Saturday, February 21, 2004

“The ring of the silver spurs heralds the most amazin’ man ever to ride the prairies of the early West…”

Syndicated series were a hallmark of programming during Radio’s Golden Age, providing shows for those stations not affiliated with the networks or those in dire need of cheap product to fill up airtime. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the demand for this type of programming became even greater—often to make up for lost revenue due to cuts in compensation by the networks to their affiliates—which is how companies like Ziv and Mayfair came into existence. 1948 saw the creation of Commodore Productions, a shoestring operation founded by Walter and Shirley White, whose product made Ziv look like the M-G-M of radio syndication. The Whites kick-started their radio empire with the assistance of an unlikely participant: popular B-western character Hopalong Cassidy.

Hopalong Cassidy was introduced in several stories (Bar 20) by a pulp western author named Clarence Mulford as a whiskey-drinkin’, tobacco-chewin' cuss of a cowpoke. But in 1934, under the tutelage of movie producer Harry Sherman (who bought the rights from Mulford for a silver screen version of Hoppy), he became a paragon of virtue and gallantry, as played by veteran silent movie actor William Boyd. Boyd (who was originally cast in Hopalong Cassidy [1935] as the bad guy until producer Sherman decided to recast) had watched his movie career tank in the 1920s due to a Hollywood scandal—another actor with the same name had been arrested for possession of whiskey and gambling equipment and newspapers ran Boyd’s picture in error. The success of the Hopalong Cassidy films—66 pictures made between 1935 and 1946—catapulted him back into the limelight.

In 1948, William Boyd made two shrewd business decisions that probably seemed at that time like a very risky roll of the dice. The first involved his partnering up with the Whites for a transcribed Hopalong Cassidy radio series produced from 1948-50; although it was slow-going at first (only a few shows were in the can when Commodore started selling them to stations, using those profits to produce more), it paid off in a substantial way when Mutual scheduled the show for a nationwide audience beginning January 1, 1950, sponsored by General Foods. Cassidy then moved to CBS in September of that year, beginning a two-year run that ended December 27, 1952.

Boyd’s other decision was to acquire the rights to all of his Hopalong Cassidy films—he had the foresight to observe that when television got up and running, the new medium would need plenty of product. Again, his instincts were right-on-the-money; after edited versions of the old movies appeared on New York television in 1948, new ones were produced to supplement them, and the films soon acquired a berth on NBC-TV’s schedule starting June 24, 1949. The combination of the both radio and TV success made the cowboy a household word in 1950.

The commercial juggernaut involving Hopalong Cassidy was nothing short of astonishing: there were Hoppy bicycles, roller skates (with spurs, even), pajamas and much, much more. The immense demand for Hopalong pants and shirts was so great that it resulted in a shortage of black dye. Cassidy jokes became a staple on television and radio; in the traditional Christmas episode of Amos ‘n’ Andy, a boy sitting on department-store-Santa Andy’s lap makes the request: “I want a Hopalong Cassidy hat, a Hopalong Cassidy shirt, Hopalong Cassidy spurs, a Hopalong Cassidy belt, a Hopalong Cassidy gun, Hopalong Cassidy boots, and a Hopalong Cassidy toothbrush.” When Andy asks the youngster who his favorite cowboy star is, the boy replies “Roy Rogers.”

So, I decided to check out a couple of Hopalong Cassidy shows last night, and as Providence would have it, they were the first and second broadcasts from the Mutual radio run in 1950. “Dead Man’s Hand” (January 1) concerns a doctor from Indian Springs who enlists the help of a “dead man” to jump another man’s gold claim. Fairly tame, but it killed 25 minutes. The second show, “The Rainmaker of Eagle Nest Mountain” (January 8), was downright bizarre: Hoppy and sidekick California Carlson (Andy Clyde) travel to a town in which they discover a series of strange goings-on: “Wanted” posters picturing the town’s leading citizens and a “sheriff” who’s invented a machine that will make rain. I can’t really recommend the Hopalong Cassidy series, since I was pretty underwhelmed by it, though I did enjoy listening to the antics of Clyde, who has been a longtime favorite of mine since being exposed to his Columbia comedy shorts and episodes of both The Real McCoys and Lassie as a tyke.

Since the national phenomenon that was Hopalong Cassidy took place before I was born, it’s difficult for me to grasp the appeal of the program. John Dunning writes: “Possibly some of it had to do with the novelty of television: just as Amos ‘n’ Andy had capitalized on the newness of radio a generation earlier, a TV sensation was bound to occur.” Hey, I can’t argue with success—during his career, William Boyd appeared in 52 half-hour television shows and 104 radio broadcasts in addition to the previously mentioned films, while Commodore Productions continued to score with later hit series in The Clyde Beatty Show and Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. They all must have done something right.

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