In 1950, there was a huge spike in the number of homes with TV sets in the U.S., jumping from about 4 million homes to 10.5 million homes. The year before, the number of TV homes had jumped by about 3 million, and the year after it rose by about 4.5 million.
One could argue that a significant portion of this 6.5 million-household spike in 1950 was due to the popularity of a 55-year-old white-haired cowboy dressed in black, who, at the time, seemed to have an incredible hold on the attention span of kids ages 5 to 15.
His name was Hopalong Cassidy, played by actor William Boyd.
A long cover-story feature article in the Nov. 27, 1950, issue of Time magazine details the incredible success Hopalong had that year. It’s written with great spit and sass and is titled “Kiddies in the Old Corral.” Unfortunately, as was common in Time back then, the piece carries no byline, so there is no writer I can credit for it.
Here are some excerpts:
“Among all the U.S. enterprisers who devote themselves to titillating the unripened mind, none has succeeded as Hoppy has, both with his under-age customers and the thousands of manufacturers, retailers and advertising men who hawk his wares. Last week 63 television stations were pumping out his old movies, 152 radio stations were carrying his voice, 155 newspapers were printing his new Hopalong Cassidy comic strip, and 108 licensed manufacturers were turning out Hopalong Cassidy products at the rate of $70 million a year.”
“[I]n 1950 the kiddies form a vast, commercial audience, almost as important to U.S. business as their soap-opera-loving mothers; each has become a sort of quivering vacuum tube, and the man who can tune in on exactly the right wave length automatically assumes the same power over the tot that Edgar Bergen holds over Charlie McCarthy. Given just the right nudge, Junior, even at distances up to 3,000 miles, will open his mouth and say, ‘Mamma … buy me …’”
Next, the article gave a little history of kids and the power of their purse: “In the 1920s, a kid with 25¢ and any sort of buyer’s instinct at all could get his blood genuinely curdled once a week at the movies — if he was lucky he could watch Bill Hart galloping noiselessly across the prairie, and shudder at the sight of Pearl White lashed to the railroad tracks. But when radio invaded the U.S. home, children began to absorb this kind of nerve-jangling opiate every day and, when it was refused them, to complain as bitterly as if they were denied nourishment.”
And then came TV. The article continues:
Last week countless hordes of U.S. children not only went to the movies … [and] listened to their radio favorites among 27 children’s network programs (often reading comic books and blowing bubble gum at the same time), but spent millions of kiddie-hours squinting hypnotically at the 35 shows offered them on flickering television screens. …
Overnight, almost every little boy & girl in the nation had become a cowboy; in those carefully metered periods which they spent outdoors between programs, they saw cattle rustlers around every corner. They were not the first U.S. children to indulge in make-believe about the Old West. But they were the first to catch the fever simultaneously from coast to coast and to demand such splendid arms and accouterments.
Children with impressively styled cap guns and bejeweled double holsters (many tied to their thighs to facilitate a fast draw) were so commonplace that those without them seemed a little underdressed, and those who still carried such outmoded armament as X-Ray Guns or Atomic Disintegrators, hopelessly old-fashioned. When firing, they sometimes seemed a little confused by their multi-programmed backgrounds; instead of just crying “Bang!” like older generations, they imitated rockets and/or ricocheting bullets (“Ptche-e-e-e-e-e-w”), enormous steel springs (“Boing-oing-oing!”), or machine guns (“Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!”).
But in all else — even to the horselike galloping which had become as de rigueur among seven-year-old girls (who also whinnied occasionally) as the slouch among debutantes of the ’20s — they were faithful to their hero, the clear-eyed Hopalong. Black Hopalong Cassidy shirts and Hopalong Cassidy pants were simple necessities; the more fashionable put on Hopalong Cassidy pajamas to sleep in a Hopalong Cassidy bed, had Hopalong Cassidy wallpaper (which outsold every design in the U.S. this year), ate Hopalong Cassidy cookies and peanut butter and rode a Hopalong Cassidy bicycle (which has handle bars shaped like steer horns).
