May 30, 2015

The Lone Ranger and Tonto: The First Gay Couple

When I was a kid in the 1960s, we were all about astronauts and outer space.  Cowboys were strictly for squares. We had a few cowboy toys, presented by clueless adults, but  we didn't dare bring them out with other kids around, and we would watch a tv Western only if it had science fiction elements, like Wild Wild West.  So, except for a few parodies, we knew nothing about the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the most blatant gay couple of the first generation of Boomers.

First appearing on the radio in 1933, the Lone Ranger was a Texas Ranger (a sort of Wild West police officer) who was ambushed along with his squadron and left for dead.  He was nursed back to health by an Indian named Tonto (apparently his creator, Fran Striker, didn't speak Spanish), and the two of them rode off to right wrongs.

The radio series was immensely popular, and led to an endless series of toys, games, cereal give-aways, comic books, Big-Little Books, movie serials, and feature films.

Boomer kids often heard their parents discussing fond memories of huddling over a radio listening to an announcer intone "Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear!", after which the Lone Ranger would say "Heigh-ho, Silver! Away!"

Did none of them figure out that these were two men living together, never displaying the least interest in women, and one of them said "Heigh-ho"?

The radio series lasted through 1956, but first generation of Boomer kids was most familiar with the tv series (1949-57), starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels.  I've never seen it, but apparently there's no heterosexual interest, and Tonto needs rescuing quite a lot.

Clayton Moore (top photo) was a former circus acrobat who broke into Hollywood in 1937 and starred in many Westerns, detective dramas, and even science fiction before and during The Lone Ranger. Afterwards he didn't do much acting; he didn't want to.  He had already become the idol of kids everywhere.  Apparently he was not aware of the gay subtext.

Jay Silverheels (born Harold J. Smith) was a Canadian Mohawk Indian, who got his start in movies as a stuntman.  He, too, had a long career before The Lone Ranger, playing mostly characters named Black Buffalo, Yellow Hawk, and Spotted Bear. Afterwards he continued to work, playing Indians in Laramie, Branded, Daniel Boone, Gentle Ben, and The Brady Bunch, and a non-Indian on Love American Style.  Apparently he was not aware of the gay subtext, either.

But lots of gay kids were aware.  In The Best Little Boy in the World, a classic gay Boomer autobiography, John Reid states that he first figured "it" out through his fantasies of the Lone Ranger and Tonto riding into the sunset together.

The 2013 re-invention starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer effectively heterosexualized both charactersn.