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Hoppyland--The Time the Good Guy Lost

In 1769, the Spanish explorer Juan Crespi paused on the banks of a small Los Angeles river now called Ballona Creek, surveyed what he saw and pronounced it good.

“We came across a grove of very large trees, high and thick, from which flows a stream,” he wrote in his journal. “The banks were grassy and covered with fragrant herbs and watercress. . . . We pitched camp near the water.”

Nearly 200 years later, in 1951, a pioneer of another sort arrived near the site, surveyed what he saw and pronounced it an opportunity.

The second pioneer was William Boyd, the man popular history recalls as Hopalong Cassidy, the white-haired paragon of Western Virtues who parlayed a 66-film screen career into the role of America’s first true TV hero.

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He also was a canny entrepreneur who honed what has become the multibillion-dollar film merchandising industry. In the 1950s, he used his television fame to revive his films and to launch a merchandising blitz so successful it put him on the covers of both Time and Life magazines. But his short-lived venture outside the world of cinema and collectibles--Hoppyland, an amusement theme park along a section of Ballona Wetlands that later became Marina del Rey--failed to amuse and went under after four years.

On May 27, 1951, four years before Disneyland opened and a few years after the demise of Abbot Kinney’s Venice of America amusement park, a group of investors opened the gates of Hoppyland. It’s 80-acre site at Dell Avenue and Washington Street--a few blocks from where Venice Pier’s midway once stood--included picnic grounds, a baseball diamond, horseshoe pitching pits and more than 20 thrill rides. Boat races and water ski shows were held at the 17-acre Lake Los Angeles, a remnant of the Ballona Wetlands, where film pioneer Thomas Ince once shot early Western films in the teens. One of the most popular rides transported kids on a pony cart for a quarter mile around a man-made mountain stocked with goats.

Boyd made appearances at the park, always encouraging the children to drink their milk, eat their vegetables, mind their manners and obey their parents, all part of the “Hoppy code of conduct.”

This classic good guy was born 100 years ago in Ohio, the son of a farm laborer, and began his working life as a sixth grade dropout, coming to Hollywood in 1915. His first job as a chauffeur introduced him to a Boston heiress whom he married and would later divorce.

After several bit acting parts, he caught the eye of Cecil B. De Mille, who liked his wavy, prematurely white hair. It was enough to convince De Mille to give him a $30-a-week contract. But Boyd’s success as a romantic hero in the 1920s went to his head. He gambled heavily and bought a Beverly Hills mansion, a Malibu beach house and ranch. He married and divorced three more times.

In 1932, before Prohibition ended, a case of mistaken identity plunged Boyd’s career into turmoil. A Broadway actor, also named William Boyd, was arrested at a drinking and gambling party. The next day, newspapers published the Hollywood Boyd’s picture in error. Apologies were also published, but his career seemed doomed in an era when studios still regarded bad publicity as poison.

He was a has-been in 1935, when a Paramount producer offered him a part as Hopalong Cassidy in a series of cowboy films based on the novels of Clarence Mulford.

In Mulford’s works, Hoppy was an ornery, unshaven, tobacco-spittin’, hard-cussin’ loner who also drank whiskey and walked with a limp. Boyd talked the producer into changing the character into a clean-shaven, clean-speaking, non-kissing good guy, who always ordered milk or sarsaparilla. In a later era, he probably would have insisted on low-fat beans from the chuck wagon.

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Two years after the 42-year-old Boyd revived his career with the first of the Hoppy films in 1935, he met a young actress, Grace Bradley, who would become his fifth--and last--wife.

With his black hat, two ivory-handled six-shooters and white horse named Topper, Hopalong Cassidy generated legions of fans at Saturday matinees. But it was not until the films were shown on television that Hoppy became a show business phenomenon.

The money put into Hoppyland, for example, was earned after Boyd and Grace hocked everything and shrewdly bought up all the television rights to his movies.

Their gamble paid off. By 1950, the burgeoning baby-boom generation had made Hoppy a household word. His sudden resurgence of popularity spawned a Hoppy radio show and comic strip. Manufacturers produced more than 2,500 products carrying his name.

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Boyd instinctively understood how to maintain the value of his “brand name.” He once turned down a lucrative offer to endorse a brand of bubble gum because he disapproved of chewing gum. He insisted on reasonable prices and good quality on manufactured goods bearing Hoppy’s label.

Sales from Hoppy paraphernalia that year were estimated at $70 million. And a portion of the profits earned on every Hoppy lunch box, cap pistol, pocket knife, wallpaper, bunk bed, linoleum and bicycle with handlebars shaped like steer horns, went into improvements at Hoppyland.

Boyd retired from films in 1953, Hoppyland closed its doors a year later and the gleam seemed to fade from his silver-studded ensemble as Hoppy-mania fizzled out. But he lived on until 1972, when he died of Parkinson’s disease and heart failure at the age of 77.

The “sworn enemy of crime, cruelty and ruthlessness” had made his last public appearance 11 years before, in the 1961 Rose Parade. Then Topper died, and he never made another movie.

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Today, where Crespi camped and Hoppy dreamed, sailboats ride at anchor in a neighborhood filled with singles and happy hours--things neither pioneer probably would have approved.


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