You probably need to be of a “certain age” to actually recognize this famous white stallion. (No, it’s not the Lone Ranger’s “Silver.”) And no matter what age they are, few people on earth would recognize the cowgirl on his back.
The cowgirl is me, at about age 7. The year was about 1954, and the location was likely a grocery store parking lot in Dayton, Ohio. The Hopalong Cassidy show was one of the hottest TV shows of the time, and this trusty steed is Hoppy’s horse, “Topper.” Hoppy himself did a lot of touring to connect with his millions of young fans, but obviously he couldn’t make it to every city. So sometimes he sent out Ambassador Topper to stand in for him.
Author Clarence Mulford created the character of Bill Cassidy in 1904, and featured him in a series of many short stories and twenty-eight novels. In the first story, Bill got shot in the leg, and noted that he’d be OK—he’d hop along for a while. And thus was born one of the most famous names in the fictional West.
In his early writings, Mulford portrayed the character as rude, dangerous, and rough-talking. Beginning in 1935, the character—as played by movie actor William Boyd [1895-1972] in films adapted from Mulford’s books—was transformed into a clean-cut on-screen hero.
A total of sixty-six immensely popular films were released, only a few of which relied on Mulford’s original story lines. Mulford later revised and republished his earlier works to be more consistent with the character’s new, polished on-screen persona.
As portrayed on the screen, the white-haired Bill “Hopalong” Cassidy was usually clad strikingly in black (including his hat, an exception to the longstanding western film stereotype that only villains wore black hats). He was reserved and well spoken, with a fine sense of fair play. He was often called upon to intercede when dishonest characters were taking advantage of honest citizens. “Hoppy” and his white horse, Topper, usually traveled through the west with two companions—one young and trouble prone with a weakness for damsels in distress, the other comically awkward and outspoken. [Wiki]
Hoppy was NOT to be confused with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, as you can tell by this little dialogue from a 1940 Hoppy movie titled Santa Fe Marshal…
[Doc Tate wants Hoppy to join his medicine show as a guitar-playing troubadour]
Doc Rufus Tate: All cowboys nowadays play guitar.
Hopalong Cassidy: Well this is one cowboy that never played a gee-tar and never will.
Boyd had the foresight to recognize the potential of television when it came on the scene. His career in “B-Western movies” was ending in 1948 with the declining popularity of those kinds of movies in the theaters. But at that point he spent $350,000 of his own money (selling his own ranch to have enough) to acquire the rights to his old films. When he offered them to the fledgling NBC network, they agreed. They ended up condensing his old movies and started broadcasting them on Saturday mornings, starting on June 24, 1949. And soon work began on filming 46 new episodes for the Hopalong Cassidy TV Show that aired from 1952 to 1954.
Yet at the same time, he also managed to sell the idea of a radio serial too, and thus he starred in over 100 freshly-made radio episodes that aired from 1950-1952.
The character of Hoppy, and the TV show, were so popular that Look, Life, and Time magazines featured him on their covers.
As you might expect, much of Hoppy’s subsequent wealth came not from the shows themselves, but from the “merchandising” connected to the character. In all, Hoppy endorsed more than 2,400 different items, from pajamas to popcorn and pudding.
The 1950 lunchbox issued by Alladin industries was the very first of the TV-character lunchboxes that have been all the rage ever since. They were so popular that Alladin, that normally sold 50,000 lunchboxes a year, sold 600,000 in just the one year. Here’s that original 1950 lunchbox.
In stores, more than 100 companies in 1950 manufactured $70 million of Hopalong Cassidy products, including children’s dinnerware, pillows, roller skates, soap, wristwatches, and jackknives. [Wiki]
The TV series spurred a new demand for Hoppy’s old movies to be played in theaters.
Boyd licensed reissue distributor Film Classics to make new film prints and advertising accessories. Another 1950 enterprise saw the home-movie company Castle Films manufacturing condensed versions of the Paramount films for 16-mm and 8-mm projectors [for in-home viewing—these were the predecessors of VHS tapes and DVDs]; they were sold through 1966.
And yes, there was even a theme park!
On May 27, 1951, Hoppyland, opened its doors to hoards of screaming, happy children. It was a theme park devoted to all things Hopalong Cassidy. It was located in Venice California, just 25 miles west of Anaheim – where Disneyland would stand a few years later. Hoppyland boasted nearly 100 acres of rides and attractions, including picnic grounds, baseball diamonds, horseshoe pitching, a lake for swimming and boating, and nearly twenty rides. There was also a special kiddie land area that featured live pony rides.
” Bet You Didn’t Know …”
… Cecil B. DeMille reportedly asked Boyd to take the role of Moses in his remake, The Ten Commandments, but Boyd felt his identification with the Cassidy character would make it impossible for audiences to accept him as Moses.
…Two of Hollywood’s greatest names – Clark Gable and Robert Mitchum – got their first big breaks in movies playing bearded villains in westerns along side William Boyd.
…The original American Pie album by Don McLean inner sleeve featured a free verse poem written by McLean about Boyd along with a picture of Boyd in full Hopalong regalia. This sleeve was removed within a year of the album’s release. The words to this poem appear on a plaque at the hospital where Boyd died [in 1972].
…Three other Hollywood notables that at one time rode with Boyd aka Hopalong Cassidy, where George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, Jimmy Rogers – the son of Will Rogers, and George Reeves of Superman fame.
…Hopalong’s “drink of choice” was the nonalcoholic sarsaparilla.
…Boyd was very loyal to those that contributed to his success. When he retired, he turned over his production company to CBS, who was about to start shooting a new western series called ‘Gunsmoke’, with the stipulation that they continue to employ his entire crew, thus preventing any of his colleagues from being out of work.
Which all brings us back to the subject of the original photo for this entry, Hoppy’s horse.
When Boyd, the actor who portrayed the character of Hopalong Cassidy for approximately 40 years during which he took made 66 feature films and 52 half-hour television shows, took Grace Bradley as his wife in 1937, he obtained Topper that same year. The white stallion was named by way of Grace after her favorite book series, “Topper,” written by Thorne Smith. Throughout the years, Topper remained Hopalong Cassidy’s favorite horse because of the fact that he was a trustworthy animal, noted and admired for his constant cooperation, not only with his owner, but also with children who would sometimes pull on his mane and other such things. He died in 1961 at 26 years of age.
You can visit Topper’s grave at the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park in California. He’s interred there near the pets of many families, and other celebrity animals such as Rudolph Valentino’s dog Kabar and Pete the Pup, who played “Petey” in the Our Gang (Little Rascals) movies.
Hoppy, who never even kissed a gal in his movies (except one on the cheek, when she was dying), who didn’t curse or smoke or drink anything harder than sarsaparilla, was definitely one of the Good Guys. Hoppy’s alter ego, actor William Boyd, sincerely appreciated, loved, and cared about all his many child fans, noting, “I’ve tried to make Hoppy a plain and simple man in manners and dress. Hoppy isn’t a flashy character. He isn’t illiterate. Nor is he smart-alecky. He doesn’t use big words or bad words. After all, I felt that Hoppy might be looked up to and that children might try to pattern their lives after the man. If Hoppy said ‘ain’t’ and ‘reckon’ and that-away’, all the kids might start saying the same things.”
Hoppy’s official website: http://www.hopalong.com/home.asp
If you’re nostalgic about Hoppy, or are too young to remember him and wonder what all the fuss was about, check out the movie trailer for his first movie in 1935 (when there was still a hyphen in his name!):
Some of the information for this entry quoted or condensed from: