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A hero named Hopalong

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Hoppy, he was the one. Hoppy had a nice smile and looked good in a hat, which he always doffed in the presence of ladies. Hoppy was good with a gun _ would anyone expect less? _ but he was slow to anger and always the last to pull the trigger.

He was real kind to horses. He preferred milk to whiskey.

They don't make heroes like Hopalong Cassidy anymore. That's what Dick Stevens says and what he believes to be true. He is 59, has Hoppy white hair and penetrating Hoppy blue eyes. Like Hoppy, he likes nothing more than a good belt of ice-cold cow juice.

Ah, Hopalong Cassidy. It's a name for the ages, a name most baby boomers didn't think they'd hear again, Hopalong Cassidy, cowboy hero of late-night movies and black-and-white television. Nimrods should know that Hopalong was cooler in a crisis than Indiana Jones. He was a straight arrow, too, straighter than _ well, it's hard to name a real straight arrow in this Bubba the Love Sponge, Tonya Harding and Paula Jones era. But how about Cal Ripken?

"I love Cal Ripken," says Dick Stevens, a semiretired advertising executive who grew up in Baltimore and always rooted for the Orioles. Stevens has an old photo of himself and Cal taken decades ago when Cal had just started wearing his fielder's mitt for the O's. Ah, Cal! When a kid asked Cal to sign an autograph, Cal signed and said thanks for the honor. Cal never got mixed up in scandal. He drank his milk, too, just like Hoppy, and even kind of looked like Hoppy until he went bald.

It is probably time to tell you, to confirm your growing suspicions, that Dick Stevens is an unusual guy. He collects Hopalong Cassidy memorabilia. He also collects milk stuff. These things are connected. Hopalong endorsed many things, but he especially advocated milk drinking. For that matter, so did Cal Ripken, who was featured in that "Got Milk" campaign, which Stevens worships. Stevens is confident that if Hopalong weren't pushing up daisies, he probably would have shown up in the ads too.

Stevens has collected about 80 of those milk ads, which he keeps in albums and has mounted on his office door. As for Hoppy, Stevens has about 200 items scattered about his home range.

"People ask me, "Dick, when are you going to grow up?' "

We were just about to ask.

"I'm not going to grow up. You know, being a kid in the '40s and '50s was a happy time. I grew up with cowboys and milk. So there. Instead of carousing, I collect Hoppy and milk things. Instead of drinking, I'm looking for Hoppy and milk stuff."

When a guy gets stressed _ when he worries about sweaty fingers on nuclear triggers or laments his aging prostate and the ache in his arthritic knees _ a little Hopalong Cassidy and a cold glass of milk helps keep a fellow relaxed, if only for a little while.

Help from eBay

"Let's check eBay," Dick Stevens says. He stores his computer in his Hoppy room, which is downstairs in the luxury condo he shares with his significant other, Mary Ann. The Internet auction site, eBay, comes to life.

He taps the computer keys and moves the mouse. Suddenly, more Hopalong Cassidy stuff than you could shake a Winchester at leaps out in ambush. Sellers on eBay are advertising 555 Hopalong Cassidy items.

"See," Stevens says. "I'm not the only one."

Hopalong Cassidy was the invention of novelist Clarence Mulford at the turn of the 20th century. Mulford envisioned Hoppy as the kind of guy Oil Can Harry would have cottoned to. The original Hoppy was mean to animals, to Indians and to the fairer sex. He cussed and chewed tobacco and gulped whiskey like it was buttermilk.

But then movie rights were sold. An actor, the handsome William Boyd, who had made a number of silent westerns, was tapped to play Hopalong Cassidy. He plain refused to be a bad egg. In 1935, in The Eagle's Brood, the first Hoppy movie, Boyd played Hoppy as a good guy and became a major star. During the next 10 years, he made another 65 Hopalong Cassidy pictures. In Tierra Verde, a far piece from the cacti-covered range, Dick Stevens can watch a different movie for 66 straight nights. He's got 'em all.

When television came along, the old movies were re-released. Hopalong Cassidy became bigger than ever. Little Dickie Stevens was watching, of course, but so were millions of other kids and their parents and right-thinking people.

"Every kid needs a hero," Cecil B. DeMille, the movie producer, told Coronet magazine. "Hopalong Cassidy takes the place of Buffalo Bill, Babe Ruth, Lindy (Charles Lindbergh) and all the rest. He's everything that young America admires and wants."

Of course, Dick Stevens admired those heroes, too. The Babe, after all, hailed from Baltimore, where Stevens grew up. As a big baseball fan, Stevens started collecting cards as a kid. The collecting germ got into his blood. He began hoarding Superman and Batman comics. He even scored a prized autographed photo of you know who.

