aged, Moe and Larry were out of work.

In the late 1940’s, motion picture studios found a new source of revenue…leasing old films to TV stations. In January of 1958, Columbia made the “Three Stooges” shorts available for television, introducing them to the new, massive Baby Boomer audience. The Stooges 20 minute comedies were the perfect fit for a half-hour time slot, and some markets began showing two Stooges’ shorts a day, five days a week. Now getting daily, national exposure, “The Three Stooges” were hot again, and Moe and Larry were back in business. Hiring Joe DeRita (Curly Joe) as their third Stooge, the trio was welcomed back to Columbia, making several full-length features over the next several years. The “Three Stooges” worked all through the 1960’s, performing live and making numerous television appearances, up to the time of Larry Fine’s 1970 stroke. Although Moe Howard and Larry Fine both passed away in 1975, their work has continued to be admired, through countless airings on television, as well as from various “Three Stooges” DVD packages.

I certainly hope the new “Three Stooges” film does well, especially if it encourages the younger generations to check out the real thing. How successful can the new Stooges be? Let’s see if anyone is watching them in 2082.

50 Years Ago: The N.Y. Mets Amazing First Season

The history of baseball includes dozens of teams that that vie for the title of the “Greatest Ever.” Whenever baseball fans debate which World Series Champion might have been best, usually the 1927 Yankees, the 1934 Cardinals or the 1929 Athletics are mentioned, along with several other super teams. But 50 years ago this week saw the debut of a ballclub that earned itself a far different kind of distinction. The 1962 New York Mets lost 120 games in their first National League season, the most by any major league team in the 20th Century, and have been celebrated as possibly the worst team in MLB history. But the Mets’ failure on the field ended up endearing them in the eyes of New York baseball fans, and their popularity soon rivaled that of the perennial American League champions, the New York Yankees.

The 1962 season saw the completion of Major League Baseball’s two year plan to expand to 20 teams. During the first half of the 20th Century, big-league baseball was limited to 16 teams scattered among 10 cities. During the 1950’s, five more towns were added through franchise relocations, but the number of teams stayed fixed at 16. In 1959, a group of businessmen, which included onetime Brooklyn Dodger executive Branch Rickey, announced the formation of the Continental League, a third baseball major league, that would begin operations in 1961. Faced with possible competition for players, fans and television revenue, National and American League owners quickly drew up plans to increase the number of teams in Major League Baseball by four, an action that doomed the Continental League before it ever got started. The American League added the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators in 1961, while the National League awarded franchises to Houston and New York in time for the 1962 season.

Joan Whitney Payson, a wealthy patron of the arts and a one-time minority owner of the New York Giants who had opposed their move to San Francisco after the 1957 season, was anxious to bring National League baseball back to the Big Apple. Payson headed the group that was awarded the Mets franchise, becoming the first woman to purchase majority control of a team in a North American sports league. Payson immediately went about adding familiar New York elements to the new franchise, hiring George Weiss as GM, Casey Stengel as the manager, and moving the team into the Polo Grounds, abandoned by the Giants in 1957. Both Weiss and Stengel had held the same positions with the New York Yankees, but were forced to retire after the 1960 campaign, despite ten pennants and seven World Series championships in 12 years. With the front office now intact, the New York Mets took part in the National League’s first ever expansion draft.

At first glance, the Mets seemed to make out pretty well in the draft. They picked up former all-stars Richie Ashburn and Gil Hodges, as well as veteran pitchers Roger Craig, Clem Labine and Jay Hook, plus slugging outfielder Frank Thomas, acquired in an off-season trade. On paper, the Mets appeared to have the makings of a below average team, but that turned out to be an optimistic assessment.

On opening day, April 10, 1962, in St Louis, the New York Mets received their only true big break of the season…the game was rained out. The next night, New York lost their first ever game, 11-4, and proceeded to lose their next eight, finally gaining their first regular season win on April 23 in Pittsburg, beating the Pirates 9-1 at Forbes Field. After losing 16 of their first 19 games, the Mets began turn things around in early May, going 9-3 over a two week period. But during that brief winning stretch, the New York Mets made a trade that would epitomize their season. On May 9, 1962, the Mets traded a player to be named later and cash to the Baltimore Orioles for first-baseman Marv Throneberry. Shortly after Throneberry became part of the Mets’ lineup, they went on a 17 game losing streak. Nicknamed “Marvelous Marv,” Throneberry became the unofficial symbol of the 1962 Mets. Although a decent hitter, Thronberry’s terrible fielding and pathetic base-running were consistent contributors to the Mets’ almost daily woes. On June 17, Throneberry hit a triple against the Cubs, only to be called out for missing second base. Stengel rushed from the dugout, ready to debate the call with the umpire, only to be stopped by one of his coaches, who told Casey, “Don’t bother arguing…he missed first base too.” Throneberry’s sense of humor about his abilities made him a fan favorite, and years later, was seen poking fun at himself in a series of Miller-Lite commercials.

But it was Casey Stengel who stole the show during the 1962 season, as he turned his frustration over the team into a one-man comedy act. In assessing his team, Stengel told members of the working press that the Mets had shown him more ways to lose than he knew had existed, despite spending his lifetime around the game. Describing his three catchers, Stengel said, “I got one that can throw, but can’t catch, one that can catch but can’t throw, and one that can’t do either.” Evaluating two rookies, Ed Kranepool and Greg Goosen, Casey pointed to Kranepool, and told reporters that the 20 year-old Kranpool, in ten years, had a good chance to be a star. Then, pointing to Goosen, Stengel remarked that he, also 20, in ten years, had a good chance to be 30.

Things only got worse as the season wore on. Losing their 100th game in August, the New York Mets ended the season at 40-120, 60 ½ games out of first place. Pitcher Roger Craig finished 10-22, while Al Jackson and Jay Hook teamed up for 39 additional losses. The Mets were last in team ERA, last in team batting and ninth in runs scored. But New York fans didn’t seem to care, as the Mets were 6th in the National League in attendance, drawing close to 1 million at the box office. Although the Mets remained a last place team for several years, in 1964, the Mets outdrew the Yankees, despite the Yanks fifth straight American League pennant. In 1969, with Gil Hodges now the manager, the New York Mets won their first World Series.

Notes: Courtesy of You Tube, I have included a memorable moment from the 1962 season, involving the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants. This audio clip contains some great commentary from both Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges.