William DeWolf Hopper was born March 30th, 1858, just off the Bowery on Third Street in New York, son of John T. Hopper and Rosalie DeWolff. His father, a successful lawyer who came from Philadelphia Quaker stock, died when DeWolf was six years old and left, in his son’s own words, “an estate sufficient for my mother’s comfort and to provide me at twenty-one with a legacy, which the stage took away from me.” Shortly after his birth, the family moved uptown to Forty-Third Street, between Sixth Avenue and Broadway, which he described as, at the time, being equivalent to moving to Yonkers.
His early life and the origin of his stage name come, in his own words, from “Reminiscences of DeWolf Hopper: Once a Clown Always a Clown”:
The only child of an idolizing mother and widow, I grew up a spoiled brat. I repaid my mother’s idolatry with idolatry; but as her love demanded no sacrifice whatever, I became a selfish young pup intent exclusively on making the world my oyster. I was Willie in my childhood, and in later years I have been Will or Wolfie to my friends. DeWolf, my stage name, was born of the vanity of youth. I despised the Quaker plainness of Hopper, and William had a plebeian sound to my fastidious ears, but I thought D’Wolf, my middle name, distingué. In later years I have regretted that affectation, but it no doubt was, unconsciously, a shrewd move. The actor, like soap and hair nets, finds a distinctive trade name useful. The public remembers an unusual name more easily, so long as it is pronounceable. The D’Wolf became DeWolf through a proneness on the part of the public to pronounce it “Dwolf.”
Though it was expected that he would follow his father’s profession of the law, he showed no interest, preferring the life of an actor from an early age. After some success as an amateur actor, he persuaded his mother to advance funds from his inheritance, as he was not yet of age, needed to finance the Criterion Comedy Company. This venture, and the succeeding Gosche-Hopper Company, lasted four years, long enough for him to tour the country playing a variety of roles, and was the reason for the above quote about the stage taking away his father’s legacy to him, as the end of this adventure found his inheritance completely gone.
Regarding the end of his four year adventure, and the beginning of the next phase of his professional career, Hopper had this to say, from his autobiography:
I was back on Broadway at twenty-three, my patrimony gone. There still was ample time for a glorious career at law, which should have by this time, let us hope, made me Mr. Justice Hopper. My friends and relatives pointed out the follies of my ways, even mapped them with the care of a topographical engineer. Had I been in a mood to listen, which I was not, of course, my empty pockets would have spoken forcefully enough without any supporting arguments. A young man may have some doubts of his fitness for running a restaurant, for example, after four losing years and bankruptcy, but no succession of disasters in the theater has yet given one actor or actress pause for thought. And if one is to lose a fortune, there is no better age than twenty-three.
The next season found Hopper appearing in Harrigan and Hart’s “The Blackbird” which may have been his first musical role. An untrained singer at the time, his mother urged him to sing for her friend, the contralto Annie Louise Cary, who encouraged his vocal studies. For a time, he considered a career in opera, but his joy at amusing audiences won out and a career, largely in musicals and operetta, dominated his stage career.
DeWolf Hopper was a striking figure, standing six feet, five inches tall, with a rumbling, deep voice, and not a hair on his body. He had typhoid fever as a young boy, and as a result suffered from alopecia. He wore wigs or hairpieces for the rest of his life, both onstage and off. This lack of hair was no impediment when it came to wooing the ladies, however, and he was married six times, prompting references to “The Six Wives of DeWolf Hopper.”
Like several other founding members of Actors’ Equity, he was a huge fan of the game of baseball, and was described thus by his friend and fellow AEA founder, Digby Bell: Bell called Hopper “the biggest baseball crank that ever lived. Physically, of course, he is a corker, but when I say big I mean big morally and intellectually. Why, he goes up to the baseball [Polo] grounds at One Hundred and Fifty-fifth [sic] street after the matinees on Saturday, and he travels this six miles simply to see, perhaps, the two final innings, and any one [sic] can imagine the rapidity with which he must scrape off the makeup and get into his street clothes in order to secure even this much. But he says the Garrison finishes are worth it, and he is perfectly right. Hopper always was a baseball crank, long before the public knew anything about it.”
