The Crockett Craze : It’s been 40 years since Fess Parker had us running around in coonskin caps. But the values his show inspired live on.
Tom Klein, a Bay Area businessman in his mid-40s, is the proud father of a 6-month-old son. At night, or whenever Jackson is “about to melt down,” Klein lullabies the baby to sleep by singing:
Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, Greenest state in the land of the free, Raised in the woods so he knew every tree Kilt him a b’ar when he was only 3. Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the wild frontier!
Why that particular song?
Because, says his wife, Kate, “it’s the only one he knows.”
Klein is not the only graying boomer with a long memory for Davy Crockett. His lingering affection for the near-mythical figure--who was born more than 200 years ago and died in 1836--is in fact a fairly mild case.
To baby boomers, Davy Crockett was far more than the coonskin-capped “king of the wild frontier.”
When Disney’s version of his life was first broadcast 40 years ago, it ignited a Crockett craze that helped solidify the then-new medium of television, touched off the greatest merchandising fad the world had ever seen and instilled in an impressionable generation a set of values that persist to this day.
Not to mention that confounded song.
“The Crockett craze had a deep impact on a lot of people,” says historian Paul Andrew Hutton of the University of New Mexico. “For kids in the 5-10 age group, it really did shape their lives, giving them an appreciation not only of history but of a kind of patriotism and self-sacrifice.”
Fess Parker catapulted to fame in the role of Crockett that summer. Today, a real-estate developer and winery owner in the Santa Barbara area, he maintains that “a lot of today’s leaders--people making business decisions, heading up our education system and so forth--had a lot of their values shaped by their early exposure to that show.”
Those who have made a study of the Crockett craze (yes, there are such people) attribute it to the unprecedented confluence of several threads: the dawn of television action programming, the impressionability of a large pool of subteens, the spending power of their parents and the inherent appeal of the character as viewed through Disney’s lens.
But did an entire generation in fact grow up with a subconscious voice--sounding uncannily like Fess Parker’s--urging them to always act morally and surely, to “be sure you’re right, then go ahead”? Could that simple motto have left as profound an impression on the postwar class as the collective guidance of parents, teachers and Dr. Spock?
Parker, now a soft-spoken 70-year-old, seems to think so.
“The folks who come to visit the winery tell me over and over how much that character shaped their lives,” he says. “I have to believe that the impact of those programs was due as much to the values inculcated in them as to their entertainment quality. The Crockett shows were unique in that; I’ve yet to see anything that suggests that youngsters took values from the Western shows that came along shortly thereafter, the ‘Gunsmokes’ and ‘Wyatt Earps.’ ”
Those familiar with Walt Disney’s political conservatism may be surprised to learn that at least one scholar believes the Crockett series was crucial in exposing youngsters to “liberal values.”
But it’s a Cold War liberalism to which historian Hutton refers. He argues that the Crockett shows “predisposed the baby boomers to sympathize with U.S. efforts to spread our values abroad, conditioning their response to John Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s clarion call to fight for freedom in a distant land.”
That analysis is echoed by Parker, who likes to talk about the young troops he met in Vietnam in the 1960s who told him that their conduct in battle--in dealing with fear, or in choosing not to shoot someone they had in their sights--had its roots in values they derived from his portrayal of Crockett.
But where Parker dodges a follow-up question about how his characterization might have influenced those ‘60s kids who chose not to fight in Southeast Asia, Hutton addresses it directly.
“Absolutely,” he says when asked whether there was something about Crockett that was internalized by those boomers who rejected the U.S. effort in Vietnam. “There was a great example of it in the ‘60s diary ‘The Strawberry Statement,’ when the author, a college student, is trying to understand where his resistance to the war came from. Then he realized it came from Disney’s Davy Crockett--the whole ‘Be sure you’re right, then go ahead’ thing.”
That was then, of course, and this is now--and Hutton acknowledges that Crockett, as an ongoing symbol of bedrock American virtues, appeals primarily to conservative elements in today’s society.
He died for “freedom,” most folks believe (on the basis of the fictionalized Disney version), in an effort to expand the nation’s boundaries. (The argument over whether the Alamo’s defenders died to create an independent Texas, or on behalf of a future state of the Union, is one that may never be settled. Either way, that episode hardly made Crockett a hero to those of Mexican heritage.)
Crockett--the historical figure, that is--was also stridently anti-government: His sworn enemy was Andrew Jackson, whom he came to view as a power-crazed dictator.
However, Hutton says, that doesn’t mean a suddenly revivified Davy would automatically line up behind Newt Gingrich. Crockett was strongly opposed to party discipline and solidarity, believing members of Congress should vote their conscience on every issue.
