THE MISER OF MOTOWN: GEORGE W. TRENDLE
There were many tight-fisted broadcasting officials in the Golden Age of Radio, but probably none more pernicious the George W. Trendle, the owner of WXYZ in Detroit. Possessed of a penny-pinching persona and an unfailing quest to snatch credit for the accomplishments of his subordinates, Trendle rode rough-shod over his minions at WXYZ. Most of his avarice and glory-stealing was well documented by one of his long-term employees, Dick Osgood, in his book "WYXIE Wonderland."
Radio station WXYZ would eventually, through the strength and popularity of its "The Lone Ranger", "Challenge of the Yukon", and "The Green Hornet" become a gold mine for Trendle and his banker cronies. But the talented cast, crew, and production staff of these shows always got short-changed. Many of the high-handed practices Trendle perfected would not have been successful in an era other than the Great Depression, where any job was eagerly sought by desperate Americans.
Trendle, and his hatchet-man, H. Allen Campbell, would offer prospective employees a job.....at no pay! Promising a salary "when things got better", Trendle and Campbell got free labor from many hungry workers. One of them, Ted Robertson, was hired at no pay as a WXYZ soundman and quickly exhausted his savings. When he didn't have the busfare to get to the station from the home of his aunt, where he stayed, the station manager telephoned him, but got the aunt. "He has no money and I can't lend him any more" said the aunt. "Very well", replied the manager, "just loan him busfare for today and I'll put him on salary tomorrow." Next day Robertson was making $ 6.25 a week.
While there are many variations on the actual origin of the Lone Ranger, the facts confirm that it was primarily the creation of Fran Striker, writer, and James Jewell, program manager. However in 1935 Trendle, with his banker buddies, incorporated the Lone Ranger so neither Striker nor Jewell ever made a nickel (other than their salaries) from the fortunes in Lone Ranger royalties, movies, merchandise, etc.
For the music played on WXYZ dramatic shows, Trendle and Campbell always specified classical (read "not under copyright" so the music was free. This was not an uncommon practice among the radio stations in those days. But Trendle had more cruel economy measures as documented when he fired 26 station employees on Christmas Day 1936.
Despite the immediate and enormous popularity of the Lone Ranger, Trendle made sure that none of his cast and crew were ever fairly compensated. He actually fired the talented Fran Striker when the script writer asked for a $ 3 raise per episode. After several months with substitute writers, Trendle allowed the humbled Striker to return to his old job.
Campbell's responsibilities included keeping a duplicate set of accounting books on each radio series so he could show "red ink" to any employee brash enough to ask for a raise. If this failed, Campbell would stoop even lower.
Once Earl Graser, the voice of the Lone Ranger, knowing of the financial bonanza his series had become, tried to get a raise. Campbell told him: "You're no radio actor; all you can do is play the Ranger. You know, I think we ought to make some changes with the Ranger. It might add interest if he was shot and then he could be in the hospital for weeks. Yeah, we might even have him die! Sure, that's it, then his nephew could take his place, the kid, Dan Reid. Hell, that's what we're after anyway...the kid audience!" The color drained from Graser's face and his hopes for a raise evaporated. He retreated from Campbell's office, hoping he still had a job.
Striker, of course, was a prodigious writer and was scripting daily the adventures of both the Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet. But his modest salary crept up in baby-step increments even after both shows skyrocketed in income. And Trendle was such a skin-flint, he refused to lease a pay phone needed by the sound effects staff for the Green Hornet. They had to build one: a steel tray into which they placed a metal washer which dropped into a iron box. They they added the sound of a dial from another telephone they had.
The contract of Al Hodge, the voice of the Green Hornet, required a substantial raise as soon as WXYZ found a sponsor for the program. None appeared so Hodge was pleasantly surprised when he traveled to Canada briefly and heard Green Hornet transcriptions on the air with Canadian sponsors.
Hodge immediately returned to Detroit and confronted Campbell. "Nothing in your contract about Canadian sponsors" Campbell retorted and dismissed him. Hodge officially took the matter to the newly formed radio union, AFRA, and eventually was able to get the raise he deserved.
Over the years, the WXYZ programs continued to make untold fortunes for Trendle and his backroom cronies, while the creators toiled in relative obscurity at modest wages. There were enormous royalties earned from the movies, television, books, and countless items of merchandise, from costumes to lunch boxes. And virtually all of the profits went into the personal piggy-bank of George W. Trendle.
The final, bitter irony of this story occurred in July 1954, when at the age of 70, Trendle sold his entire rights to the Lone Ranger to the Wrather Corporation for $ 3 million. Tossing his proverbial dog a bone, Trendle gave Fran Striker a $ 4000 bonus out of the proceeds.