The Hopalong Cassidy Phenomenon
Although the supply of cowboy stalwarts and B films was plentiful, there were few attempts to gather the features of one personality and market him and his movies as a TV series. Syndicated in 1953, Renfrew of the Royal Mounted used edited movies from the late 1930s to tell of a Mountie operating in the Canadian West. The quarter-hour Tim McCoy Show was an unsuccessful syndicated series in 1955, blending Indian lore and stories of frontier life, all revolving about the old cowboy star and his Italian-American co-host Iron Eyes Cody who spent a career convincingly playing the role of a Cherokee Indian. Saturday Roundup, an NBC effort featuring Kermit Maynard showing his B Westerns, failed to generate enthusiasm when it was broadcast in the early evening in mid-1951. With Cowboy Theater NBC returned to this format in 1956-57, now with Monty Hall—later the host of the audience participation show Let's Make a Deal—and then cowboy actor Tom Keene hosting on Saturday mornings the B Westerns of Charles Starrett playing The Durango Kid.
Another film notable who failed in this type of TV venture was Lash La Rue. His weekly 15-minute series, Lash of the West, had a short run on ABC in 1953. Appearing as the marshal of Sandstone, the contemporary Lash La Rue told stories—accomplished through highly edited La Rue Westerns from the late 1940s—of his grandfather (with the same name) who helped settle the unruly West in the days of the California gold rush.
The program was a classic juvenile offering. Its opening showed La Rue with his smoking six-gun, galloping to rescue a stagecoach under attack by robbers while an energetic announcer proclaimed the array of crimes against which this dynamic hero was effective: “Daring robberies, rustling, reckless gun duels, range wars, wanton murder, and violence of every kind! But close on the spurred heels of the swaggering outlaws comes Lash La Rue, riding in again with another action-packed saga of the bygone West.”
As a quarter-hour, serialized story aired only once a week, Lash of the West lacked the visibility necessary to make it a successful TV series. As a Wild West champion dressed in black and relying primarily on his bullwhip to bring justice to the frontier, Lash lacked the style, charisma, and credibility necessary for popularity.
Where the marketing of Lash La Rue films failed dismally, The Gabby Hayes Show lasted considerably longer. For three years in the early 1950s it was a 15-minute program in late weekday afternoons preceded Howdy Doody, a children's program itself starring two cowboy types—"Buffalo Bob" Smith dressed in fringed leather, and the string puppet Howdy Doody in blue jeans and gingham shirt. Less impressively, in the summer of 1956 Gabby Hayes appeared on ABC in a Saturday morning half-hour show. In both cases, however, The Gabby Hayes Show utilized Western serials and the abridged B features of stars like Tex Ritter, Lash La Rue, Buster Crabbe, and Eddie Dean. But the strength of the program was Gabby's distinctive telling of tall tales. In preposterous stories reminiscent of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, he prevaricated on topics such as "how Uncle Weeping Willie created the Pacific Ocean," "how Uncle Welcome Hayes created the first picnic," and "how Aunt Petunia Hayes caused the San Francisco earthquake."
Gabby Hayes notwithstanding, the most successful packaging of a vintage B Western star and his films occurred with the motion pictures of William Boyd. Significantly, this produced the most successful hero of early television: Hopalong Cassidy. Boyd began his portrayal of Hopalong Cassidy in 1935. Playing in budget Westerns was a significant change for an actor who had emerged in silent films as a romantic leading man, and who at the outset of his cowboy career was unable to ride a horse.
Yet before he ceased making "Hoppy" motion pictures in 1948, Boyd had mastered horsemanship, completed 66 features, and left a legacy as one of the most popular cowboy stars in the nation. More importantly, as a businessman anticipating the needs of the new visual medium, by 1948 Boyd had gained TV rights to all his cowboy features as well as the option to produce more Hoppy films expressly for television.