Today’s commentary is a continuation of one I started last week, which is really about the impact of Peter Pan. The reason I bring up Hopalong Cassidy is that I wanted to paint for you who he was and his popularity in 1950, and how TV stood in the mix of popular culture back then. One of the bigger events on Broadway that year, as I outlined in my piece of Aug. 20, was Jean Arthur in the title role of J.M. Barrie’s play “Peter Pan.” The play opened on Monday night, April 24, 1950, and was immediately a smash success, both critically and with the public. Arthur’s friend Mary Martin later said that of all the Peter Pans, Arthur nailed the role the best. A week after the show opened, on Monday, May 1, 1950, Vernon Rice, the New York Post’s theater critic, wrote this column, in the form of an open letter to Hopalong Cassidy:
Dear Hopalong Cassidy:
I’ve got news for you. It looks to me as though you are about to have some very strong competition in New York. And would you believe it? It’s not coming from any of your screen or television rivals, any of the bare-chested men who roam the jungles in the company of gorillas seeking their mates, any of the performers who twice daily risk life and limb at Madison Square Garden in Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. If my hunch is right, it’s coming from a little guy who refuses to grow up. He calls himself Peter Pan.
My suspicions are based on audience reaction at the first Saturday matinee at the Imperial, where a show entitled ‘Peter Pan’ has been playing only a week. I saw it opening night in an audience made up mostly of grown-ups. I knew they liked it, by the way they applauded and laughed and shouted for Peter at the end of the play. I had a feeling that they would go home and spread the word around among the younger set that this is a show to see. That’s why I went back.
Well, it certainly didn’t take long for that word to spread. The theatre was jammed with small-fry in the age bracket which is supposed to be your devoted following. I could tell that a lot of the kids were your disciples by the clothes they wore. Some of them, probably wanting to be loyal, wore the Hopalong Cassidy cowboy suits just as a reminder, should their loyalty waiver.
There was even a little girl wearing a copy of the Hopalong Cassidy boys’ outfits, only hers has a skirt. She certainly got a lot of attention, but I must say not from any of your following.
Anyway, it was a pretty noisy audience until the show, and there wasn’t much listening to the overture. But as the play progressed, this kid, Peter, and his girl friend, Wendy, really had ‘em.
I had a gauge right behind me…a little girl. Much too short to see above me, she spent her time sitting on her knees and leaning forward on the back on my seat, her elbows resting between my shoulders. When things were tense, the pressure on my back would be overpowering and her breathing on my neck would be quite strong. During the times that Peter and Wendy were making out all right, the elbows would be relaxed and gurgles of delight replaced the deep breathing. …
I hate to tell you this, Hoppy, but Peter has something on you. You ride a horse. But Peter flies. I don’t mean in an airplane. I mean he lifts his arms and off he goes.
If you’ll pardon a suggestion, it might be a good idea to look into this flying racket. Inasmuch as Peter does it with such ease, I have an idea your fans are going to expect something of the sort from you. You seem capable, from what I hear, of doing the impossible, so you might as well include flying among your accomplishments.
I don’t mind telling you, I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes right now.
Yours very truly,
I think Rice was absolutely right. For all the talk Jean Arthur made about the appeal of “Peter Pan” being in Pan’s non-conformity, the big appeal for us baby boomer kids was in his flying. All that needed to happen was to put the show on TV.
But that wouldn’t happen until the next version of the play, which turned it into an all-out musical starring Mary Martin. Unfortunately Vernon Rice would miss its broadcast. He died, much too young, in May 1954, almost 4 years to the day that his piece above was published. He was only 46 years old and died of a heart ailment.
Mary Martin as Peter Pan was first aired on NBC on March 7, 1955, and it remains a true landmark event in TV history.
“ ‘Peter Pan’ is perhaps the most important thing, to me, that I have ever done in the theater,” Mary Martin wrote in her 1976 memoir “My Heart Belongs.” She continued: “I cannot even remember a day when I didn’t want to be Peter. When I was a child I was sure I could fly. In my dreams I often did, and it was always the same: I ran, raised my arms like a great bird, soared into the sky, flew.”
Martin starred in the stage production of “Peter Pan” in 1954, which was then later re-created for TV.
