Lenny Bruce’s “Thank You, Mask Man”: The Lone Ranger’s unnatural acts

By on November 9, 2016

Here’s a slightly NSFW little animated short from 1968 (“not safe for work” for the non-PC language), built around Lenny Bruce’s comic deconstruction of the Lone Ranger, although we should point out that director/animator Jeff Hale made this short film for the San Francisco-based Imagination Inc., two years after Bruce had died.

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If you’re familiar with Bruce’s work, as we think you should be, you probably already know that didn’t like authority figures, and he especially didn’t like hero worship, in any form, particularly the accepted Hollywood trope of the single cowboy who rides into save the day, and that extended to fictional characters like the Lone Ranger, who he thought was a real schmuck. For one thing, he though it was rude that the masked man wouldn’t even wait around for a thank you from the townspeople, who would be described as yelling out after him, “Thank you, masked man!” as he rode off into the sunset. Bruce surmised that the townsfolk might have wanted a chance to thank him, and hey, maybe they’d baked him a cake? The skit goes on from there, of course.

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All of the voices in the short were provided by Bruce himself, edited from recordings of his stand-up performances (including one performance he did at Off Broadway, in San Francisco, on March, 1963, which was credited as “Thank You Masked Man” on the Fantasy Records 1972 release pictured here). It may have been that producer John Magnuson avoided costly but understandable legal repercussions by having the Lone Ranger renamed as simply Mask Man.

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In 1968, Jeff Hale — who passed away in February 2015 — and his wife Margaret became partners with Magnuson and Walt Kramer at Imagination, Inc animation studio in San Francisco. Hale had been born in Margate, England in 1923, and had begun his animation career as a teenager, during a long hospital stay. He later trained at the Royal College of Art in London, and his first actual job was at W.M. Larkins studio in England, where he apprenticed under German director-designer Peter Sachs.

He launched his own commercial studio Biographic Films in 1955 with partners Bob Godfrey and Keith Learner, but moved a year later to Winnipeg, Canada, where he became was member of the National Film Board of Canada, and worked for Phillips-Gutkin and Associates (PGA). By 1959, he was directing short segments for non-commercial Canadian television.

He moved to San Francisco in 1965, to work with a National Film Board co-worker Cameron Guess, directing Guess’s Oscar-nominated short (he wasn’t credited), and then moved on to Imagination Inc., where he worked on TV commercials and animated short films, mostly for the Children’s Television Workshop, the producers of the PBS series Sesame Street. Hale directed this groovy Pinball Number Countdown segment for them, and developed several beloved recurring characters, including the Ringmaster, Typewriter and Detective Man.

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As for Thank You Mask Man, the short film was scheduled to premiere on the opening night of the San Francisco International Film Festival, as a supplement preceding the main feature, but it was removed from the program. Magnuson believe that the film was removed to keep it from being eligible to Academy Award consideration. According to a former staff member of the festival, Magnuson ran up the aisle of the theatre, shouting “They crucified Lenny when he was alive and now that he is dead they are screwing him again!”

Magnuson requested that Bill Meléndez, a chairman for the Academy Award animation nominations, nominate the film, and filled out the required forms for the film to qualify, but it was not nominated. When Meléndez asked Magnuson why it was not submitted for consideration, he learned that it was never shown for the screening committee. Magnuson believed that a member of the Academy hated Bruce, and hid the entry form so it would not qualify. Hale claimed that the projectionist had taken it upon himself to act as a censor.

There were very few screenings of the film, and multiple theaters booked the short, and later canceled for unexplained reasons. George Evelyn, a former animator for Colossal Pictures, was working as a programmer at a theater in Texas, and booked the short without viewing it first, because the rental catalog “made it sound interesting”. After several audience members complained about the film, Evelyn was fired by the theater.

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Through word of mouth, it eventually did find a cult audience, and even though the gay community at large disliked the film, perceiving it as homophobic, it was later shown at gay film festivals. Initially, they were upset by its apparent “fag-bashing,” and by Bruce writing a gag that the “Masked Man’s a fag,” but later they understood that it was being joked about within the larger context of Bruce’s analysis of heroism.

Bruce testified in the Jazz Workshop trial in San Francisco about the Lone Ranger sketch. Prosecutor Ronald Ross had this exchange with Bruce:

Ross: Well, specifically, you are talking about…the unnatural act between Lone Ranger and Tonto…

Bruce: Yes…What’s the most ridiculous thing that the Lone Ranger could do? We assume that it’s completely incongruous…He wants the Indian…To perform an unnatural act. It is silly, you know…

Ross: In other words, your were not trying to say anything about the unnatural act, then? In other words, it was just for incongruity, then? Was it trying to raise a laugh from the audience? Was that its point?

Bruce: What do you want from me? Tell me–

Ross: Just your answers.

Bruce: I didn’t–I didn’t want to encourage anyone in the audience to be perverse or perform an unnatural act.

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In 1973, Hale and his wife Margaret, along with two others, founded the ASIFA-San Francisco in 1973, and later helped set up the Mill Valley Animation studio. He animated the “B-17″ segment of Heavy Metal (1981), and worked on many animated children’s cartoons over the years, mostly for Sesame Street, until 1999, when he retired and moved to Talent, Oregon.

Thank You, Mask Man popped up for years on cable channels like HBO and Showtime and was granted an official home video release in November 2005 when it was included as an extra feature on the DVD release of The Lenny Bruce Performance Film, which was directed by Mask Man‘s producer John Magnuson.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.