I can tell you where I got the idea for every short story in my collection Muscle Cars. I can also tell you where I was standing and what I was reading when I got the idea for my first novel Rook. I have no idea where I first heard about Fran Striker. I think I was at a bar or a party and somebody mentioned that the man who created The Lone Ranger was from Buffalo, New York, my hometown.
I didn’t believe them.
I’m a Buffalo-based writer. If the man who wrote The Lone Ranger was from Buffalo, I’d know about it. This city’s very good about supporting and promoting creative artists from or connected to Western New York—Mark Twain, Joyce Carol Oates, the Goo Goo Dolls. So, I called the guy’s bluff and Googled.
He was right.
Francis Hamilton Striker was born in Buffalo, New York in 1903 and not only created The Lone Ranger, but he also created The Green Hornet, Sergeant Preston of The Yukon, and the Tom Quest adventure series. To make matters worse, he was not only a Buffalo guy, but he was a neighborhood guy. He went to Lafayette High School a couple blocks from my house and actually wrote the original Lone Ranger script at his home on Granger Place just north of me.
And I hadn’t heard of him.
How could this be? How could I’ve never have heard of this man who had such an impact on Twentieth Century pop culture? How could I not know that The Lone Ranger actually made its radio debut on Buffalo’s WEBR in 1933? I was mad at myself but, more importantly, I was curious about Fran Striker. I did some more digging and learned that Striker was a prolific radio playwright and had worked at WEBR. Like everyone, the Striker family was struggling through The Great Depression. In addition to his wife and two small children, Striker was financially supporting about a dozen extended family members who’d lost everything during the stock market crash. To generate additional income, Striker took older scripts that he’d written and offered them to radio stations across the country for between two and six dollars an episode.
One of the stations that purchased Striker’s scripts was Detroit’s WXYZ, owned by George W. Trendle. Trendle, ‘The Miser of Motown’, had made his fortune in movie theaters. He was known to keep two sets of books and would show the doctored financial records to employees to justify pay cuts or to new hires as the reason for low wages. By 1929, Trendle owned twenty theaters in the Detroit area. He sold them all for cash just before Black Monday and purchased WXYZ. By December 1932, Trendle was buying four episodes a week from Striker. At about this time, he asked Striker if he could write a western series with the usual “hokum”—masked riders, girl tied to railroad tracks, two-gun bank robbers, etc. Striker dug out Covered Wagon Days, Episode 10, “Danger at The Gold Mine”, an episode that WEBR had broadcasted a few years earlier. He rewrote the script and after some revisions based on Trendle’s feedback, introduced a new hero to the world—The Lone Ranger.
The Lone Ranger premiered in Buffalo on WEBR in January of 1933 as a test run before debuting on WXYZ a few days later. The series held promise but didn’t attract a sponsor until later in the year. With financial backing and promotion, more and more radio stations tied into WXYZ’ Lone Ranger broadcast. The show became a hit. Trendle, an astute businessman, sensed that bigger things were in store for The Ranger. He knew of the financial burden Striker was under supporting his extended family and in the spring of 1934 offered him an exclusive writing contract and job security through the Depression. It was an answer to a prayer for the struggling Striker family. But, like all things that seem too good to be true, there was a catch: Striker had to sell the rights to The Lone Ranger to Trendle.
For ten dollars.
Remember, Trendle was paying Striker about four dollars for each Lone Ranger episode up to this point and now he wanted all the rights for ten bucks. Think of the revenue from The Lone Ranger books, movies, toys, comic books, television—Trendle wanted it all. Striker was no fool. He knew the offer was insulting. He knew The Ranger was worth much more. But he also knew that he had written dozens of radio series that had come and gone without much fame or financial gain. There was no guarantee The Lone Ranger would turn into anything no less a cultural phenomenon that would last and flourish for ninety years. And there were all those family members he had to feed.
Striker took the deal.
Depending on your perspective, Striker selling the rights to The Lone Ranger was either the best deal in entertainment history or the worst. How good was the deal for Trendle? In 1954 he sold his ten-dollar investment for three million dollars, a record sale at that time. In 2016, NBC Universal purchased The Lone Ranger rights for three billion dollars. Striker and his heirs received none of it.
But it gets worse.
Sometime during the 1940’s, Trendle began to claim in articles and interviews that it was he, not Fran Striker, who came up with the idea and created The Lone Ranger. As we all know, if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it’s true. Trendle repeated this lie until his death in 1972. Striker, a humble man who always said that their contract was legal and binding and signed without coercion, never challenged Trendle’s claim. Sadly, Striker was killed in an automobile accident in 1962 and never had a chance to write his memoir and tell his side of the story.
I think this is why I’d never heard of Fran Striker until that night at the bar or at that party. I know this is why I had to write Yesteryear. It was a fun book to research and a fun book to write. I hope people think it’s a fun book to read, as well.
I especially hope that Fran approves of me trying to set the record straight.