Beginning locally in New York City and Los Angeles, and spreading by 1949 to NBC and national exposure, Hopalong Cassidy experienced overwhelming acceptance. Although the old features were edited to allow for commercials within a one-hour time slot, fans seemed undaunted in their approval of this first video hero. For a 16-month period the program averaged a rating of 32.6, reaching over 4 million homes per weekly telecast. According to the Nielsen ratings for September 1949, Hopalong Cassidy was the seventh most popular program—ranked ahead of Jack Carter's Cavalcade of Stars, Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, and Arthur Godfrey and His Friends. For the entire 1950-51 TV season, moreover, Hopalong Cassidy was ranked ninth—more popular that year than the family-oriented comedy Mama (10th), Ed Sullivan's The Toast of the Town (15th), Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life (17th), the big-money giveaway feature, Stop the Music! (23rd), and such venerable showcases of live drama as Kraft Television Theater (14th), Robert Montgomery Presents (11th), Armstrong Circle Theater (19th), and Studio One (24th).
In a pattern followed by other celebrities in the future, television success allowed William Boyd to market his endorsement as Hopalong Cassidy to a wide spectrum of peripheral products. Hoppy roller skates, wastebaskets, lamps, soap, and wristwatches were typical commodities sold with his name and likeness. One million Hopalong Cassidy jackknives were sold in the first ten days of their availability. Hoppy, who usually appeared dressed in black Western clothing, even sold black shirts to children—a singular marketing achievement since in American culture black was associated with mourning or Italian Fascism.
By 1950 William Boyd was riding the crest of a Hopalong Cassidy industry conservatively estimated to be worth $200 million. His films were on 57 TV stations; his new half-hour radio drama was syndicated to 517 outlets; and he appeared in a comic strip reaching 11.2 million readers through 72 daily and 40 Sunday newspapers. Boyd cemented his marketing appeal through his Hopalong Cassidy Troopers Club, a nationally organized promotional arrangement that provided its juvenile members a membership card, secret code, and the Troopers News, a four-page periodical paid for by regional sponsors of his TV programs and distributed at local grocery stores.
The strength of this commercial empire, however, rested with the character Hopalong Cassidy and the values he personified on the TV screen. Astride his pure white horse, Topper, the silver-haired Cassidy was a puritanical figure whose crusade for justice was always accomplished with understated flair. Hoppy never smoked or chewed tobacco. When he entered a saloon he avoided alcohol and usually ordered sarsaparilla. When he spoke with his guns drawn on a desperado, he was grammatically efficient. "Drop them guns on the ground unless you're gonna use 'em," and "Alright, Johnny, tie 'em up. They're through for the day" were authoritative and typically terse orders from Hopalong Cassidy.
While he generally operated with two vulnerable partners—usually a wizened old man played by Gabby Hayes, Andy Clyde, or Edgar Buchanan, plus a handsome young swain such as Jimmy Ellison, Russell Hayden, or Rand Brooks with whom ranchers' daughters invariably fell in love—Hoppy was all business. No woman ever won his heart. In fact, in all his films Cassidy kissed a woman only once, and she was on her deathbed at the time.
William Boyd understood the impact his portrayal had on viewers. He was especially sensitive to his effect on children. "Hopalong is a simple man, friendly and informal," Boyd remarked in 1950. "He's very intimate. I don't treat kids as kids—they don't like that—I play to the adults. That pleases everybody." Three years earlier he was even more specific in explaining the social direction of his Hoppy movies:
Then there was the idea that maybe Westerns, which kids have always loved, might be used to teach them things like fair play and having respect for themselves and one another. I even had a hunch that if I could make the right sort of Westerns, never forgetting they had to be action pictures and good entertainment, I might even do my bit to reduce crime among kids and juvenile delinquents.
As a moral force, Hoppy's "hunch" was never more obvious than in the eight-point creed to which a youngster was asked to swear allegiance when accepting membership in the Troopers' Club.