Hopper was the founding president of the Actors’ Amateur Athletic Association in 1889, and organized several benefit baseball games to aid others in his profession. However, his most noted contribution was as the man single-handedly responsible for making the poem “Casey at the Bat” a part of the American popular culture. The poem, written by Ernest Thayer, was first published anonymously in the San Francisco Examiner on June 3rd, 1888. Hopper first recited the poem in public on August 14th, 1888 and the circumstances behind it are worth recounting. Here is how the story was told in Hopper’s New York Times obituary from September 24th, 1935:
At the time, Pop Anson’s Chicago White Sox were playing the New York Giants, then managed by Jim Mutrie, at the old Polo Grounds, Fifth Avenue and 100th Street. Hopper had been a baseball fan for years, had spent every free afternoon at the game and had with Digby Bell put on an annual Sunday night benefit for the local team.
Bell and Hopper suggested to Colonel McCaull of the opera company bearing his name that a gala baseball night, with the Giants and the White Sox figuratively glaring at one another from opposite rows of boxes, would be especially apt. The idea was accepted. Then Archibald Clavering Gunter, author of several successes of the Eighties, saw an announcement and called up the colonel.
“I’ve got just the thing for your baseball night,” Gunter said. “It’s a baseball poem I cut out of a Frisco paper when I was on the coast last Winter. I’ve been carrying it around ever since. It’s a lulu, and young Hopper could do it to a turn.”
Learned Under Pressure
Gunter produced the clipping, McCaull slapped his knee when he saw it, and on a Wednesday night the colonel turned it over to Hopper. The actor knew he was a “quick study,” so he put the crumpled poem in his pocket and forgot about it. The next day he went to the ball game and that night learned that his 20-month-old son had diphtheritic sore throat and was nearing a crisis.
He told McCaull he could not go on.
“Surely, surely,” sympathized his employer. “Forget all about it, my boy.”
When the news from the sickroom came it was good, and Hopper burst into McCaull’s office.
“I’ll study it now,” he said. “Just give me the office to myself a while.” McCaull left and in less than an hour the excited young father had engraved the tragedy of Casey on his mind.
Wallack’s Theatre, Thirtieth Street and Broadway, was the scene of the benefit. Hopper roared through the suspense of the first stanzas, built up to a stunning climax where Casey swings the bat—and then plunged the wide-eyed throng into salvos of applause with the swish of the third strike.
The demand for his recitation of the verses, which were written by Ernest L. Thayer, never waned. Years later, Hopper said he had probably repeated the piece 10,000 times and that he expected to be “repeating the lines on resurrection morn.”
At the risk of dwelling too long on the “Casey at the Bat” portion of DeWolf Hopper’s fame, this priceless description of his, from the same New York Times article, begs inclusion as a good example of Hopper’s wonderful wit:
And he always told of the time Thayer, the writer, was persuaded into trying to declaim his work himself. As he wrote in his reminiscences:
“I have heard many another give ‘Casey.’ Fond mammas have brought their young sons to me to hear their childish voices lisp the poem, but Thayer’s was the worst of all. In a sweet, dulcet Harvard whisper he implored Casey to murder the umpire, and gave this cry of mass animal rage all the emphasis of a caterpillar wearing rubbers crawling on a velvet carpet.”
To hear DeWolf Hopper perform “Casey at the Bat” go to this page: http://www.baseball-almanac.com/poetry/po_case.shtml
From the 1880s through the first decade of the 20th Century, Hopper performed steadily in a succession of comic musical roles. It was not until 1911 that he performed in his first Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, playing Dick Deadeye in a revival of “HMS Pinafore.” He would go on to perform in all save three of the Savoy operas, and more will be written about his participation in a separate article on this blog about the connection between the works of Gilbert & Sullivan and several of the founding AEA members.
Like many of his fellow actors at the time, Hopper tried his hand in motion pictures when the industry was still in its infancy. Some actors found success, some had mixed experiences, and some never took to it at all. In his autobiography, Hopper summed up his film career in the opening paragraph of Chapter V, entitled “Came Dawn at Hollywood”:
Before any one else can say it first, let me admit that I was no earth-shaking success in the movies. If the truth must be known, I died on the silver screen; I sank majestically beneath the oily waves of the cinema sea and never was heard of again. Not so much as a life belt or a spar was picked up. The fact that a gallant company of stage celebrities perished with me made my demise less poignant personally, but not the less indisputable.
In terms of his family life, reference was made earlier to the “Six Wives of DeWolf Hopper.” His first wife was Ella Gardiner, who was his second cousin. They were divorced and he then married Ida Mosher, a member of the company in which he played the lead. They had one son, John A. Hopper, who became a successful bank executive. His third wife was Edna Wallace, another actress, who appeared with him in many shows. His fourth wife was Nella Reardon Bergen, a choir singer. A month after they were divorced in 1913, he married actress Elda Curry.
