Oct 5

The Death of the Lone Ranger, USMC

Friday, October 5, 2018 8:01 PM

By

In 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, the “March of the Swiss Soldiers” finale from the William Tell overture came blaring over the airwaves from radio station WXYZ in Detroit to announce the arrival of a new American hero. Station owner George Trendle wanted a show about a mysterious cowboy, so writer Fran Striker developed a character who was the sole survivor of a group of Texas Rangers ambushed by a gang. After being found near death and nursed back to health by the Indian Tonto, the Lone Ranger dons a mask and sets out on his horse Silver to seek justice for his murdered colleagues. The Lone Ranger was an immediate smash hit and soon garnered a national audience of 17 million listeners, 1.5 million of whom joined the official fan club.

Lone Ranger radio promo

Hollywood was eager to tap into the established audience. Republic Pictures obtained the rights to produce a movie serial and began to survey fans about how they envisioned the Lone Ranger. From this feedback, the studio determined that the Lone Ranger had to be 5’11”, weigh 170 pounds, and have no facial hair. Fans also stipulated that the Lone Ranger must always wear a white hat and carry two guns. To ensure that the Lone Ranger was not distracted from his quest for justice, he could never have a romantic interest.

Lee Powell in a publicity still

Lee Powell in a publicity still

Lee Powell as the Lone Ranger

Lee Powell as the Lone Ranger

Republic believed they had the right actor to portray the masked man in Lee Powell. In addition to meeting the physical description, it helped that Powell was an accomplished horseman, having worked on a ranch in Montana while studying to be a mining engineer. Powell had been acting in small stock companies as a hobby when he returned to his home state of California and was discovered by the studio while performing in a play. He was signed to a contract and given a few minor parts before being chosen to be the man to ride Silver.

Released in 1938, the 15-chapter The Lone Ranger was the most expensive serial produced at that time. The studio had incorporated many of the details provided by the fans but gave the Lone Ranger an unusual mask with a veil that made him look like a cowboy beekeeper. The mask was the result of how the serial was structured. The true identity of the Lone Ranger could be one of five different characters who were opposing a formidable outlaw scheming to conquer Texas. The audience was left to guess who the real Lone Ranger was. As not to expose the secret to the audience before the big reveal in the final chapter, another actor dubbed the Lone Ranger’s voice. The odd mask covered Powell’s mouth, which meant the studio did not have to be troubled with lip-synching.

Lone Ranger = Powell

Lobby card from the serial The Lone Ranger. Note the unusual hybrid mask

Like the radio show, the serial proved to be popular with both the public and critics because of its emphasis on action over talk. Even today, many Lone Ranger aficionados rate the serial version very high and consider it better than the more recognizable 1950s television series starring Clayton Moore. The serial later was condensed into the 1940 feature film Hi-Yo Silver, which also performed well at the box office.

Hi yo silver feature movie poster

Hi-Yo Silver was produced by condensing the 15 chapter serial

 

Powell wrote in an article for Good Housekeeping magazine that three elements contributed to the success of the serial: “Fast riding. Fast Shooting. Fast Punching.” While Powell enjoyed the notoriety the role brought him, he admitted that he thought it would be fleeting because the Lone Ranger’s popularity would probably fade and another hero would be embraced by the public. He even thought that the catch phrase “Hi-Yo Silver” would become as outdated as “23 skidoo.”

Shortly after The Lone Ranger, Powell co-starred with Herman Brix in The Fighting Devil Dogs as a Marine battling a sinister mastermind with a powerful electric weapon trying to enslave the world. The serial played to packed houses and has since developed a cult following, because many fans believe the costumed villain known as the Lightning served as the model for Darth Vader. George Lucas has never confirmed the connection but has stated in the past that he was heavily influenced by serials. In a 1981 Rolling Stone interview he credited the chapter play Don Winslow of the Navy as the inspiration for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lightning from Devil Dogs

The enigmatic Lightning from The Fighting Devil Dogs. Was he the inspiration for Darth Vader?