To be kind to birds and animals
To always be truthful and fair
To keep yourself neat and clean
To always be courteous
To be careful when crossing streets
To avoid bad habits
To study and learn your lessons
To obey your parents
Certainly, Hopalong Cassidy was a commercial enterprise concerned about ratings, residuals, advertising rates, viewer demographics, and profits. Yet, while it was a carefully marketed enterprise, the Cassidy product had broader significance. As with most popular cultural phenomena, Hoppy embodied strategic, relevant social issues. His character and its traits communicated more than a simple story of cowboys versus outlaws.
For a generation of children, many of them born in the deprivation of the Depression or World War II, many having experienced the temporary or permanent loss of a father, the paternal guidance offered by the successful Hopalong was crucial. Cassidy embodied discipline, devotion to others, bravery, strength of purpose, and similar values. He completed tasks successfully. He was strong, but always compassionate—a warrior who at heart wanted only social harmony.
Further, in a time of Cold War tensions with atomic-bomb potentialities, Hoppy was a patriot. He loved America with its open frontiers where honest folks settled to raise decent families. He fought for their rights, risking his own life so that the meek could inherit their earth and thrive in the North American wilderness.
Hoppy operated in a black-and-white moral world: One was either good or bad, and Cassidy was uncompromising with those who were bad. His was not a questioning or relativistic loyalty to national ideals. He followed the good course; and like a moral force on horseback, he led a generation of youngsters—and often those parents who approvingly watched with their children—toward realization of what the good person or society could be. The innocence fundamental to Cassidy's cultural message was captured decades later in a perceptive poem composed by singer/songwriter Don McLean:
NO MATTER HOW SCARY LIFE GOT I COULD DEPEND ON YOU
YOU HAD THAT EASY SMILE AND WHITE, WAVY HAIR
YOU WERE MY FAVORITE FATHER FIGURE WITH TWO GUNS BLAZING
NOT EVEN VICTOR JORY COULD STAND UP TO THOSE 44-40'S YOU PACKED
AND THAT STALLION YOU RODE, I THINK HIS NAME WAS TOPPER
HE WAS SO BEAUTIFUL AND WHITE HE EVEN CAME WHEN YOU WHISTLED
I'VE ALWAYS LIKED BLACK AND I LOVED YOUR CLOTHES
BLACK HAT, BLACK PANTS AND SHIRT
SILVER SPURS AND TWO GUNS IN BLACK HOLSTERS WITH PEARLY WHITE HANDLES
BLACK AND WHITE, THAT WAS YOU HOPPY
THE BAD MEN FELL THE GOOD GUYS LIVED ON
THE LADIES TOUCHED YOUR HAND BUT NEVER KISSED
WHENEVER JOHN CARRADINE ASKED A QUESTION YOU'D SAY
"THAT COMES UNDER THE HEADING OF MY BUSINESS" THEN YOU'D CALL FOR ANOTHER SARSPARILLA
I BELIEVED IN YOU SO MUCH THAT I'D TAKE MY STETSON
OFF AND PUT IT OVER MY HEART WHENEVER ANYBODY DIED
MY HAT'S OFF TO YOU, HOPPY
SAY GOOD-BYE TO ALL THE BOYS AT THE BAR-20
THE BLACK AND WHITE DAYS ARE OVER
SO LONG HOPALONG CASSIDY.
Copyright 1971 Don McLean. Used by permission of Don McLean.
The Western found its niche early in the history of television. In fact, among the first popular cultural heroes created by the new electronic medium were the stars of "shoot 'em up" programs. They fought, sang, and romanced their way across countless tiny TV screens; but above all these cowboy stalwarts captured the imagination of a nation of neophyte TV viewers. While their adventures concerned the winning of the West and assuring that justice would prevail, they also won significant victories by drawing audiences to the infant entertainment medium and insuring that television would be a financial and cultural success.