Because of the similarity of his first five wives’ names—Ella, Ida, Nella, Elda—Hopper would on occasion call Elda by the wrong name, a source of great irritation to her. The story is that she consulted a numerologist, who suggested she change her name—to Hedda. Despite appearing in over 120 films over a twenty-five year period, Hedda Hopper was never a great success as an actress, but gained fame and notoriety as a Hollywood gossip columnist, famous for her extravagant hats and a biting, sometimes mean-spirited treatment of Hollywood’s denizens. She and DeWolf Hopper had one son, William DeWolf Hopper, Jr., who also became an actor, with a film and television résumé most noted for his portrayal of detective Paul Drake on the Perry Mason television series.
His last wife was a singer, Lillian Glaser, who he married in 1925, and to whom he remained married at the time of his death.
As noted above, DeWolf Hopper published his autobiography, “Reminiscences of DeWolf Hopper: Once a Clown Always a Clown” in 1925, and was still performing at the age of 65. Indeed, on the occasion of his 75th birthday in 1933, the New York Times interviewed him at the Lambs Club and found him sprightly as ever:
“But I don’t feel old. That’s the funny thing about it,” he said in his familiar, resonant voice. “I have the temperament of a kid. My bones have not grown brittle. As Ko-Ko in ‘The Mikado’ I can take the stage falls as easily as I ever did and it is really extraordinary how my voice has lasted.”
He went on to add:
“It’s the loss of your pals that leaves a hole in your life and makes you realize that you are getting old.”
Among his old stage friends who have passed on, he mentioned Digby Bell, Joseph Jefferson, Nat Goodwin, Jefferson De Angelis, William H. Crane and John Drew, also Georgie Drew Barrymore and Maurice Barrymore, parents of Lionel, John and Ethel Barrymore.
Back in 1915 Mr. Hopper was playing in pictures, but he dislikes films for playing purposes. He was enthusiastic, however, about his recent experiences in broadcasting.
“With the radio one must remember that nothing is seen and everything is vocal,” he said. “It was a novelty to me at first. I like radio work and it is fascinating to realize one has such a vast audience, in the millions. Still, nothing ever will take the place of a sympathetic audience at a stage performance.”
Two years later, in Kansas City, Missouri, DeWolf Hopper was narrating a series of concerts by the Kansas City Rhythm Symphony on the radio, when it became obvious to those around him he was not well. Still, he insisted on going through with the broadcast, and in the words of the show’s announcer, Newton Cross:
“He took the microphone with not a blur or quaver,” Mr. Cross related. “He went through the program like a red-ball freight. He was at his best.”
A few hours after the broadcast, a doctor was summoned to his hotel, and immediately ordered him to the hospital. At 11 o’clock that night, though doctors insisted he needed to rest and get some sleep, he sat up in bed, smoking his pipe and looking over the sports pages of a newspaper. Ironically, his last words were about baseball:
“See you tomorrow, Doc,” he said. “I never sleep until 3 A.M. anyway. Run along while I see what the Cards (the St. Louis National League team) did.”
Shortly after dawn a nurse noticed he was having trouble drawing his breath. An intern was summoned, but when he arrived, DeWolf Hopper was dead.
A funeral service was held in New York’s Church of the Transfiguration, known to actors and to the outside world as the Little Church Around the Corner. A list of honorary pallbearers, representing every branch of the theatrical profession, was announced, and reads as a veritable “Who’s Who” of the New York theatrical world of the time. His body was cremated, and his ashes are interred near his parents at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
Born: 30 March, 1858 New York, New York
Married: 1st: Ella Gardiner
Married 2nd: Ida Mosher
Married 3rd: Edna Wallace
Married 4th: Nella Bergen née Reardon
Married 5th: Elda Curry, aka Hedda Hopper
Married 6th: Lillian Glaser
Children: John Alan Hopper (1886-1951) (mother: Ida Mosher); William DeWolf Hopper, Jr. (1915-1970) (mother: Elda Curry, aka Hedda Hopper)
Died: 23 September, 1935, Kansas City, Missouri
Burial: Cremated, ashes interred at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, Kings County, New York, USA, Plot: Section 31, Lot 5805
Member of The Players, The Lambs