Melbourne researcher Derham Groves is writing a book about the day in 1954, when TV hero Hopalong Cassidy rode into Melbourne.
In November 1954, two years before television was switched on in Australia, and when the Saturday afternoon movie matinee was every kid’s dream, a visit by a Hollywood cowboy was enough to spark a riot, pilgrimages through the desert and the Melbourne council’s ban on a parade, fearing the city wouldn’t survive.
All this for Hopalong Cassidy, a man whose real name isn’t widely remembered (William Boyd) and who in many ways was well past his prime when he landed on our shores. His movies were first released in the 1930s and ’40s, but still got a regular airing.
Melbourne researcher Derham Groves is writing a book to ensure this hysterical episode in Australia’s cultural history isn’t lost – and he’s hoping to hear from the children, now in their 60s and 70s, who were taken to see Hopalong drive a Land Rover around Albert Park, ride a horse down Lonsdale Street, or be part of a melee in an overcrowded circus tent.
‘‘ It’s incredible to think that 60,000 people turned up at Albert Park to see him drive a truck. He wasn’t a singer, and wasn’t performing in a show. It was just Hopalong making an appearance – and that was enough to bring out these huge crowds,’’ says Dr Groves, a senior lecturer in architecture at the University of Melbourne and an expert in long-ago stars venturing Down Under. He previously published a book in the US about the 1939 visit to Australia ‘‘ by the drop-dead gorgeous Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong’’ .
The Hopalong tour came at a time when the world was suffering a polio epidemic, and Boyd was raising money for children crippled by the disease and visiting sick kids in hospitals. The Queen had visited that year, and no one was allowed to shake her hand and flowers had to be placed on the ground to ensure she wasn’t infected.
‘‘ This was two years before Jonas Salk came up with the vaccine, and people were very frightened. But Hopalong was hugging people, very affectionate. He had a big heart,’’ Dr Groves says.
Boyd had been fund-raising in England – where he didn’t draw huge crowds – and after the island-hopping flight, he decided to take a few days’ rest in Darwin. Somehow word got out, and Aboriginal stockmen, dressed in their Hollywood cowboy clothes, rode up to 500 kilometres to see him.
‘‘ Because of the racist laws that were happening at the time, there was only one day of the week when there wasn’t a curfew, and that was Wednesday , when they showed cowboy movies … so they all knew Hopalong and they just idolised him.’’
In Melbourne, the idolatry was insane. One of Boyd’s gigs was a 3AW broadcast from a circus tent: 4000 people bought tickets but 12,000 turned up. While the ticket-holders lined up to get into the tent, the gatecrashers were sneaking their children under the canvas. ‘‘ Hopalong was pushed to the back of the tent. He called for calm, but they were trying to take his clothes off,’’ says Dr Groves.
The police were overwhelmed, and the circus had to deploy two of its elephants to bring the riot under control.
Dr Groves has already heard from several people who met Hopalong, including this recollection from Robert McMahon, who was a 13-year-old boy living in St Augustine’s orphanage in Geelong when his hero paid a visit.
‘‘ The kids at the orphanage saw him at the movies once a week … but to get so close to him was something … I can still see his eyes and look that you could not forget … He had a place in his heart, I felt, about children and orphanages.
‘‘ I can remember shaking his hand, and I went ‘bang bang’ with the gun he gave me, and most of all … that smile he had, he never seemed to lose it, as I can remember him in the movies … I thought it the biggest thing that ever happened to me, to be given that one chance in my life is as good as it gets. It was so big. Everybody all over Melbourne was talking about him weeks later, even years later.’’
If you were there when Hopalong Cassidy rode through town, contact Dr Groves at (03) 8344 7167 or derham-@ unimelb.edu.au