Hopalong _ Bill Boyd _ was not someone to let the sagebrush grow under his cowboy boots. He licensed the Hopalong name for more than 2,500 products. A kid could buy a Hopalong Cassidy hat, gun and holster and boots and go to sleep under Hopalong Cassidy sheets. He could buy Hopalong Cassidy comic books and reader records. As the kid listened to the drama of a reader record, a horse's whinny told him when it was okay to turn the page.

Dick Stevens has both 45-rpm reader records and the 78s. A serious collector has to have both. He found them about a decade ago when his interest in Hopalong was reawakened. He'd had a good career in advertising and marketing for various telephone companies. He'd married and raised a family. Like a lot of middle-aged people, he suddenly felt an urge to reconnect with his past. Ah, Hoppy.

So what's eBay offering today? Well, all kinds of things _ from Hopalong Cassidy wristwatches to a metal sign, actually an advertisement, for a Hopalong Cassidy radio. The seller says it's an original.

Dick Stevens puckers as if he has just tasted cactus juice.

"It's a reproduction," he snarls. "That's one of the problems right now. You have people selling repros but representing them as originals. Those people _ ah, I call them varmints."

If Hoppy were here, he would give the varmints a good talking to. He would be polite at first, but if the varmints refused to go along, Hoppy wouldn't back away from a fair fight. He'd give them a taste of knuckle sandwich. Afterward, he'd go to the saloon _ and ask for a glass of milk.

Love those milk ads

Hopalong Cassidy might have been the all-time endorser of milk drinking. He'd visit a dairy, collect a healthy fee and pose for pictures. Eventually, Hopalong's likeness would appear on that dairy's bottle or wax carton. "Hoppy's Favorite," it would say, and kids would demand that brand.

Stevens owns a few wax cartons, which he keeps on a special shelf with a Hoppy six-shooter and a Hoppy popcorn tin.

Alas, he does not own the Holy Grail among collectors, the Hopalong Cassidy "Roll Fast" bicycle. Fanatics pay $5,000 for that two-wheeled pony.

In the small pond of milk memorabilia, Dick Stevens is a marlin, especially when it comes to milk advertisements. And his favorite is the milk mustache campaign that commenced in 1994. Celebrities, usually women, posed with a sliver of milk riding their upper lips like Snidely Whiplash's mustache.

Everybody who was anybody seemed to make one of those ads. Dennis Rodman, the flamboyant basketball player, made three, his hair a different color in each.

Go ahead. Name somebody.

Ivana Trump. Yes, she made a milk ad, too. Daisy Fuentes? Yeppers. Christie Brinkley? She made two. Spike Lee? Of course. Elvis Presley? Well, Elvis lies in Graceland's version of Boot Hill. But a batch of Elvis impersonators appeared in an ad in 1997.

"You haven't asked me what my favorite "Got Milk' ad is."

Dick, what's your favorite ad?

"Tyra Banks, the model. She actually made two ads. The first one she was in jeans and a T-shirt. Let me find the second." He fumbles around. "Here it is."

Tyra's in a peach-colored string bikini. Her 1996 ad made its debut in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Dick, what would Hopalong Cassidy think? And what would your beloved think?

A wan smile.

Mary Ann has been recruited in the "Got Milk" effort. She reads lots of magazines at home and at the beauty shop and always turns the pages in a never-ending search for the coveted ads. And when Dick returns from one of his sojourns to the library _ the library discards year-old magazines _ she is polite enough to ask if he found a milk ad when he comes home.

"I don't think my milk ads are worth anything," Stevens says. "But I don't care. You collect for investment or for the pleasure. The milk ads are for fun."

The Hopalong Cassidy items are a little of both. That thermos he bought in Pennsylvania at a yard sale for $12.50 now is worth a hundred. A lunch box, which fetched about $2.50 in the 1970s, shortly after Bill Boyd's death, now is worth $400.

"Hoppy," Bill Stevens whispers, "he was something else. I think I got a lot of my values from him, and the other cowboy TV stars of the 1950s. They were good people. That was a good time to be alive."

A visitor to the Hopalong Cassidy museum _ Dick Stevens' den _ stays on the ground floor. But a visitor who is a reporter, yes, one of those cynical, foul-mouthed villains who asks nosy questions between long pulls at the whiskey bottle, requests a tour of the whole condo before fading into the sunset.

"What?" Stevens says, suspicious. "You don't think I do. You don't think I drink milk, do you?"

He leads the way to the kitchen. A quart of skim, cool to the touch, waits on the second shelf of the fridge.

Skim milk won't leave much of a mustache. But Hopalong Cassidy surely wouldn't mind.