Part One: The Hornet Takes Flight
January 31st, 1936 marked the radio debut of Detroit radio station WXYZ’s new masked crime fighter, THE GREEN HORNET. Their previous mystery man THE LONE RANGER had proved a huge hit, and station owner George W. Trendle was determined to catch lightning in a bottle once again.
With Lone Ranger writer/creator Fran (Francis Hamilton) Striker, and director of the Ranger and other XYZ shows James Jewell, he determined to come up with a modern-day paladin who could combat political and corporate corruption, along with racketeers as well as outright mobsters. Rather than bringing “law and order to the early Western United States”, this new champion of justice would also strike at “criminals within the law” in a large city. Such a vigilante would be at odds with the police as well as wrong-doers, so a new angle was needed. The solution: make the masked man a wanted criminal in the eyes of authority, a modern Robin Hood.
Fran Striker provided for that in the first adventures. Britt Reid, a globe-trotting young playboy, was given the job of publisher of The Daily Sentinel by his father Dan Reid, a maverick newsman and wealthy entrepreneur with a social conscience. Perhaps that would sober the young rascal up. Unknown to his hard-driven father, Britt Reid already had that serious side, hidden under a devil-may-care attitude. During his travels in the orient, Britt had saved the life of a man named Kato. This man would become young Reid’s friend and ally, and who despite his inventive genius would pose as a simple manservant.
Together they had built a suped-up car which they called The Black Beauty, since it had been assembled in secret in what used to be the stables of the older building where Reid lived. When the supercharger was cut in, the engine sounded like an angry hornet.
Outraged by a particular criminal, they had ridden out to deal with him in vigilante fashion. However, the miscreant was killed by another wrong-doer, and “The Hornet” was now wanted for murder. This, Reid realized was the perfect cover. He could now pose as a criminal, walk into their dens, and trick, blackmail, and betray them to the police — or set them up to wipe each other out. Rather than carrying a pair of six-shooters, the Hornet would carry a non-lethal gas gun.
As can be seen, The Green Hornet was an admixture of many other fictional heroes. The Scarlet Pimpernel, Johnston McCulley’s Zorro (the day-time wastrel Don Diego Dela Vega). Some of McCulley’s literary creations, such as The Crimson Clown, The Black Star, and The Bat used gas guns and bombs, rather than bullets. The legend of Robin Hood was mentioned as an inspiration, and I think the ‘bent’ hero Jimmie Dale, alias The Grey Seal had a particular influence, conscious or not.
Beginning in 1910 in Street and Smith’s People’s Magazine, The Grey Seal was named for the diamond-shaped gray paper seal he left as a ‘signature’, and not from emulating in any way a sea-going mammal. James Dale was a bored playboy, an expert on locks and safes due to his father’s business, who turned to safe-cracking as an amusing hobby. If any items were removed, they would either be returned, or if taken from a no-good, donated to a worthy cause. However, his secret was discovered by a young woman, who “blackmailed” him into becoming an active agent of justice.
Donning a black mask, coat, and slouch hat, The Grey Seal would deal with villains in the New York City badlands as well as in the salons of the rich. Author Frank Packard’s Jimmie Dale appeared a number of magazine serials, several novels, and a 16-chapter silent movie serial, ALIAS THE GREY SEAL (1917).
I should note that for the first few episodes (no recordings are known to survive) the Green Hornet was referred to a simply The Hornet. and the program actually called THE ADVENTURES OF THE HORNET, according to researchers Martin Grams Jr. and Terry Salomonson. However, it’s been reported in books such as Wyxie Wonderland (a book on the history of WXYZ) that the station’s legal staff raised the issue that the show bore some similarities to the pulp magazine character The Spider, such as the insect-derived name, often being thought a criminal and wanted by the police, leaving a red spider mark as a signature on his work —usually dead criminals, as Richard Wentworth’s alter-ego carried .45 automatics which he used quite liberally— and having an “oriental” aide (Sikh warrior Ram Sing serving as chauffeur and knife-wielding enforcer).
