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  • Writer's pictureCathryn Stanley

America’s first TV cowboy star was born in Belmont County

From his early life in Hendrysburg and Cambridge, through hard work, a desire to learn, natural good looks, and a second chance, William Boyd became known world-wide as Hopalong Cassidy. Boyd was tall, silver-haired (in his early 20s), smooth-voiced and handsome. Hoppy is remembered by fans for his white horse – Topper, his black attire, and his distinctive laugh. At the peak of his popularity, Boyd received 15,000 fan letters every week! His legacy lives on in the 66 feature films (still a Hollywood record for one actor portraying the same character), TV programs, comic books, radio broadcasts, and the selective merchandizing of an estimated 2,400 items.

Learn more about Boyd at the Belmont County Heritage Museum (101 E. Main St., St. Clairsville) on Saturday, July 10 at 1 pm. Laura Bates, founder of the Hopalong Cassidy Festival and the Hopalong Cassidy Museum in Cambridge, will talk about Boyd’s life and career. Admission to the event is free. The presentations will be broadcast via Facebook Live. After the presentation be sure to see the museum's display about Boyd that includes items from Laura's collection.

Ohio roots – William Boyd was born June 5, 1895 in Hendrysburg, Ohio and grew up in Cambridge, the second of four sons. The family moved to Tulsa, Creek Nation, Indian Territory, in 1906. When Boyd’s father, Charles, died rescuing a fellow mine worker after an explosion, William dropped out of the sixth grade and began working in the oil fields. He later credited the physically challenging labor for his movie star physique. A sign marks the home in Hendrysburg where he was born. Cambridge paid homage to Boyd from 1991 to 2015 with an annual Hopalong Cassidy Festival and there was also a museum dedicated to him. Currently, Cambridge has a Hopalong Cassidy Trail that includes memorabilia displays, a statue, and a mural.

Silent Star - Boyd moved to Hollywood in 1915 and soon caught the eye of legendary director Cecile B. DeMille. His breakout role was as Jack Moreland in DeMille's The Road to Yesterday (1925). Boyd's performance in the film was praised by critics, while movie-goers were equally impressed by his easy charm, charisma, and intense good-looks. Due to Boyd's growing popularity, DeMille soon cast him as the leading man in the highly acclaimed silent drama film, The Volga Boatman. Boyd, now firmly established as a matinee idol and romantic leading man, began earning an annual salary of $100,000. He acted in DeMille's extravaganza The King of Kings (in which he played Simon of Cyrene, helping Jesus carry the cross) and DeMille's Skyscraper (1928). He then appeared in D.W. Griffith's Lady of the Pavements (1929). His last major role was in Painted Desert (1931) in which fellow Ohio native Clark Gable made his movie debut.

Case of Mistaken Identity and a Second Chance – In 1931, his career was derailed when a newspaper ran his picture with an article about the arrest of another actor named William Boyd on gambling and liquor charges. The mix up couldn’t have come at a more devastating time for Boyd who had just signed a $1millon contract with RKO Pictures. Because of the morals clause, Boyd lost the contract. By 1935, he was a washed-up silent movie idol taking bit parts under the name “Bill Boyd” when he was offered a part in a Hopalong Cassidy film. Boyd lobbied to play the lead and transformed author Clarence E. Mulford’s “Hoppy” into the hero beloved by fans. Boyd seized what became his second chance and made 66 films as the title character.

Desperate Gamble - Boyd took the biggest risk of his career when he sold everything he owned to raise $350,000 and purchased the rights to the Hopalong Cassidy film library and name. Although his friends thought he was crazy, Boyd’s faith in the character he created would pay off in ways no one could have imagined at that time. In 1948 Boyd, now regarded as a washed-up cowboy star and with little money left, took a print of one of his older pictures to the local NBC television station, asking only a small rental fee. NBC soon asked for more, and within months Boyd released the entire library to the national network. Boyd's gamble paid off, making him the first national TV star and restoring his personal fortune. He licensed 52 half-hour films to NBC Television and then formed his own production company, "Hopalong Cassidy Productions", to shoot 40 new half-hour episodes. “Hoppy Mania” spread as he made two world-wide tours. From 1949-1951, Boyd met an estimated 13 million children, whom he called his “friends”, from Alaska to South America. Boyd donated all public appearance fees to local children's charities and hospitals. At a public appearance in Atlanta, Boyd refused to allow the segregation of children into two lines based on color.

On display at the museum are a few of the 2,400 different merchandizing items Boyd endorsed.

