South Charlotte man boasts impressive collection of Lone Ranger radio memorabilia

Silver comes in many forms to Eugene Smith.

It might be a shiny silver bullet, or the magnificent white stallion named Silver, or the money Smith has invested in what he estimates to be one of the largest collections of Lone Ranger memorabilia in the U.S.

Not just any Lone Ranger; only the masked man who fought injustice via radio episodes nearly 80 years ago will do.

“In my childhood, we became involved in the theater of our mind. It was so important to say, ‘I helped the Lone Ranger find the crook,’ ” said Smith, 77, of the radio series that began on a Detroit station in 1933.

Smith’s dedication to the masked hero began at an early age, when he was an invalid with rheumatic fever. The Lone Ranger and radio were his escape.

When Smith, a retired teacher and former TV magician, talks about the Lone Ranger’s radio days, you can close your eyes and be transported to the 1930s and ’40s. His voice changes into character as he imitates the Lone Ranger’s “Hi-yo Silver and away,” or the stilted, gentler “kemosabe” (said to mean “trusted friend”) of Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s Native American sidekick.

Smith’s excitement is palpable when he voices the radio narrator, urging “boys and girls to grab a pencil and paper” to check the numbers on their Lone Ranger decoder rings or order cowboy spurs with glow-in-the-dark rowels.

Smith owns those mementos and more.

He has transformed a small bedroom into a museum packed with library cases, filing cabinets and assorted bookcases, and everywhere is the Lone Ranger: dolls, books, cassettes, photos, posters, figurines, masks, toy guns, decoder rings, spurs, cardboard, holsters, frontier towns, a boxed “official” outfit, first-aid kit, boots, mugs, buttons, badges, soap and large Merita bread and Morton salt signs featuring the masked crusader.

Most items are from the 1930s or ’40s.

“I love the Lone Ranger most of all, because I feel we need more heroes today,” said Smith.

“I’m trying to teach children not to bully one another. I see that in my substitute teaching,” said Smith, who often teaches as a substitute at Ardrey Kell High School.

The Lone Ranger, a fictional former Texas Ranger, fought for justice in more than 2,000 radio episodes, making legendary his silver bullets and the “William Tell Overture.” And always, listeners were treated to “Hi-yo, Silver, away! The Lone Ranger rides again.”

“A lot of people say ‘Hi ho, Silver!’ and that’s a common misconception,” said Smith. “It’s ‘hi-yo!’ ”

According to a Lone Ranger fan website, the radio hit spawned a series of books, a popular television show that ran from 1949 to 1957, comic books and movies. The title character was played on radio by George Seaton, Earle Graser and Brace Beemer.

To television viewers, Clayton Moore was the Lone Ranger. To modern-day movie viewers, most may recall Armie Hammer as the masked hero, with Johnny Depp as Tonto, in a 2013 movie.

Smith retired in 1999 and moved with his wife, Suzann, from a Detroit suburb to an area not far from Charlotte Latin School. He may be one of the most loyal fans of the Lone Ranger, but he’s also a fan of the golden age of radio – not because of entertainment but by unfortunate circumstance.

At age 5, Smith was diagnosed with rheumatic fever. After attempts at attending kindergarten, he was sent home and remained an invalid for nearly 11 years, tutored during the week and hooked on radio shows when he wasn’t studying.

His favorite Lone Ranger? Brace Beemer, who voiced the Lone Ranger from 1941 until 1954. In fact, Smith has befriended Beemer’s remaining relatives, who have shared pictures of Beemer as a child and during his years in the U.S. Navy.

Smith also has souvenirs and giveaways from show sponsor General Mills. In his adult years, Smith contacted an archivist at General Mills and nabbed many that he did not have.

“The Lone Ranger show in 1933 offered 500 pop guns – a wooden gun that resembled the Lone Ranger’s – and 24,000 children sent in a request,” he said, laughing. “The network knew they had a winner.”

Smith’s popgun rests in a revered shadow box. “I’m just trying to preserve history,” he said.