By Marty Liboff
Above the mural of Venus on roller skates on Windward Ave. it says,“History is Myth”. This is the story of one of the greatest mythical characters of all time, Hopalong Cassidy or “Hoppy”. He became the first big TV hero and was famous all over the world. His TV show started the making of TV westerns and pioneered much of later TV serials. This is a rags to riches story of William Boyd, who played Hoppy, and his short lived amusement park in Venice called Hoppyland.
William Boyd was born in 1895. He came to Hollywood in 1918 to try acting and got into a few films. The great director Cecil B. DeMile put him in a couple of his silent movies. By the end of the silent movie era he was having trouble getting roles. Unfortunately, in 1931 another actor with the same name got into a Hollywood scandal and they mistakenly printed his photo in the newspapers. His acting career was nearly ruined by the confusion. He was a struggling actor in the 1930s. In 1934 he got the part in a new cowboy series in the movies called Hopalong Cassidy from a series of books by Clarence E. Mulford. From 1934 to 1948, Boyd made 66 Hoppy cowboy movies. Hoppy dressed all in black and rode a beautiful white horse called Topper. He wore a large black cowboy hat that covered his premature gray hair. He ran the Bar 20 Ranch and was always cleaning up the wild west of outlaws of all kinds with his two six-guns. He was called Hopalong, or originally Hop-Along, because in the early stories he had been shot in the leg and had a limp. In the movies he could walk fine and could out-shoot and out-fight the bad guys. Several famous actors got parts in his movies. A young Robert Mitchum appeared in 7 Hoppy films early in his career, usually as a bad guy. Some early Hoppy movies had George “Gabby” Hayes as his funny sidekick. In later movies, another character actor, Andy Clyde played his comical sidekick, “California” and Rand Brooks played his young cowboy pal, “Lucky”. Topper the horse played himself.
William Boyd had been a hard drinking playboy until he started to change while playing Hopalong Cassidy. He had gone through 4 sour marriages. His 3rd wife gave them a son who only survived for 9 months. In 1937 he met the blonde, young, gorgeous movie actress and dancer Grace Bradley. She was 23 and he was 42. She had already appeared in several films, usually in some sexy role with many famous movie stars like W.C. Fields and Bob Hope. A mutual friend gave William her phone number. He called and made a date with Grace to go to a party at his Malibu home. She later said that she had a “mad crush” on him when she was a 12 year old girl after seeing him as a dashing hero in the silent movies. When he came over to pick her up she said he held out his arms, “and I walked right into them!” After 3 days he proposed and they were married 3 weeks later. She was his 5th and last wife. Many years later she recalled, “We were absolutely right for each other!” She had met her handsome prince on his white charger and she was in love forever. She made about 35 films and then her Paramount contract ended in 1943. Then she mostly toured with Hoppy. Sometimes she wore western attire identical to Hoppy. Although they never had children she used to say that all of Hoppy’s little fans were like her children. She stayed by his side until his death and then continued to promote her husband’s legacy for the rest of her life.
William Boyd took his entire savings in 1948 and bought the rights to Hopalong Cassidy for $350,000. This made him so broke that he and Grace had to sell their ranch home north of Malibu and even had to sell their car and move into a small apartment. That new crazy invention called TV was still in its beginnings and he went to TV producers and sold them the idea of taking his old movies and editing them down into a weekly TV show. In 1949 his TV show was an instant fantastic success. Hoppy was a sharp shootin’ cowboy and also a sharp shootin’ businessman. He was a marketing genius because never before had any character been endorsed on so many products. Suddenly there was Hoppy everything! There was Hoppy clothes and jeans, milk, bread, potato chips, cereal, ice cream, toys and games of all kinds, housewares, lamps, knives, watches, books, comics, records and lunch boxes. Kids wore Hoppy cowboy clothes and had Hoppy cap guns and drank Hoppy milk. Families would wait eagerly each week for the new episode to come out. Everyone loved him for his big smile and wonderful laugh. In 1950 he appeared on the covers of Time, Life, Look, TV Guide, Coronet and many other magazines. There was a Hoppy comic strip in the newspapers. They made a popular Hoppy weekly radio show. America went Hoppy happy! Hoppy became a millionaire! After a year Boyd started making new episodes made for TV. This was all new and innovative for early TV. He got the great character actor Edgar Buchanan to play his TV silly sidekick,“Red Connors”.