It’s well and good to speculate about the sociological impact of the Crockett craze from the comfortable remove of four decades. But was the character’s moral comportment sufficient to explain the frenzy of popularity he enjoyed among the very young?
Cynics might suggest that Crockettmania owed less to Davy’s virtues--modesty, courage, a sense of what’s right--than to the marketing blitz that fueled the fad. It was the prototype of all the fads to follow, from the Hula Hoop to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
By today’s standards, the merchandising of the Crockett craze was uncoordinated. Disney himself failed to anticipate the impact of the TV shows, and neglected for some time to register Davy as a trademark--certainly one of the most expensive mistakes this most practical visionary ever made.
And yet Davy managed to do business in the millions of dollars before the bubble burst.
“You could put Crockett’s name on anything you had, and people would buy it,” says Adam Starchild, a business writer collaborating on a coffee-table book about the craze and its associated merchandise. As many as 3,000 items were produced in 1955 to satisfy what appeared to be an insatiable demand for everything from T-shirts, coonskin caps, phonograph records and books to bath towels, guitars, vinyl swimming pools, bedspreads, wallets, furniture. . . .
Essential to the fad, and its longevity, was that maddeningly catchy “Ballad of Davy Crockett,” dashed off in less than an hour to fill out time on the TV programs.
It was perhaps the most-sung song of 1955, with recordings by Bill Hayes and Fess Parker leading a pack of 23 versions by, among others, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Steve Allen, Burl Ives, and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians.
And then there was “The Davy Crockett Mambo” by Irving Fields and various parodies, such as Lalo Guerrero’s “Pancho Lopez” (“Born in Chihuahua in 1903/on a serape out under a tree. . . .”) and Mickey Katz’s “Duvid Crockett” (“Born in the wilds of Delancey Street/home of gefilte fish and kosher meat . . .”). Those sold a healthy 200,000 copies apiece; the “Ballad” itself sold more than 10 million single copies, with the Hayes version alone accounting for 1.5 million.
When it came, the collapse of the craze was stunningly rapid. Across the nation, sales of Crockett merchandise dropped like a rock.
One New York store reduced its Davy-oriented counter space from 70 to 20 feet in the course of a week; another store, in Washington, D.C., reduced the price of Crockett T-shirts from $1.29 to 39 cents, and got no takers. The Arctic Fur Co. of Seattle, one of the largest producers of coonskin caps, was producing 5,000 caps a day in May; by August, sales had dropped to virtually zero.
In the 40 years since Crockett’s post-mortem rise and fall, the engineering and exploitation of fads among the young has become, if not a science, at least a replicable syndrome. And yet no Hula Hoop, no Nintendo game, no Power Ranger has adherents making claims about its persistent, long-term psychological impact on erstwhile toddlers.
Is there something unique about Davy after all? Could a Crockett craze recur in this more sophisticated era?
“It might,” hazards Hutton. “It would take a good film, coupled with a good book.” (Perhaps not coincidentally, Hutton, whose biography of Crockett will be published next year by the University of Oklahoma Press, has co-written a script about Davy with producer David Zucker, a dyed-in-the-wool buff given to hanging authentic portraits of Crockett in the background of scenes in his successful “Naked Gun” series.)
“But it wouldn’t be like the Disney craze, even if it happened again,” Hutton says. “The time for that kind of thing has passed. The world is too crowded with images today for any single one to have the kind of overwhelming power that Crockett’s did in 1955.”
A recurrence of the craze would be welcomed by Howard Bender, a New Jersey collector of Crockett ephemera who is working with Starchild on that coffee-table book. Bender is the kind of person who makes critical distinctions between different sets of Crockett bubble-gum cards. (Topps’ orange set, he says, came first and is relatively common, whereas the green set, issued in late 1956 as the craze faded, was produced in smaller quantities.)
Another entrepreneur who would find a new Crockett fad timely is Allen Schwartz, director of licensing for children’s clothing giant Andover Togs, which is licensing the Crockett name to manufacturers of kiddies’ T-shirts and top-and-bottom sets.
Walt Disney Productions, however, is not beating the drums for the 40th anniversary of Crockettmania. Staffers in the television publicity office were unaware of the anniversary. (A chunk of Crockett footage did figure in ABC’s recent 40-year retrospective of the “Disneyland” program.)
“I really do believe that the company may not understand the depth of interest and affection for Crockett that’s out there,” says Parker. “I hope that they do, because I see it everywhere.”