The Saturday Morning Cowboys

“A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty Hi-Yo Silver….The Lone Ranger”. “Out of the blue of the western sky come…Sky King”. “Hey Wild Bill wait for me!” “FURY…the story of a horse and the boy who loved him”. “On King… on you huskies.” If you were a kid in the 1950’s and you watched Saturday morning television, you know exactly where these lines come from. The Lone Ranger, Sky King, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, and Fury were as much a part of your lives as Superman, Howdy Doody, Captain Kangaroo, and Sherrie Lewis and Lamb Chop. Along with such fare as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy,  Annie Oakley, the Range Rider, Sargent Preston of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Buffalo Bill Jr., these juvenile horse operas were staples of our Saturdays. We usually watched them while we munched on the cereals that were hawked on the shows: Sugar Corn Pops, Trix, Sugar Jets, Cheerios, Sugar Frosted Flakes, Rice Krispies, Sugar Crisp, Alpha Bits… ah, remember how much Kellogg’s, General Mills, and Post pushed sugar in those commercials? Mars, Tootsie Roll, Hersey, and Nestle candies got their messages to us and we knew their jingles as well as we knew the theme songs for the television shows we watched “N-E-S-T-L-E-S…Nestles makes the very best.” “Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops…sugar pops are tops.” “He’s got go power..there he goes…he’s feelin’ his Cheerios”. Tony the Tiger saying “Frosted Flakes…they’re Gr-r-reat,” “The best candy on earth comes from Mars!” By the 1960s, because of doctor and dentist complaints, sugar was dropped from most of the cereal names but that didn’t mean it wasn’t in the cereal itself anymore. The commercials seemed to be as important as the shows themselves.
The Lone Ranger was the cowboy hero most of us remember the best. The masked man and his faithful Indian companion Tonto patrolled the southwest aiding the helpless against the forces of evil. The Lone Ranger had been a popular radio program since the 1930s and a number of different voice actors portrayed the Lone Ranger and Tonto. but when the series was brought to the TV screen in 1949 it gave the characters a face….so to speak. Clayton Moore had been in movies since 1937. He was from Chicago and started as a circus acrobat when he was eight years old. A handsome young man, he worked as a clothes model in Chicago and New York as well as appearing in live vaudeville shows as a acrobat, juggler, and wire walker. A Hollywood talent scout sent him out west in 1936 and he got some work as a stunt man and bit player. He used his real name “Jack Moore” for a while but his agent persuaded him to change his first name to Clayton in 1940. He started getting feature roles in B-Westerns and adventure stories at studios like Columbia, Universal, and Monogram. He acted in feature length movies, shorts, and serials, sometimes as a villain. He joined the service in 1942 and after the war he returned to Hollywood and worked in more of the same kind of films. In 1949 Fran Striker, the creator of the Lone Ranger radio program, decided to bring the Lone Ranger to television. Moore auditioned along with about 40 other actors for the lead role. He won the part because of his distinctive baritone voice and athletic build. He quickly realized that he would become a role model to kids and took the Ranger’s code of conduct to heart and tried to live up to it. In 1952 when his contract was up he asked for a raise and was not re-signed. John Hart took the role for the 1953 season. Fans could tell the difference and Moore was brought back in 1954 with his pay raise. He stayed on until the show’s end in 1957. In all, he appeared in 168 episodes of The Lone Ranger. He did two Lone Ranger movies in 1958 and 59.We worked a bit in some other TV shows as late as 1954 but he mostly did personal appearances, TV guest spots, and some commercials as the Lone Ranger for the rest of his life. Moore passed in 1999 at the age of 85.
Jay Silverheels who portrayed Tonto had worked as a movie stunt man and bit player. Silverheels was a Mohawk Indian from Canada whose real name was Harold Smith. Silverheels was in the program for its full run from 1949 to 1957. To fans of the show, he was Tonto as much as Moore was Ke-Mo-Sah-Bee. Tonto was as popular as his masked partner. There was some argument as to what tribe Tonto belonged to. On the radio program it was stated that he was a Potawatomi, but on the TV program he dressed as a Southwestern Native American so it was figured that he was either Apache, Navajo, or Comanche. The radio program had made him part white/part Native American as well but it never came up in the TV program. Silverheels and Moore became close friends and stayed together as the Ranger and Tonto for nearly 40 years.
Gene Autry left a big impression on the kids watching Saturday morning TV during the 1950s as he had on the Saturday matinee movie kids in the decades before. When Autry was a singing cowboy in those Mascot, Monogram, and Republic western movies in the 1930s and early 40s, he was one on the most popular stars in Hollywood — at least among the boys and girls who went to the movies. The son of a chicken rancher, he started singing country and western songs on a local radio station in Oklahoma City. Will Rogers discovered him and brought him to Hollywood. His good looks, smooth singing voice, and easy-going acting style won him many fans both adult and juvenile and his records sold as well as his movies did. Autry was an extremely clever business man. His Monogram contract paid him well but not lavishly, but he added a clause that he would receive all of television broadcast rights to them. Monogram figured television was years and years away so they happily accepted the deal. Autry put his money into real estate and bought several radio stations. He entered the service in World War II and served with honor. He had been a private pilot in civilian life and joined the Army Air Corp. When the war was over he returned to Republic and made several films. He also had a very popular radio program “Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch” but television was on the horizon and Autry was ready. He used his films as a foundation for creating Flying A Productions. He produced such TV western fare as The Gene Autry Show, Buffalo Bill Jr, Annie Oakley, Range Rider and his biggest TV hit, Death Valley Days. Television programing and television westerns owe Gene Autry a debt of thanks for paving the way to the success of westerns on television. Gene Autry had a personal worth of $320 million when he passed away in 1998 at age 91.
These are only a very few of the Boomer Saturday morning television shows. I didn’t mention the cartoons, kid activity programs or the local shows that we loved. Maybe you can have some fun remembering your favorite TV shows — the ones you watched before your Mom yelled at you to get your clothes on and go outside and play!