In the early spring of 2012, I was given a tour of the old WXYZ radio studio, which occupies the top floor of the Maccabees Building, in Detroit’s cultural center. A fraternal organization, the Maccabees provided low-cost insurance to members. The name derived from the Old Testament family, Maccabees, whose members showed invincible resolve against oppressors. The building by architect Albert Kahn features a splendid, vaulted entry lobby with marble and brass and tile.
Making my desire known, I was introduced to building engineer Bill Willard, whose office was about three levels underground. He took me up to the studio, which sat above the fourteenth floor, beyond the reach of the building’s elevators. We went through a locked door and climbed a staircase to reach the chamber.
Detroit movie theater impresarios George Washington Trendle and John Kunsky sold out to Paramount for $6 million before the depths of the Great Depression. In April of 1930, with a third partner, they purchased WGHP, a 1000-watt station, for $250,000. Radio at the time was still a rich man’s plaything and a risky venture; WGHP was losing $125,000 per year, according to Dick Osgood’s account in “Wyxie Wonderland: An Unauthorized 50-Year Diary of WXYZ Detroit.” After pulling some strings with the United States government, which had reserved the call letters WXYZ for the military, the station was renamed. Trendle was boss and James Jewell was dramatic director.
Rather than shell out fees for programming, it was decided to produce shows right here. At first, while the station was supporting sixty-five musicians for its live fare, the losses totaled as much as $4000 per week. Then a genius writer named Fran Striker, who lived in Buffalo, was retained for $100 per week. “The Lone Ranger” was an early collaborative effort. The first episode was broadcast on January 20, 1933. The Michigan Radio Network soon relayed the show in Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Jackson, Bay City, and Flint. After some episodes, at least partly owing to the suggestion of a boy who listened in Chicago, Tonto was added to the story. The name came from Tonto Basin, Arizona. His name for the Lone Ranger, Kimosabe, came from a camp near Cheboygan, Michigan. For some time Tonto and the Lone Ranger shared the same horse, Silver; Tonto’s Scout was introduced after a naming contest among listeners. New York’s WOR and Chicago’s WGN were soon carrying the show. Before long, The Lone Ranger was earning hundreds of thousands in fees for broadcast rights. Wanting the property for movie serials, Hollywood’s Republic Studios paid $60,000 for rights. “The Lone Ranger” and “The Lone Ranger Rides Again” thrilled national audiences in 1938 and 1939.
“The Green Hornet” made its debut on January 31, 1936. The formula remained constant: a right-thinking WASP, who spoke perfect English and evinced the utmost in personal propriety, was accompanied by a savvy man of color. The Hornet, who would sting crooked politicians, was aimed at civic-minded young people. Universal would soon serialize “The Green Hornet.”
Meanwhile, the mill kept churning atop the Maccabees Building. “Ned Jordan, Secret Agent” followed in 1938 and the next year “Challenge of the Yukon” offered the variation in the form of Sergeant Preston’s sidekick: a husky replaced Silver. Other WXYZ programs throughout the decade were “Warner Lester, Manhunter,” “Dr. Fang,” “Thrills of the Secret Service,” and “Covered Wagon Days.”
“It was an amazing period in Detroit broadcast history because ‘The Green Hornet’ and others were coming out of this little radio station,” Erik Smith, a long-time Detroit broadcaster who started at WXYZ Channel 7 in 1948, told me a couple of years ago in a telephone interview. “It was a national powerhouse.”
WXYZ co-owner John Kunsky renamed himself King, and in 1946, just before the advent of television, King-Trendle showed perfect timing once again, selling WXYZ to ABC for $3.65 million just before the television era began.
In the 1950s and 1960s, some of the shows were the basis for TV series, most notably “Ranger” and “Hornet.” More recently, in 2011, “Hornet” was a feature film. Starring Seth Rogen, it surpassed $225 million in box office revenues.
Audiences will sit down on May 31 to watch the new $250-million Disney production of “The Lone Ranger,” starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp, and probably won’t have an inkling about the obscure origins of Tinseltown’s newest franchise. It all started in the minds of a few creative people who were locked up together fourteen stories above Detroit.