A young Louis L’Amour who is called the greatest western author of all time was roped into writing new Hopalong Cassidy novels. The TV show was so popular that there was a Hopalong Cassidy Western Magazine with new Hoppy novels and other western stories. It was a pulp magazine for 25 cents. Louis had many short stories printed before but never a novel. He wrote four Hoppy novels in 1950, his first to be published. They were published under the pseudonym Tex Burns because the publisher thought they may have other writers do Hoppy novels and they didn’t want readers to only want Louis L’Amour stories. Louis wrote them as they were in the original books with Hoppy being a rough, rugged, uncouth and unbecoming cowboy. The publisher wanted the new books to be more like the TV Hoppy, well-mannered, dressed in cool duds, well-spoken and drinking sarsaparilla and milk instead of booze. Louis had to revise his novels and was upset about it. He later denied writing them! After his death his son and wife said they were his novels and now they are being reprinted under Louis ‘L’Amour.
Back here in Venice in 1947 the wonderful old Venice Pier was demolished. It was a great amusement pier first built by Abbot Kinney. A few investors thought another amusement park might do well, so a small amusement park was built a couple of blocks east of the beach. It was called the Venice Lake Park and it opened in 1950. It was at 400 West Washington Blvd., where Island Burgers is today, around Dell Street. There was a small lake there called Lake Los Angeles. It is hard to imagine today, but back then there was no Marina and there were empty lots, swampy land and lots of oil wells south of Washington Blvd. This is another story…
This little amusement park didn’t do very well. It was nothing compared to the old Venice Pier. The Ocean Park Pier was still nearby with all its great rides and attractions. This little funky park in Venice couldn’t compete with the rides on the Ocean Park Pier. In 1950 William Boyd was sold a share in this Venice amusement park for $55,000. A few new rides were added. There was a large stables with corrals and horse riding tracks for both advanced riders and children. On May 26, 1951 Hoppyland opened with much fanfare. On opening day he invited many movie stars and their kids, like Richard Widmark, Susan Hayward and Pat O’Brian. A short film exists of opening day with Hoppy and other famous people. This was four years before Disneyland opened and it is said Hoppyland may have been the first theme amusement park.
I was a tiny kid when Hoppy came on TV. We had a huge 9 inch black and white TV with rabbit ears. For you younger ones out there, before cable and internet we had little boxes with two long copper arms above the TV that picked up TV reception called rabbit ears. You would have to keep moving them around to try and get a clear picture. Usually you never got a clear picture no matter how much you played with the rabbit ears. Even though reception was poor and TVs were small, TV with moving pictures in your own home became the entertainment for the masses.
I would wait all week for Hoppy to come on TV. I would sit a foot away from our TV and ride my white rocking horse like Hoppy’s horse Topper. When Hoppy would fight with the bad guys I would gallop on my rocking horse with my toy cowboy guns and help him in the big shootout at the end of every episode. Somehow Hoppy could usually just shoot the gun out of the bad guy’s hand with a fabulous shot, and then beat the bad guy’s gang to a pulp with his fists with the help of his funny sidekick! Hoppy was awesome! So when Hoppyland opened and all the news was talking about it, I started to drive my parents nuts by begging all day asking, “When are we going to Hoppyland?!”
