Happy With Hoppy : Grace Boyd of Dana Point Hits the Trail to Lone Pine, Meeting Her Husband’s Fans
As kids growing up back East in the ‘40s, Dave Joye and a dozen of his friends had a weekly ritual: They would grab their cap pistols, strap on their holsters and head for the Saturday matinee to spend hours watching the latest sagebrush sagas.
“Hopalong Cassidy was one of my favorites,” recalls Joye, now a 60-year-old salesman in Huntington Beach. “We used to shoot and yell and scream. We’d yell, ‘Look out, Hoppy! There’s the bad guy!’ But they always seemed to surprise him anyway.”
Joye says he used to dream of roaming the range alongside his silver-haired hero, who dressed in black and rode a snow-white horse named Topper. Last weekend in this tiny town on the eastern slope of the Sierra, Joye did about the next best thing.
He was among 250 fans who turned out to celebrate the centennial of the birth of William Boyd, the man who was Hopalong. Lone Pine has been one of Hollywood’s favorite movie locations since the 1920s, and it was here in the dramatic rock outcroppings of the Alabama Hills that Boyd filmed nearly half of the 66 Hopalong Cassidy movies made between 1935 and 1948.
“This is special; there’s no question,” said Boyd’s widow, Grace, who’d come here from her home in Dana Point, where she and Boyd spent summers for the last 13 years of his life, until a brain tumor killed him in 1972. A Western-style barbecue in the hills was just ending, and an outdoor screening of the first Hoppy movie, “Hop-A-Long Cassidy,” was about to begin only yards from where Hoppy and his men had stormed the bad guys’ hide-out shack 60 years ago.
Grace Boyd, 81--who spent her honeymoon in Lone Pine in 1937--was the guest of honor at the three-day celebration, which ended Sunday. The agenda included tours of Hoppy film locations, a horseback excursion with a Hoppy look-alike, a 15-hour Hoppy movie marathon, a display of vintage Hoppy merchandise and a panel discussion that featured Grace Boyd alongside former Hopalong co-stars Rand Brooks (who played Hoppy’s youthful sidekick, Lucky Jenkins, for two years) and Jimmy Rogers (son of humorist Will).
She was the center of attention, though.
Resplendent in a black fringed Western outfit and purple suede boots, she signed dozens of autographs, had her picture taken with fans and answered countless questions about the legend she was married to for 35 years.
The Lone Pine event was just the latest in what she is calling “a big year.”
In March, she visited Oklahoma City, where William Boyd/Hopalong Cassidy was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame. In April, she was guest of honor at a reception and screening at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, N.Y., which has been displaying Hoppy memorabilia since October. And in May she was in Cambridge, Ohio, her husband’s hometown, for the annual Hoppy Festival.
“It’s always wonderful,” she said in Lone Pine, “when you see him recognized for what he did. I think the whole thing is because of what he represented--the values and everything he stood for--and the very fact that [what he represented] didn’t disappear when he went. It lives on.”
Those too young to remember the Hoppy craze may be surprised to learn just how big a craze it was. “Entertainment Tonight” film historian Leonard Maltin, who appeared on a panel here Sunday morning, described himself as “a member of the generation that got hooked on Hoppy” via TV in the ‘50s.
“You can talk about Beatlemania; you can talk about the Elvis phenomenon, it’s in that league,” Maltin said. “And in many ways, it was even bigger because it was so focused, so concentrated. It was an amazing thing.”
Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy films had been big in the theaters in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but the wise/tough cowboy with the friendly grin didn’t become a bonafide cultural phenomenon until NBC began airing the movies nationwide in 1949.
Hoppy became America’s first real television hero. At the peak of his popularity, in the early ‘50s, he was on the covers of Time, Life and Look magazines. During a 26-city tour, a million fans turned out to see him; another time, in New York City, he drew more than 300,000 people and stood on the sidewalk from 9 a.m. until after dark shaking hands in a bitter January wind. Parents loved his old-fashioned values and saw him as a role model. And their kids wanted to be him.
As Harry Rinker, author of “Hopalong Cassidy: King of the Cowboy Merchandisers,” told his audience during a slide show Friday night, Hoppy products touched every aspect of a child’s life from the time he got up in the morning to the time he went to bed at night.
More than 2,000 products were manufactured bearing the Hoppy name--Hoppy toothbrushes, T-shirts, watches, lunch boxes, dinner plates, drinking cups, furniture, linoleum, bedspreads and pajamas, not to mention the requisite Hoppy outfits, gun and holster sets and cowboy boots.
Hopalong Cassidy also was on the radio every week, in a daily newspaper comic strip and in a variety of comic books that sold 3 million copies a month.
