Uncle Elmer rides again

For Your Consideration

Peter CavanaughJune 25, 2013 

My little brother and I sat quieter than mice on cotton.

Several times each year, my widowed mother would book us on New York Central's mighty "Empire State Express" from Syracuse through the Mohawk Valley to Albany, where we would spend a few days visiting my grandfather, William's, three aging sisters in their expansive second floor flat on Grandview Terrace overlooking the Hudson River.

There was Aunt Bumps and Aunt Ellie, married to their respective husbands for over fifty years, and Aunt Belle, who hadn't been married for even fifty minutes to anyone at all. Belle, my feisty eighty-two year-old favorite, had been engaged to a handsome young Irish policeman named Steve when he dropped dead of a heart attack in the middle of Albany's 1897 St. Patrick's Day Parade. At least once a month after Sunday church, Aunt Belle would take a trolley car to Saint Agnes Cemetery with a picnic lunch to bring Steve up to date. She never took another lover.

Aunt Bumps was married to Uncle Jack, while Aunt Ellie's husband was my Uncle Elmer, a taciturn, solemn Baptist who never spoke a word he could avoid, but always furtively slipped me a quarter for ice cream — quite a score back then.

The five octogenarians had moved in together during The Great Depression and never found reason to drift apart. The secret of their remarkably amiable coexistence was faithful adherence to certain points of protocol established over time to insure group tranquility while honoring specific individual priorities.

Uncle Elmer's supreme moment of unchallenged control occurred three times weekly at 7:30 p.m. when everyone would take his or her place in a favorite living room spot, all household lighting would be extinguished without exception and thirty minutes of unbroken family silence would begin as the opening strains of Rossini's "William Tell Overture" filled the air and the sonorous voice of announcer Fred Foy solemnly intoned, "Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoof beats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again."

It was a holy moment. Elmer would take a mighty hit from his ancient briar pipe and rock deeply back with eyes tightly closed — lost in supreme contentment.

With tens of millions listening over the ABC Radio Network, "The Lone Ranger" was broadcast live from the studios of Detroi's WXYZ, 1270 on your AM dial starting on Jan. 31, 1933. Partners George W. Trendle and H. Allen Campbell owned the program, as well as "The Green Hornet" and "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon" which also originated in the Motor City.

Trendle was notoriously cheap, choosing to use "The William Tell Overture" and other classical pieces as background music in his productions since they weren't subject to copyright payments.

Fran Striker, who wrote virtually all of the "Lone Ranger" scripts, received nothing other than a minimal salary for his efforts through the years and was once briefly fired when he asked Trendle for a three dollar per episode raise.

As radio historian Jack French noted in his 1999 essay on Trendle entitled, "The Miser of Motown," "The strength and popularity of WXYZ and its syndicated network programming became a gold mine for Trendle and his banker cronies. But the talented cast, crew and production staffs of these shows always got short-changed. Many of the high-handed practices Trendle perfected would not have been successful in any era other than The Depression, where any job was eagerly sought by desperate Americans."

Perhaps that's why Striker, in formally composing a list of essential Lone Ranger characteristics for writing assistants, included these exact words: "The Lone Ranger believes that men should live by the rule of what is best for the greatest number."

Trendle and Campbell eventually used part of their "Lone Ranger Money" to put a new radio station on the air a few miles north of Detroit in Flint, using their "Trendle and Campbell" initials for the call letters of W-T-A-C. I joined WTAC in 1964 as a local DJ and ran into many of the "WXYZ old-timers" during my Michigan years, including "The Lone Ranger" himself, Brace Beemer. That role came to be played by Clayton Moore in the subsequent TV series and is now inherited by Armine Hammer in the new movie opening Wednesday, July 3, at the Met Cinema.

With Johnny Depp as Tonto, this new "Lone Ranger" promises to be 'the' summer movie of 2013 and, judging from the trailer, looks like another Disney masterpiece. I'll be there for the first showing, saving an empty seat right next to me.

For Uncle Elmer.

"Hi-Yo, Silver ... And away."
"I'll be there for the first showing ..."

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