After what seemed like a hundred years, it was probably a month, we finally went to Hoppyland. My dear uncle Henry and aunt Elaine and my cousins Thelma and Renee and my brother Jerry and my parents all piled into our cars and went to Hoppyland in Venice. It was a nice clean amusement park with a smaller carousel, a Ferris wheel, a junior roller coaster and a miniature train. There was a dumb boat ride and other kiddie rides. The roller coaster was fun, but it was still nothing compared to the giant one on the Ocean Park Pier. There were 80 acres but only 15 acres of rides. They advertised 25 thrill rides and games, but there were only about 20 or so carnival type rides. I was expecting more of a cowboy theme park, but it was just mostly the old amusement park spruced up. Even as a little kid I thought the Ocean Park Pier was much better. Hoppyland had a nice merry-go round, but the one at Ocean Park and the one on the Santa Monica Pier were better. I was terribly disappointed. There was a nice picnic area, horseshoe games, a baseball diamond and the old lake that would later be part of the Marina. There was a large corral and tracks for horseback riding. My dad Jess was from New York City and he only knew horses from the movies, so we didn’t ride the horses. There didn’t seem to be many people renting horses, either. Believe it or not, there were a couple of stables around where the Marina is today where you could go riding, and so horse lovers didn’t have to go to Hoppyland to ride. Boyd may have dreamed of having rodeo shows also in his large corrals. I heard he had country music in the evenings for dancing, but we never went at night.
After a fun but somewhat disappointing day for me, my family was getting ready to go home. I was frantic because I thought the real reason we came to Hoppyland was to meet Hoppy! They told me that we weren’t going to see Hoppy, and I was very sad buckaroo. I was watching someone ride a horse in the large corral. The stables were a few hundred feet away from me and suddenly I saw Hoppy walk out of the stables! I began screeching at the top of my lungs, “Hoppy, Hoppy, Hoppy!” My mom Ruthie was embarrassed and yelled at me: “Hoppy won’t come over here!” I climbed up on the corral posts and kept yelling, “Hoppy, Hoppy, Hoppy!” My mom tried to pull me down from the corral and said, “We have to go home now!” but I kept yelling to Hoppy. Hoppy heard my mad screaming and he walked all the way across the large corral a few hundred feet away to meet me! He came over and knelt down and put his arm around me and said, “Howdy little partner, be a good little cowboy and be good to your mother.” He talked with my mom for a minute and then strolled back to the stables. My mother was very happy and excited. Even after all these years and meeting many famous people and movie stars, I still remember this as one of the greatest moments of my life! Even today I still have his photo with his horse Topper on my wall. When asked about playing Hoppy, William Boyd said, “When you’ve got kids looking up to you, when you’ve got parents saying what a wonderful guy Hopalong is, what the hell do you do? You have to be a wonderful guy!” He was…
Within a year the other big movie cowboys decided to also jump into TV. Soon the great singing cowboys Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers with Dale Evans had TV shows. Hoppy couldn’t sing. The Cisco Kid and the Lone Ranger cowboy shows soon followed. Hopalong Cassidy couldn’t compete with all these new shows. He was already a middle-aged, silver-haired man when Hoppy came on TV. His popularity soon faded and his TV show went out to pasture. He quit making movies in 1953. Don’t you think this would be a wonderful movie script?! Maybe call the movie Hoppy?
Hoppyland stayed around in Venice until 1954, when it closed. Hoppy would make occasional personal appearances, but for the most part retired. He built a home in Palm Desert, CA. that was painted black and white representing him and his horse. He rode off into his last sunset to cowboy heaven in 1972. Grace died in 2010 at 97. He is buried with his wife Grace at Forest Lawn. His horse Topper was buried at the L.A. Pet Memorial Park. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1734 Vine Street. There was a commemorative U.S. stamp issued in 2009 with Hopalong Cassidy and Topper. His old toys and memorabilia are still collected. His TV show recently came back on weekend morning TV. He will always be remembered in my heart. Here’s Hoppy’s TV theme song: “Here he comes, here he comes, there’s the trumpets, there’s the drums, here he comes. Hopalong Cassidy, here he comes! woo woo woo… There he goes, on his way, down the trail the cowboy way, Hopalong Cassidy, Hopalong Cassidy. He’ll return, soon again, there’s no use to say goodbye until then, Hopalong Cassidy, so long Hopalong!”
Above: Advertisement for Hoppyland, with attractions and Hoppy