Boyd, a fatherly figure then in his 50s, may have seemed an unlikely person to play “the sworn enemy of crime, cruelty and ruthlessness.” But Hoppy was the right hero at the right time.
He first appeared in 1905, in a short story by Clarence E. Mulford, a onetime Brooklyn marriage license clerk who had never been west of the Mississippi. As written, Hoppy was a far cry from the handsome and noble character Boyd made famous.
As Grace Boyd recalled last weekend, Mulford’s Hoppy “chewed tobacco, had a big, hanging-down mustache, and he drank and whored around.”
Indeed, when producer Harry Sherman decided to produce the first Hopalong movie, he offered the part to wiry character actor James Gleason. Boyd--who’d been a popular leading man in many of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent-screen classics--was asked to play a strait-laced rancher named Buck Peters.
But, Grace Boyd continued, “When Sherman was in New York closing the deal for Gleason as Hoppy, Bill said, ‘I don’t want the part of Buck Peters, but I’ll do Hopalong Cassidy.’ When Paramount heard about it, they said, ‘If you can get Bill Boyd, get him.’ ”
Grace Boyd remembers discovering quickly that Hoppy’s appeal was not just to children. “Believe me,” she said, “I used to have to fight the women off with a club. They’d be crawling under the bed in hotels because he really was a very handsome man. He had skin like a baby and very high coloring in his face, and his eyes were that light, piercing china blue--with the black eyebrows and platinum-colored hair. He started to turn gray when he was 19. It was one of those family traits. In the old days, they used to put brown makeup in his hair.”
She had been smitten with William Boyd ever since she’d been 12-year-old Grace Bradley of Brooklyn, N.Y., watching him on the silver screen and writing his name in her schoolbooks.
She’d been a nightclub dancer in Manhattan until Paramount brought her out to Hollywood in the mid-'30s. In 1937, an agent told Boyd, “There’s a girl you should meet.”
He called to invite her to a party at his home. She remembers thinking it was a friend pulling her leg, as everyone knew about her “mad crush” on the actor. But then he laughed, and “I was speechless,” she recounted. “You couldn’t miss that laugh. There was no other like it.”
He proposed on their third date and later told her he would have proposed the first night but he hadn’t wanted to scare her. Rightfully so. He was 42 and had been married four times; she was 23 and was living with her mother.
Still, three weeks after they met, they were married--on his birthday--and, because he had to finish a picture, they spent their honeymoon in Lone Pine on location. For him, the fifth time was the charm: Grace Boyd said that throughout their marriage, they spent only two nights apart.
Boyd retired from the screen in 1953. He continued to make personal appearances until after the Rose Bowl Parade in 1961, when Topper died; “Bill wouldn’t even think about another horse.”
Grace Boyd became a volunteer at the South Coast Medical Center in Laguna Beach, where her husband spent his final days. She still teaches t’ai chi ch’uan, the ancient Chinese mind and body discipline, there and at Leisure World in Laguna Hills.
Is there still a market for heroes such as Hoppy? She thinks so.
“Everybody I talk to is looking for a hero. They say, ‘If only we had Hoppy again’ or somebody like that. The children don’t have role models. Who do we have? Who do we look up to that isn’t on drugs or doing some stupid thing?”
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Hopalong Cassidy Rides Again Hoppy was played by William Lawrence Boyd, who spent summers in Dana Point from 1959 until his death in 1972. Some Hoppy highlights: Occupation: Foreman of the Bar 20 Ranch. Horse: Topper (named by Boyd’s wife Grace after Thorne Smith’s popular “Topper” novels). Movie sidekicks: Windy (played by George “Gabby” Hayes), California (Andy Clyde), Lucky (Russell Hayden, Rand Brooks). Hoppy movies: 66, from “Hop-A-Long Cassidy” in 1935 to “Strange Gamble” in 1948. Boyd also, under contract to Cecil B. DeMille in the ‘20s, appeared in such classics as “The Volga Boatman” (1926) and “King of Kings” (1927). Hoppy on TV: Edited versions of Hoppy movies began appearing on channels in Los Angeles and New York in 1948. A year later, NBC began airing the edited films nationwide and later commissioned 40 new 30-minute shows broadcast between 1952 and 1954. Boyd’s business savvy: In 1942, Boyd began purchasing movie, TV and merchandising rights to the Hopalong Cassidy character. These purchases wiped him out financially, but they started paying off in 1949 when NBC started its broadcasts and the popular Hoppy TV show became a merchandising bonanza. Sources: Grace Boyd; “The Films of Hopalong Cassidy” by Francis M. Nevins