Thursday, February 5, 2004

”He hunts the biggest of all game! Public enemies who try to destroy our America!”

While you insert your own John Ashcroft joke here, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear will take a moment to recognize one of radio’s most popular juvenile detective shows—The Green Hornet. Debuting January 31, 1936, this entertaining crime drama originated from WXYZ in Detroit, Michigan—the birthplace of another famous crime fighter, The Lone Ranger, only three years earlier.

George W. Trendle, the station's owner, was positively giddy with the success of The Lone Ranger, and by 1935 began looking for a derivative of the famous western—not a spin-off, necessarily, but a similar series that would feature a modern-day hero. The show’s writer, Fran Striker, and director, James Jewell, kicked around a few ideas with Trendle, and a decision was made that the new show would focus on an individual forced to confront the forces of corruption in politics and society. Legend has it that Trendle wanted to link the new program to some sort of a bee—which originated from a night he once spent in a hotel room in which a bee had been trapped, buzzing constantly.

Originally, the show was to be called The Hornet, but WXYZ was worried about possible legal entanglements since that title had once been used for a previous series. The show's creators decided to link their insect with a color, discussing various hues like blue and pink, before deciding on the color green. (I have been told that a “green hornet” is considered the angriest of its kind, but since I make it a point to avoid angry hornets whenever possible, I cannot verify this—ultimately, you’ll have to make the call.)

In developing the show, the fertile minds of WXYZ liberally borrowed many of the devices associated with The Lone Ranger. The Hornet’s mode of transportation, for example, was a sleek, black automobile nicknamed “Black Beauty.” (The Ranger, as you are well aware, rode a steed dubbed “Silver.”) Also, the Hornet operated outside the law (though he himself was not lawless) in the same fashion as the Ranger, and was often mistaken for a criminal by both citizens and the police. Finally, the Hornet had a faithful sidekick in Kato—a Filipino valet who was chief-cook-and-bottle-washer to his boss, while at the same time dabbling in chemistry (many of the Hornet’s weapons, like his gas gun and smokescreens, were dreamed up by the K-Man) and the secrets of Oriental combat. One of the popular myths about Kato that refuses to die even to this day is that he was Japanese when the series first premiered, but the show’s producers changed his nationality after the events of December 7, 1941. It makes a good yarn, but it’s simply not true—he was described as being Filipino (of Japanese descent) at least two years earlier. Kato was said to possess a “keen intelligence,” and I’ll bet he was a hit at the Mensa meetings, since he was also the only one who knew the Green Hornet’s real identity: newspaper publisher Britt Reid.

Which brings us to the final Lone Ranger parallel: Britt Reid was the son of Dan Reid who, as faithful listeners know, was the nephew of the famed masked man. (A controversy rages on to this day over whether this was planned from the get-go or if it just conveniently happened as the series progressed—I’m not going to open up this can of worms, however.) In the early days of The Green Hornet, Britt was a callow playboy (which served as a nice cover for his Hornet-related activities) and his wealthy father (that silver mine sure came in handy), concerned about the direction his son’s life was taking, installed him as the publisher of the family’s newspaper, The Daily Sentinel. Dan Reid only made occasional appearances on the program, but when he did he was usually played by John Todd—who just so happened to play Tonto on the The Lone Ranger, further cementing the bond between the two shows.

The job as newspaper publisher came with a bodyguard—a former Irish cop named Michael Axford, who was a garrulously nice guy but seemed to have a force field of stupidity surrounding him. (The character was a contribution from a previous Trendle production, Warner Lester, Manhunter, which had just been given the heave-ho by WXYZ.) Later in the series, rank favoritism reared its ugly head as Axford was installed as a reporter for the newspaper. Mike would become apoplectic at the mention of “the Har-nut,” and vowed to the end of his days to catch “that no-good spaul-deen” but…well…Coyote…Road Runner…you do the math.

Rounding out the cast of characters on The Green Hornet was Reid’s secretary Lenore Case (“Casey” to Axford, “Miss Case” to Britt), who seemed to have a little more moxie on the ball than her co-workers; she often suspected a strong connection between her boss and the Hornet and by the end of the series’ run had pretty much figured it out, though she kept it to herself. Also present at the paper was the Sentinel’s top reporter, Ed Lowery, who often got the scoop on those stories later investigated by the Green Hornet. (I’m often concerned when I listen to those episodes in which Lowery isn’t around; if that paper had to depend solely on Axford it would fold like a card table.)

Like its sister show, The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet’s memorable opening music was taken directly from classical music: namely, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee.” The show’s announcer would then intone: He hunts the biggest of all game! Public enemies that even the G-men can’t catch! As you may have guessed, this got FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s undies in a bunch, and so the producers modified the last part to Public enemies who try to destroy our America! The talented sound effects crew at WXYZ was also able to find a way to reproduce the bee’s buzzing that had so obsessed Trendle by using a theremin, an instrument that later became de rigeur for any self-respecting science fiction film of the 1950s (as well as being featured in the classic Beach Boys hit, “Good Vibrations”).

I listened to a pair of episodes from 1946 last night, in which the part of Reid/The Hornet is played by actor Robert Hall, who appeared on the series from 1944-51. The show’s original Hornet was Al Hodge, who started from its debut in 1936 until he went into the service in 1943. (Hodge was so identified with the character that Universal had him come in and dub some of the lines for the Hornet in the 1940 13-chapter serial based on the radio show. He later achieved television immortality as Captain Video.) In the first show, “The Wrapped Book” (October 5), Reid is trapped into delivering a bribe to a corrupt senator who plans to vote against a bill that would regulate the publishing and newspaper industry (and though I hate to look at this through 21st century eyes, the fact that Reid is in favor of this bill stretches credibility somewhat). The second show, “The Prodigal Brother” (10/27/46), concerns an ex-con who is being blackmailed by a racketeer into participating in a grocery truck heist; the ex-con’s sister (who thinks he’s dead) has recently married a popular state senator, so that’s bound to complicate things some. Though some might perceive the show as hokey, I’m a fan of The Green Hornet because it was one of the first programs I listened to when I got involved in the old-time radio hobby. Unfortunately, the sound on these two shows wasn’t much to write home about, but my understanding is that Terry Salomonson (who will forget more about The Green Hornet than I’ll ever know) is on the case regarding the poor audio of most Hornet programs in circulation.

The Green Hornet remains popular today with OTR fans, and deservedly so—it’s amazing when you consider that this show, The Lone Ranger, and Challenge of the Yukon originated from a local station and was fed to a nationwide audience (but then again, WXYZ was not your average radio station). It takes us back to a simpler time, back when things were looked at in black and white—and when the bad guys and evildoers would be brought to justice “by the sting of the Green Hornet!”

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