Events and People

DeWolf Hopper: Sesquicentennial Actor and the Voice of “Casey at the Bat”

In an attempt to draw large crowds to the Sesquicentennial, organizers of the event allocated funds for a pageant entitled “Freedom” to be held at the Stadium near the intersection of Broad Street and Pattison Avenue. Although the pageant was to open on July 3, 1926 and be performed on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings until October 2, heavy rains caused the cancellation of many performances and the decision was made to hold the final staging of the pageant on Saturday, September 11.[1]

While “Freedom” would not be the financial success hoped for by the Sesquicentennial administrators, it did provide viewers with an opportunity to see a major actor of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. R.H. Burnside, a producer from New York formerly in charge of the New York Hippodrome, was contracted by Sesquicentennial officials to stage the pageant. Immediately upon accepting the contract in the spring of 1926, he began gathering together a cast of 1500 participants from a variety of theatrical companies.[2] One of those actors was DeWolf Hopper, a well-known performer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who was given the role of William Penn in the production and also appeared in several scenes depicting ancient Rome.[3]

Born on March 30, 1858 in New York City, DeWolf Hopper pursued a career in theater and became known for his comic timing and loud bass singing voice, two traits that led to many musical theater roles. He performed in dozens of Broadway musicals including Lorraine in 1887, H.M.S. Pinafore in 1911, The Mikado in 1912, Erminie in 1921, and White Lilacs in 1928.[4] By the time he appeared at the Sesquicentennial, Hopper had a reputation as a comic musical actor, a baseball fanatic, and a man with five divorces who would marry his sixth wife that year.

Early in his career, Hopper became well-known for his recitation of the famous baseball poem “Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Lawrence Thayer. First published in The San Francisco Examiner on June 3, 1888, the poem tells the story of the hero of Mudville and his crucial time at bat. On August 14, 1888, DeWolf Hopper would bring wide-spread attention to the poem when he recited it at the Warrick Theater in New York in front of an audience that included baseball players from the New York Giants and Chicago White Stockings teams.[5] The crowd reacted enthusiastically to both the poem and the recitation, and DeWolf Hopper became for many people the unofficial voice of “Casey at the Bat.”

Hopper estimated that he recited the poem over 10,000 times at various events. The advent of radio allowed Hopper’s recitation to reach even greater audiences, who had apparently not tired of the poem. The New York Times on May 18, 1926 advertises an hour long radio special with DeWolf Hopper during which he would talk about his musical career, sing songs from various musicals, and “delight with one of his inimitable curtain speeches and ‘Casey at the Bat.’”[6] In 1922, a film recording using an early sound-on-film process was made showing Hopper standing and reciting the poem.

The documentation on the Sesquicentennial does not give further details regarding Hopper’s involvement in the “Freedom” pageant, perhaps because of the many performances canceled due to the weather. After his appearance in “Freedom” in 1926, Hopper acted on Broadway in White Lilacs in 1928 and The Monster in 1933. He died on September 23, 1935 at age 77.

[1] Austin, E.L. and Odell Hauser, Editors. The Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition: A Record Based on Official Data and Departmental Reports. Philadelphia: Current Publications, Inc., 1929, p. 240-244.

[2] Ibid., p. 241-243.

[3] The New York Times, “Theatrical Notes.” June 15, 1926.

[4] “DeWolf Hopper.” Internet Broadway Database.

[5] Okrent, Daniel and Steve Wulf. Baseball Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, US, 1989, p. 23-24.

[6] The New York Times. “DeWolf Hopper- Himself Tonight.” May 18, 1926.