Looking to quickly capitalize on his fame, Powell began touring with the Barnett Brothers 3 Ring Circus (later the Wallace Brothers Circus). For 25 cents, children were promised the thrill of meeting “The Original Lone Ranger of Talking Screen Fame” along with Capt. Burns’ Military Elephants, the Flying Hartzells, 40 dancing equines, and many other trained animals. With Powell on the bill, the circus attracted capacity crowds of admirers. Children could hardly believe that they were seeing the actual Lone Ranger. They would run up and ask to touch and pinch him to see if he was real. Among the admirers was fellow performer Norma Rogers, the daughter of the circus owner. She would become Mrs. Lee Powell.

Lone Ranger - circus poster

The tour ran into legal problems in May 1939 when Trendle’s company, The Lone Ranger Inc., hit the circus with a $250,000 damage suit for the unlicensed use of the likeness of the Lone Ranger as well as the copyrighted catch phrase “Hi Yo Silver!” While the case dragged on, the circus continued to feature Powell billed as the Hollywood star of The Lone Ranger and found that he did not need to use the phrase himself because the audience spontaneously began yelling “Hi-Yo Silver” every time he rode out on his white horse. The circus won the initial judgment, but the court of appeals ruled In January 1942 that the Lone Ranger belonged to Trendle and that Powell could no longer appear as the character. It was considered a landmark decision that strengthened protection of intellectual property.

Lee Powell while touring with the circus

Lee Powell while touring with the circus

Clayton Moore would have similar legal issues decades later when the owners of the character won an injunction that prevented him from wearing any mask resembling the Lone Ranger during public appearances. Moore instead wore dark wraparound sunglasses until the injunction was lifted.

Powell had continued to act during breaks in the circus tours but had not received anywhere near the attention of The Lone Ranger or even The Fighting Devil Dogs. He did not return as the masked man in the sequel The Lone Ranger Rides On due to a contract dispute. Besides a small role in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, the only other production of note in which he appeared was as a member of a cowboy trio in the slapdash “Frontier Marshals” series. Critics dismissed the films as typical “oaters” with nothing new to offer. Powell was now only getting smaller parts in smaller films. The man whose career had started with enthralled audiences trying to guess his identity was becoming so anonymous that he was reduced to taking uncredited roles.

Lone Ranger 1 - foxhole 4

Perhaps accepting that he had been knocked off the pedestal of matinee idolatry, he decided to become a real hero and enlisted in the Marines in August 1942. As a sergeant in the 2nd Marine Division, he fought in the brutal battles on Tarawa and Saipan. On Saipan he was charged with organizing security watches to guard against Japanese snipers who had infiltrated the lines. It was during the Battle of Tinian on 29 July 1944 that the unthinkable happened. Within a week, headlines in newspapers across the United States would report that the Lone Ranger had been killed in action.

Lone Ranger 1 - killed by japs2

 

At least one grieving fan refused to believe that anything could kill the Lone Ranger. Three years earlier, a boy who had been stricken with a serious illness recovered after Powell visited him while touring with the circus. The boy and Powell formed a friendship and became pen pals, frequently exchanging letters as Powell fought in the Pacific. Upon learning the news of Powell’s death, the boy insisted that Powell was still alive but on a “secret mission.” Touched by the boy’s dedication, Powell’s battalion made the boy their official mascot and began to fill his mailbox with letters.

While researching his book Stars in the Corps for the Naval institute Press, author Jim Wise discovered that Powell had indeed died on Tinian, but not killed in action as widely reported. Powell’s Marine records revealed that he had been involved in some sort of misconduct that resulted in him dying from acute alcohol poisoning. Some veterans of Tinian remember hearing that Powell died and another Marine was temporarily blinded after celebrating the end of the battle by drinking hooch made from methanol. Others heard that Powell drank captured sake that had been poisoned by the Japanese. The exact circumstances of his death remain a mystery. Powell initially was buried in the Marine Cemetery on Tinian before being moved to the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.

Lone Ranger - Lee marine

Lee Powell with the 2nd Marine Division

The Lone Ranger proved to be Powell’s role of a lifetime. Six years after starring as the mysterious masked man and thrilling audiences in the theater of every town in the United States, he was dead on a tiny faraway island at the age of 35. He had been wrong about the longevity of the Lone Ranger’s popularity. The character has become an American icon while Lee Powell unfortunately has faded into obscurity.