Merchandizing Made Him Millions – Bringing Hopalong to the small screen was only Boyd's first step. In 1950 a Hopalong Cassidy tin lunch box, made by Aladdin Industries, was the first lunch box to bear a licensed image. The subsequent frenzy for Hopalong Cassidy merchandise led to more than 100 companies manufacturing an estimated 2,400 products under the Hopalong Cassidy name, or the name "Hoppy's Favorite". Products such as western outfits, six-guns and holsters, lunch boxes, and toys, were marketed to kids, but there were also products marketed to adults such as motor oil, tires, eggs, and milk. In 1951 alone, over $100 million in Hoppy merchandise was sold. No other celebrity had utilized merchandising on the level of William Boyd. He took this responsibility seriously. Boyd selected Hoppy merchandising very carefully and did not endorse products that he though inappropriate for children - one of those was bubble gum!

Role Model - In addition to movies and TV, Hopalong was also featured in a comic strip and on the radio. Unlike the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, limping Hoppy of Mulford’s 26 western novels, Boyd developed the role of a cowboy who epitomized clean living. Boyd’s Hopalong didn't smoke, drink or swear and he captured villains rather than shoot them. The responsibility of being a children's hero transformed Boyd, a one‐time playboy, into a philanthropist. Boyd became Hopalong Cassidy, losing his own identity and living his life according to that moral code. During the run of the Hopalong Cassidy TV series, Boyd began making PSA-style monologues at the end of each show where he spoke to his young fans directly as "Hoppy". That influence on generations of young Americans is still remembered today.

Hoppy’s Code - Boyd founded a club called Hoppy's Troopers that had over 2 million members. Like many cowboy stars of the day, Hoppy’s fan club had a code of conduct that expounded honesty, cleanliness, hard work, and other virtues.

Hopalong Cassidy’s Creed for American Boys and Girls

1. The highest badge of honor a person can wear is honesty. Be mindful at all times. 2. Your parents are the best friends you have. Listen to them and obey their instructions. 3. If you want to be respected, you must respect others. Show good manners in every way. 4. Only through hard work and study can you succeed. Don’t be lazy. 5. Your good deeds always come to light. So don’t boast or be a showoff. 6. If you waste time or money today, you will regret it tomorrow. Practice thrift in all ways. 7. Many animals are good and loyal companions. Be friendly and kind to them. 8. A strong, healthy body is a precious gift. Be neat and clean. 9. Our country’s laws are made for your protection. Observe them carefully. 10. Children in many foreign lands are less fortunate than you. Be glad and proud you are an American.

Hoppyland - In 1951, Boyd was brought in as a business partner on a theme park at Dell Avenue and Washington Street in Los Angeles, California. He invested $55,000 to retheme it and the new and improved 80-acre park opened as Hoppyland on May 26, 1951. Now considered by many as America's first theme park, it included picnic grounds, baseball diamonds, horseshoe pitching lanes, and a lake for swimming and boating in addition to nearly 20 thrill rides. There was a special kiddie land area featuring a miniature merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, sleigh ride, airplane, pony cart and auto rides. Velare's Double Ferris Wheel, previously on the Ocean Park Pier, was added to the adult lineup.

This photo of Boyd and Topper is from the collection of the late Sheriff Tom McCort.

Trusty SteedTopper, Hopalong’s signature white horse, was named by his fifth and final wife, actress Grace Bradley after her favorite book series. Boyd had to learn to ride a horse for his role as Hopalong. Through the years he was offered a lot of money to sell Topper but Boyd refused. Topper received almost as much fan mail as Boyd. Hoppy’s faithful steed lived to the ripe old age of 26, dying in 1961 just weeks after the pair appeared in the Rose Parade. It was Boyd’s last public appearance. Topper is interred in the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park.

The Hopalong Cassidy Festival in Cambridge ran from 1991-2015.

Continued LegacyBoyd, suffering from Parkinson's and heart disease, passed away Sept. 12, 1972 at the age of 77. But his legacy and influence live on.

- Boyd was DeMille's first choice for Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956). Boyd turned the role down, fearing the Hopalong Cassidy identification would hurt the movie. He continued to turn down movie roles to preserve his image as Hoppy. His last film role as Hoppy was in DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952.

- He appeared on the cover of Life, Look, and the Saturday Evening Post.

- Boyd was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1734 Vine Street in Hollywood, California on February 8, 1960.

- So Long Hopalong Cassidy, singer and songwriter Don McLean’s poem, was included on the inside cover of his American Pie album in 1971.

- Boyd was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1995.

- In Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, main character Rick Dalton, a washed up TV cowboy star, collects Hopalong Cassidy mugs. The mugs used in the film are from Tarantino’s personal collection.

To learn more about Belmont County native William Boyd, check out this documentary.

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