The Day the Lone Ranger Lost His Mask

As dawn anticipated breaking over southern California on the morning of August 30, 1979, a man two weeks shy of his sixty-fifth birthday covered his thinning hair with a cowboy hat.  Besides the hairline, age was not a serious opponent.  He was still fit and trim with a jaw that looked like it was carved out of granite.

He was a genuine American hero.  A legend, really.

He was Clayton Moore.  The Lone Ranger.

Moore had been the guardian of the Lone Ranger legacy since the late 1940s.  He struck gold in 1949 when he got the call to star as the title character in The Lone Ranger.  When the show went off the air in 1957, Moore embraced typecasting by creating a business model based on personal appearances.  He avoided the downside of fame’s parabola by creating a fusion with the character.

He appeared as the Lone Ranger at car dealerships, shopping malls, and other businesses that hired him to help sell products.  With his Lone Ranger persona complete with guns, hat, mask, and costume, Moore brought Hollywood to the heartland of America.  No matter the event, people flocked to see the Lone Ranger.  Millions of Baby Boomers idolized Moore.  They now had children of their own whom they brought to his appearances for a glimpse of their childhood icon.

The formula was simple, really.  Show up in the Lone Ranger costume featuring the iconic mask, say a few words about the client’s product or service along with a citation of clean living from the Lone Ranger Creed, and ride off into the sunset of Omaha.  Or Charlotte.  Or Columbus.  Or any other mid-size metropolis looking for a wistful glimpse of yesteryear for excitement.

Have six gun, will travel.

But on this late August morning, Moore’s Lone Ranger persona was at risk of evaporating because of legal maneuvering by Wrather Corporation, owner of the Lone Ranger franchise.  According to Wrather, Moore benefited from a property that he legally did not own.  In short, Moore’s continued appearances jeopardized Wrather’s plans for a new Lone Ranger to be introduced in a blockbuster film.

The new Lone Ranger would have edge, humor, and sex appeal.  Moore’s pure, chaste, and virginal Lone Ranger belonged to another era marked by sock hops, going steady, and apolitical humor in prime time television.  Yesteryear’s children who grew up idolizing Moore and his cowboy vigilante alter ego launched into adulthood during the volatile 1960s where free love, liberal drug use, and anti-establishment views were new standards.

Simply, the world of the Baby Boomers was no longer black and white. A new Lone Ranger film demanded a Lone Ranger portrayer responsive to changing tastes, values, and mores.  Clayton Moore was not that portrayer, according to Wrather Corporation.  Wrather needed to convince Moore to ride off into the sunset.

But negotiations with Moore failed.  An offer of a cameo appearance in the film as a non-Lone Ranger character, a wink and nod at the audience, received a rejection. Moore wouldn’t budge.  Wrather was an irresistible force of business, law and strategy.  Moore was an immovable object of adoration, idolatry, and hero worship.  Obdurate.  Adamant.  Inflexible.  Wrather not only had precepts of intellectual property law on his side, it had history.  A similar, almost identical case from 1942 provided a cornerstone of the Wrather legal team’s argument in Superior Court.

So, Wrather Corporation exercised its legal rights.  It sued America’s favorite hero. Ironically, that decision arguably, perhaps inevitably, cemented Moore’s identification with the character.

The ruling in Los Angeles Superior Court later that August afternoon would shock America.

Judge Vernon Foster issued a preliminary injunction – he took the mask off the Lone Ranger.  Moore could no longer wear the Lone Ranger mask or appear as the Lone Ranger.  But the court of public opinion overwhelmingly supported Moore.  And Wrather’s new Lone Ranger paradigm flopped at the box office.  The Legend of the Lone Ranger premiered in 1981, lost $11 million, and starred Klinton Spilsbury in the title role.  It is the only entry for Spilsbury on imdb.com.

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