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The Good Ranger

Here’s an old TV pal, Ranger Hal. He used to brighten mornings in North Florida & South Georgia. The picture below dates from the mid 1960s, showing Hal at the base of his make-believe forest tower. What did the yellow polka-dotted clown do? He made lots of kids happy! Ranger Hal placed contest entries in a large bag behind the character, and he later reached through the mouth to pull out a winner.

FROM YESTERDAY’S TV LAND — “And remember, it’s great to be an American!” This was part of the farewell that Ranger Hal always gave at the end of his program. A couple of generations ago, watching this fun man proved quite nice for First Coast viewers, for he helped set the tone for many days. Jacksonville’s pioneer TV station, WJXT (Channel 4), ran the “The Ranger Hal Show” on most mornings from 1958 through 1969.

The star stayed busy as a beaver. Ranger Hal told jokes, demonstrated handicrafts, exhibited new products, tasted edibles, took vitamins, got a polio shot, and warned about the dangers of forest fires. Hal also held contests and spotlighted young singers, dancers, and magicians. Variety was the name of his game. He spiced things up with funny cartoons, serious animated features like “The Magic Princess,” and such educational flicks as “Journey to the Beginning of Time.”

The rousing “Ranger Hal Adventures” were always something to look forward to. You could catch the ranger flying with the Navy’s Blue Angels, driving a race car at Daytona, water skiing at Cypress Gardens, and participating at other attractions like Kennedy Space Center, Weeki Wachee Springs, and Marineland.

Hal didn’t hide in the TV set, though. You could meet him at local pet shows, Soap Box Derbies, school events, store openings, Christmas parties, church bazaars, hospitals, company picnics, and a plethora of other happenings. As one visitor to remembers, Ranger Hal hosted a Saturday matinee at the old Edgewood Theater in Murray Hill. He also rode in parades throughout North Florida and South Georgia.

SPECIAL GUEST STAR — A youngster once got the chance to fast draw a toy gun on “The Ranger Hal Show,” but this little Wyatt Earp suffered a case of the butter fingers. Cranston Burney, a staff member with the Jacksonville Public Library System, enjoyed a memorable visit with the good ranger. Prior to integration, Mr. Burney’s elementary school, S. P. Livingston, was an African American institution. Nevertheless, Ranger Hal invited a group of its 2nd graders to his program in about 1960. “This seems to have been progressive for the time,” Mr. Burney reflects. Young Cranston was among the children selected by their teachers. “I think those picked were the ones least likely to embarrass the school,” according to Mr. Burney. The Jax native was driven to the TV station from his home neighborhood of Mixon Town, not far from the Beaver Street railroad viaduct. Mr. Burney recalls, “It seemed strange wearing a suit on Saturday morning.”

The only disappointment that wonderful day came quickly: The little visitors couldn’t spot a real fire tower in the studio! “There just seemed to be concrete everywhere,” Mr. Burney laughs. “Ranger Hal didn’t descend a ladder, but walked out from a curtain.” Nevertheless, the TV experience proved “magical, cool, and mysterious” to the kids, who watched intently from bleachers.

Things grew even more interesting for Cranston when he was chosen for a fast draw contest. Show personnel equipped him with a toy revolver in a holster. Then, on live television, he got to test his wild west skills. “I think I was racing against a bell or light,” says Mr. Burney. His signal came to draw, and in one fluid motion Cranston grabbed at the gun. Unfortunately, he needed a little more practice, for the firearm clattered across the floor. It could’ve been an ugly blow to a seven year old, Mr. Burney notes, but Ranger Hal saved the day. The host dismissed the accident with a few light remarks and then rewarded Cranston for his effort. The delighted youngster received a bingo game and an autographed picture of Clayton Moore, “The Lone Ranger.” “I had that bingo set for the longest time,” remembers Mr. Burney, yet both items are long gone, the victims of moving.

Ranger Hal impressed the 2nd graders that day with his geniality and enthusiasm. In addition, they received a tour of the TV station, along with free snack cakes from a program sponsor, Merita Bread. Little Cranston could also claim bragging rights for a while because of his co-starring role. And although no there were no VCRs to record “The Ranger Hal Show,” Mr. Burney has retained fond memories of a special day.

THE REAL MAN — Just who was Ranger Hal, in actuality? A Pennsylvania native and military veteran named Henry Baranek, known as “Henry Baran” for most of his professional career. Mr. Baranek moved to Jacksonville in 1958, not long before his program first aired. A Ranger Hal show had already been reaping a great deal of success in Washington, DC. Therefore, the owner of the DC station, The Washington Post, adapted the program for its Jax affiliate, WJXT, and hired Mr. Baranek as the River City star.

Henry Baranek really enjoyed his alter ego. He also insured that his little fans accepted him by treating them with respect, as young adults rather than like children. Yet Ranger Hal appealed to grownups too. According to a WJXT booklet from 1961, the good ranger sometimes received more letters from adults than kids. In one week, for example, he was swamped with 1,332 pieces of mail from grownups and 1,160 from youngsters.

After Ranger Hal finally aired his last episode, Mr. Baranek lived in Jacksonville with his wife & children until his death from a heart ailment in 1979. His family was proud that Jacksonville Mayor Jake Godbold attended the funeral.

Now with kids and grandkids of their own, Ranger Hal’s baby boomer viewers still hold fond memories of their special friend. One watcher recalls how her father came into her room every morning at 7:00 and flipped on “The Ranger Hal Show.” The little girl lived within sight of the TV station’s tower, and she thought the kind ranger actually lived up in it!

By the way, what was the entire farewell that Ranger Hal always signed off with? “Be good, have a happy birthday, get well soon, listen to Mom and Dad — they’re your best friends — and remember, it’s nice to be an American!”

written by Glenn Emery

Copyright © 2019 by Jacksonville Historical Society