“No Peter Pan had ever flown very far – just through the window of the stage set, over to the mantelpiece, around the room, and back out the window,” Martin recalls in her memoir. “I was determined, instead, to fly all over the place. I wanted to fly at least 60 feet across the stage, up to the top of the wings in the back of the theater, in and out the window, everywhere. I also wanted a flying ballet with Peter and the children, Wendy, Michael, and John, all sailing around together.”
Thanks to Jerome Robbins, who choreographed and directed her, and Peter Foy, who handled the wires that let Martin fly, it all happened.
Martin writes even more about flying in “Peter Pan”: “I wish I could express in words the joy I felt in flying. I loved it so. The freedom of spirit — the thing Peter always felt – was suddenly there for me. I discovered I was happier in air than on the ground. I probably always will be.
“Balance in the air was no more difficult than on earth, and graceful movements were far easier, as they are in swimming. I found I could use all [my] ballet movements … but now they were effortless.”
And this: “Just before the final triumphant performance of that ‘Peter Pan,’ the television special of 1955, I had my very last flying dream. I dreamed I was flying through the Holland Tunnel, straight through, between the car tops and the tunnel top. Never touched a thing, not a single car or the tip of a finger. It was the best flying dream. … Then I never dreamed it again. Perhaps it was because I had experienced at last the joy of really flying. On the end of wire, of course, but audiences could barely see the wire and I often forgot completely that it was there.”
I think that what might have happened is that those dreams of hers were transferred to millions of us baby boomer kids who watched Peter and the children soaring so wonderfully. We dreamed about it for days. For years. It became a routine for us to act out and play with our friends flying like Peter Pan.
And I don’t exaggerate when I say millions of us watched. The first numbers said 65 million of us watched “Peter Pan,” live, on NBC on March 7, 1955. The New York Times later said the real number was 67 million. Nine months later Mary Martin and cast repeated their performances, again live on NBC, and 55 million of us watched. Four years later Martin and her cohorts repeated the show once again for NBC, this time so it could be recorded on videotape. Twenty-one million watched that third time. Millions more watched NBC taped rebroadcasts of the show in 1963, 1966, 1973 and 1989. In addition, NBC licensed the Mary Martin version of “Peter Pan” to the home entertainment market.
Martin said that people never stopped coming up to her and telling her how much they loved her as Peter Pan.
I recently came across a memoir, “Ghost Light,” written by one baby boomer who has put down his memories of Mary Martin in “Peter Pan” that I want to share with you.
As a child he lived in Somerset, Maryland, and his parents would sometimes talk about Broadway shows such as “The Pajama Game” and “South Pacific” and play the original cast records. He had yet to visit New York when TV brought NY and Broadway to him on March 7, 1955:
“The actor playing Peter Pan was Mary Martin, a name I knew because she was the woman on the leafy green cover of Mom’s beloved [record of] ‘South Pacific.’ In ‘Peter Pan’ she didn’t look like what she was, a woman old enough to be one of our mothers. There wasn’t a child in Somerset, me included, who disputed the proposition that she was a teenage boy.
“We didn’t question the illusion of flying, either. … At age five I couldn’t see the strings; Peter’s defiance of gravity was as much an article of faith as the arrival of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Think lovely thoughts and up you go.
“The night after ‘Peter Pan,’ Mom had to instruct our baby sitter to make sure [my sister] Polly and I didn’t get carried away by our own ambitions to take flight. Since coming home from school we’d spent the entire afternoon leaping from the chairs and sofa in the living room — all the while making crowing noises, as Peter had the night before.”
At first he thought of “Peter Pan” as a TV show. But soon after that, when his parents bought him the original cast album, he wrote that he “quickly discovered” “Peter Pan” was indeed a musical show that originally had been on stage.
That little 5-year-old boy, Frank Rich, grew up to be the chief theater critic for The New York Times from 1980 t0 1993.
Come December, Allison Williams will soar as “Peter Pan” in NBC’s latest production of this timeless classic. Along with millions of others, my wife and I will be watching with our 7-year-old son and our 11-year-old daughter. I wonder what dreams it will rekindle in us and inspire in them.
Allison Williams, age 3, dresses up as Peter Pan