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History's Headlines: Hopalong Cassidy visits the Lehigh Valley

History's Headlines: Hopalong Cassidy

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - In the 1950s, it seemed like there were more cowboys on TV than had ever populated the Old West.

The adults had "Gunsmoke," "Maverick" and "Have Gun-Will Travel" at night. But kid's TV time was Saturday morning and at weekend movie matinees. There Roy Rodgers rode Trigger, the Lone Ranger and Tonto galloped after desperadoes, and Gene Autry sang.

Among those who had made the leap from the silver screen of the 40s to the little screen of 50s television was William Boyd, aka Hopalong Cassidy.

Boyd was unique in some ways. Where other cowpokes wore white hats, Hoppy's big one was black, as was the rest of his outfit. When he walked into the saloon and the barkeep would ask "what'll it be, stranger" he would say firmly "sarsaparilla," a bigger favorite with his fans than whiskey.   

Boyd's appeal as Cassidy was huge in the 1950s and it was even international. In 1955, the year before he came to the Lehigh Valley, he made a world tour. According to the British press accounts from the time, the biggest crowd ever to gather at a London airport was on hand to greet him.

It was only natural then that Chester S. Dutton, assistant general manager of the Lehigh Valley Dairies and chairman of that year's Community Chest charity campaign, felt it was a real coup that he got Boyd to come to Allentown for the Halloween Parade set for October 26, 1956.

Dutton already had an "in" that didn't hurt when he asked Boyd to attend. As the press noted, the Lehigh Valley Dairy "has the Eastern Pennsylvania franchise for use of Hopalong Cassidy's name in endorsement of its products, (his picture is on every milk container), and it is through that connection that Cassidy" came here.

Allentown mayor Donald V. Hock made the official announcement that Cassidy would be coming on July 23, 1956. A year earlier, Boyd's horse "Topper" had made a guest appearance at the dairy.  Dutton estimated that a crowd of over 100,000 would flood into Allentown to see the cowboy movie legend.

Excitement among the Lehigh Valley's younger set, aka the baby boomers, was at its height that summer and fall. Most of the attention focused around the image of Boyd riding Topper into town.

As promised Boyd arrived on October 26, 1956. He checked into the Hotel Traylor. Topper was said to be on his way from Harrisburg in a van. The weather man was not cooperating. There was a forecast of a rain shower that evening.

But the cowboy star had other tasks to perform for the Community Chest. He visited several children's wards in local hospitals. Nine year old Jackie Dietrich of Stroudsburg, a patient at Sacred Heart Hospital, and a crowd of other boys gathered around as Cassidy showed off his six-guns. Cassidy also pledged $100 to the Community Chest.

The day had gone well so far. But with evening arriving there was a hang up that no one had suspected. Topper and his van had not been heard from since they had left Harrisburg. That they were somewhere on the highway was sure but no one knew where.

By 7:00 that evening a nervous Boyd, in full Hopalong Cassidy regalia, could be found pacing the lobby of the Traylor. The parade was set to begin at 7:30. What exactly had happened to his horse?

Dutton and others tried to round-up a convertible. But the first one that promised to show up didn't. Finally an open car was found and Cassidy was driven over to the Allentown Fairgrounds. The parade started a little late and there was still no Topper. And on the Hamilton Street sidewalks, everybody was getting wet. Under orders the parade slowed to a crawl at Center Square.

Finally at 8:32 p.m. the Allentown police, who had been out on Route 22, on the lookout, spotted Topper's van at Cedar Crest Boulevard. Police dispatcher Lt. John Wagner told patrolman John Hunsberger to clear the way using his light and siren. "Ok," Hunsberger replied, "but I gotta have a little consideration for the horse."

The race into town was on. Hunsberger, doing the best he could, had the van driver follow him. Although there is no comment from Topper about his rapid van ride, driver Mike Nimeth noted that the horse was an old hand at this. "He just spread-eagles his legs, takes the turns nicely and braces himself," he said.     

Finally at 8:38 p.m., just outside of the Lehigh Valley Club, Cassidy spotted the patrol car pulling up with Topper's van behind it.

History does not record if there were any words between the cowboy star and the van driver about the delay. It turned out, Nimeth's van had developed a broken spring and getting it repaired caused it the tardiness. What is known is that shortly thereafter Cassidy was on Topper and they went riding into the parade.

The reaction was electric among the young fans. Cries of "Hoppy, Hoppy!" were heard. The cowboy hero, playing a role that he had plenty of times before, was gracious to the adults and children that he saw waving to the crowds.

Cassidy's young fans, and some of his older ones as well, rushed into the street, hoping to touch him or Topper. The cowboy hero slowed down and let them touch him and pet his horse. Topper, trouper that he was, and apparently no worse for wear from his van ride, let them do so.

By now the rain was coming down steadily. Once they had seen their hero the crowd headed home. Topper was taken to the Lehigh Valley Dairy's barns for the night. His owner returned to the Traylor, perhaps in search of a sarsaparilla, or perhaps something stronger.

Topper died in 1961 at age 26 and is buried in the Los Angles Pet Memorial Park. William Boyd aka "Hoppy" rode off into the sunset at Laguna Beach, California in 1972.  

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