Always a shrewd businessman, George Trendle decided after some discussion to re-christen the character the GREEN Hornet, which seemed sufficient to make the name unique. There are no actual green hornets to be found in nature.
By the way, the radio Green Hornet did NOT dress all in green. He wore a hat, topcoat ( generally tan or camel in offically approved artwork), and often a scarf. To hide his identity, he wore a black mask over the lower part of his face. After a while, he sported a green Hornet insignia on the mask, like the ones emblazoned on the seals he left to mark his involvement in cases.
Britt Reid/The Green Hornet was played by the powerfully-voiced Al Hodge from 1936 to 1943, with another stint in 1945. Hodge would later go on to play science fiction hero CAPTAIN VIDEO on television for the Dumont network in the 1950’s.
Donovan Faust played the part for awhile, followed by Robert Hall, and Jack McCarthy from 1947 to the show’s end in 1952. Known to older New Yorkers as “Captain” Jack McCarthy, he would serve as WPIX-TV’s kids show host (showing mostly Popeye cartoons), staff announcer, and presenter of the Saint Patrick’s Day parades during the 1960’s and 70’s.
The role of Kato was originated by Tokutaro Hayashi, known as Raymond Toyo. The fact that he was of Japanese descent had something to do with Kato intially being identified as Japanese, rather than Chinese or another Asian nationality. (Reid and Kato met in either Hong Kong or Singapore.)
Legend had it that Kato became Filipino after Pearl Harbor, which makes a good story. However, the show had described the character as being from the Philippines as early as 1939. In later years, actors such as Rollon Parker (who often doubled as the Newsboy usually heard at the end of the programs, assuring us that The Green Hornet was Still At Large), Michael Tolland, and others played the role.
One of the characters that would make the Hornet’s life more difficult was former police officer Mike Axford. Axford actually pre-dated the Green Hornet series; he had been in many episodes of WARNER LESTER, MANHUNTER, an offshoot of WXYZ’s MANHUNTERS series, which featured various crime fighters, and also birthed the Lone Ranger. On WARNER LESTER, Axford had begun as a hard-nosed Irish cop, eventually becoming more friendly and avuncular to the hero.
On THE GREEN HORNET, he would begin as a retired police officer, now a bodyguard the elder Reid had afflicted upon his “wild” son, and living in the same home. Soon Britt would give him a job as a reporter for the Sentinel, and gently evict him from his digs. The character would mellow into a largely comedic role, though still often a menace to the Hornet, who he longed to unmask. Jim Irwin originated the role, and played the part until 1938. Gilbert Shea would play Axford from 1939.
Taking the side of the Hornet was Lenore “Casey” Case, who had been Dan Reid’s secretary when he was publisher. The part was played thoughout the entire series by Leonore “Lee” Allman, director Jim Jewell’s sister. Though she may have suspected after a number of years, Casey did not actually learn Britt Reid was the Hornet for a fact until 1948.
Like THE LONE RANGER, one of the things that made THE GREEN HORNET memorable was the music. WXYZ tended to use orchestral recordings of classical works. The theme was Rimsky-Korsokov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee, an apt choice. Igor Stravinsky’s Infernal Dance from The Firebird was also often used. As Russia did not recognize copyright at the time, the piece was effectively in the public domain in the U.S., and fair game. These cues and others from various sources really gave the shows gravitas, as many radio adventure series used no dramatic music or relied upon an organist to provide accompaniment.
Also adding zip was the Hornet buzz, attributed variously to the Black Beauty’s engine, horn, or appearing apropos of nothing, simply as a dramatic device to signify the Green Hornet was present, much as a filtered laugh heralded The Shadow. Various buzzing devices were tried, including humming through a wax paper-covered comb, before the sound crew obtained a theremin, the early Russian-invented electronic musical instrument.
The show went out on WXYZ Detroit, and the stations of the loosely aligned Michigan Radio Network. In 1938, it was picked up by the Mutual Network (flagship station WOR, New York), and in later years by the NBC Blue Network, and it’s successor ABC.
THE GREEN HORNET became a national success, and soon Hollywood would come calling.
To Be Continued…