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Bohemian Tango Cordial Set

Return to Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear
by Bob Brooke


Let’s face it, the 1950s were boring, especially for kids. They didn’t have video games or computers. They couldn’t watch shows on Netflix. They didn’t have the million and one distractions that they have today to occupy their idol hours. But they did have T.V., a new medium that just a few years before exploded onto post-war America. And one of the types of shows they watched the most was the early T.V. western.

How many kids sat glued in front of their T.V. sets as they heard, “Hi, ho, Silver, away!” and watched the Lone Ranger, the masked rider of the plains, along with his faithful Indian sidekick, Tonto, ride down a dusty trail into a new adventure to the stirring strains of the William Tell Overture. Most sat close to the screen—presumably to get “into” the action—which prompted concerned parents to warn that doing so would hurt their eyes. Many spent many hours enthralled by the cowboys and Indians, lawmen and desperados, as they played out hair-raising adventures on the screen.

And while all of the early westerns may have seemed to be aimed at young, impressionable audiences— some of the stars even addressed the youngsters, usually between the ages of six and eight, at the ends of their shows—the shows, themselves, had adult themes and lots of violence. The number of people who died from gunshot wounds alone was staggering.

TV producers set early westerns primarily in the later half of the 19th century in the American Old West, during the period from about 1860 to the end of the so-called "Indian Wars." Many of the characters portrayed, especially the bad ones, were former Confederate soldiers who traveled west seeking their fortunes.

Story lines, costumes, and sets, though realistic, portrayed an Old West of Hollywood’s imagination rather than stories based on extensive research. Westerns today might be classified as naturalistic, featuring a myriad of researched details that bring those times truly alive to the viewer.

The peak year for television westerns was 1959 when 26 aired during prime time. In one week in March 1959, eight of the top ten shows were westerns. Increasing costs of production—a horse cost up to $100 a day—led to most action half-hour series vanishing in the early 1960s to be replaced by hour long T.V. shows, increasingly in color.

On June 24, 1949, Hopalong Cassidy, played by William Boyd, and his horse Topper, rode across the small screen and into the homes of western film lovers to become the first of a series of TV westerns. Soon others, such as Gunsmoke, Cheyenne, and The Lone Ranger followed. From 1949 to the late '60s, there were over 100 western series that aired on the networks.

Before television, the nation saw westerns at movie theaters and listened to them over the radio. When westerns started appearing on TV, viewers avidly waited for their favorites. In any one week, westerns often received the highest viewer ratings. Viewers were able to escape their humdrum lives to watch their favorite heroes overcome all adversaries. It was good vs. bad, hero vs. villain, in the Old West.

But it was much more than that. Early TV western series helped define America as a nation. Westerns sought to teach the good values of honesty and integrity, of hard work, of racial tolerance, of determination to succeed, and of justice for all. They were, in a sense, modern morality plays where heroes, strong, reliable, clear-headed and decent, fought their adversaries in the name of justice. At the show's end, moral lessons had been taught and learned.

The Lone Ranger became particularly popular, especially with young audiences. He personified all that was good in people. He and Tonto would always save the day without sticking around for a "thank you." The Lone Ranger and Tonto had a strong sense of civil responsibility and humanitarianism and didn't need thanks for doing what they felt was their moral obligation. The Lone Ranger series would carry the theme of racial tolerance, a theme that was prevalent in many western series.

Hopalong Cassidy was a fictional cowboy hero created in 1904 by the author Clarence E. Mulford, who wrote a series of popular short stories and many novels based on the character. In his early writings, Mulford portrayed the character as rude, dangerous, and rough-talking. Beginning in 1935, the character—as played by movie actor William Boyd—transformed the character into a clean-cut hero in 66 films adapted from Mulford's book. In the first film, Hopalong Cassidy got his name after being shot in the leg. Hopalong's "drink of choice" was the nonalcoholic sarsaparilla.

As portrayed on the screen, the white-haired Bill "Hopalong" Cassidy usually wore a black outfit and hat, an exception to the longstanding western film stereotype that only villains wore black hats. Reserved and well spoken, with a fine sense of fair play, he often interceded when dishonest characters were taking advantage of honest citizens. "Hoppy" and his white horse, Topper, usually traveled through the west with two companions—one young and trouble prone with a weakness for damsels in distress, the other comically awkward and outspoken.

Boyd, who thought Hopalong Cassidy might have a future in television, spent $350,000 to obtain the rights to his old films and approached the fledgling NBC television network. The initial broadcasts were so successful that NBC couldn’t wait for a television series to be produced and simply reedited the old feature films down to broadcast length.

The series and character were so popular that national magazines, such as Look, Life, and Time featured Hopalong Cassidy on their covers. Boyd earned millions as Hopalong—$800,000 in 1950 alone—mostly from merchandise licensing and endorsement deals. In 1950, Aladdin Industries featured Hopalong Cassidy on the first lunchbox to bear an image, causing sales to jump from 50,000 units to 600,000 units in just one year. In stores, more than 100 companies in 1950 manufactured $70 million of Hopalong Cassidy products, including children's dinnerware, pillows, roller skates, soap, wristwatches, and jackknives.

Boyd began work on a separate series of half-hour westerns made especially for television; Edgar Buchanan was his new sidekick, Red Connors, a character from the original stories and a few of the early films. The success of the show and tie-ins inspired several juvenile television westerns, such as The Range Rider, Tales of the Texas Rangers, Annie Oakley, The Gene Autry Show, and The Roy Rogers Show.

The Lone Ranger, starring Clayton Moore with Jay Silverheels as Tonto, ran from 1949 to 1957. This was by far the highest-rated television program on the ABC network in the early 1950s and its first true hit. The first 78 episodes were produced and broadcast for 78 consecutive weeks without any breaks or reruns. Then ABC broadcast the entire 78 episodes again before any new episodes were produced. Shooting took place in Kanab, Utah and California, as well as at the Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, California.

When it came time to produce another batch of 52 episodes, there was a wage dispute with Clayton Moore, so the producers hired John Hart to play the role of the Lone Ranger from 1952 to 1954. After a change of producers in 1954, the new producer hired Moore back and made 52 new episodes.

The final season saw a number of changes, including a switch to the industry standard of 39 episodes. The producer, Jack Wrather invested money out of his own pocket to film in color and went back outdoors to film most of the action, instead of filming mostly on soundstages. The last new episode of the color series appeared on June 6, 1957, and the series ended three months later.

Traditional Westerns began to disappear from television in the late 1960s and early 1970s as color television became common. The last season any new traditional Westerns debuted on television was 1968, and by 1969, after pressure from parental advocacy groups who claimed Westerns were too violent for T.V., all three major networks ceased airing new Western series.

NEW! Watch a film clip from the iconic Long Ranger TV series.

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