For anyone under 60, the cultural impact known as the Davy Crockett craze of the 1950’s is hard to imagine–and may seem like a romanticized memory that adults keep alive for its representation of childhood innocence–but it really is more than that. If you’ve ever been to Disneyland or Disneyworld, it’s hard to escape the impact of Davy Crockett all over the place (toys, hats, keel boats, etc.) and it’s easy to forget that the craze that became the stuff of pop culture legend was actually ground breaking in several ways.
On December 15, 1954 (a day which will live in coonskin infamy), Disney, who had just entered into the untested waters of television, showcased Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter, the first of three episodes that were to tell the life story, more or less, of the famous frontiersman.
Two things happened after this episode aired: First, based on the sheer overwhelming desire by children to emulate Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett, a rapid merchandising campaign went into production and, within weeks, Davy Crockett’s likeness was plastered on everything from pocket knives to underwear.
Second, although it was only realized after the fact, Disney had created something that no one that ever seen on television before–something that would later be termed the mini-series.
For the next few months, ratings history was made time and again as millions tuned in to watch Davy Crockett Goes To Congress and Davy Crockett At The Alamo (NOTE: not really a spoiler alert–it’s the Alamo, everyone dies!) and Disney made millions of dollars in the sale of fake coonskin caps, comic books, toy guns, trading cards, you name it. Go on Ebay today and you can get an idea of the crazy number of items that were put out just to simply have the name Davy Crockett emblazoned across it.
You may wonder, though, why was it such a phenomenon?
Well, because Disney inadvertently, in an attempt to entertain both parents and children, had created television’s first adult western. (The term ‘adult western’ may suggest for some of you adventures like Davy Crockett Goes To Vegas or Davy Crockett, Sorority Girl Wrestler, but it really means something else, you pervs).
Coming off of radio and movie serials, westerns had already started becoming cliché, cookie cutter. But when people tuned in to watch Davy Crockett fight in the Creek Indian War and rally against former ally President Jackson, they got more than they’d expected. They saw a character who had a good heart and believed in a sense of honor, very black and white values that many lead characters possess for the sake of the children in their audience.
Davy Crockett was also vulnerable: the death of his wife is shown as an overwhelming sorrow, depicted by the slumped shoulders and vacant stares of a man we already saw as 7-feet tall. Fess Parker’s Crockett was also a man that stuck to his ideals and, as a politician, fought for the very things he told his voters he would. On his first day in Congress, Crockett delivered the following speech:
I’m Davy Crockett, fresh from the backwoods. I’m half horse, half alligator, and a little tached with snappin’ turtle. I got the fastest horse, the prettiest sister, the surest rifle, and the ugliest dog in Tennessee. My father can lick any man in Kentucky, and I can lick my father. I can hug a bear too close for comfort, and eat any man alive opposed to Andy Jackson. Now, some Congressmen take a lot of pride in sayin’ a lot about nothin’, like I’m doin’ right now…. Others don’t do nothin’ for their pay but just listen day in and day out. I wish I may be shot if I don’t do more than listen.
The crazier part of this mini-series is that, instead of ending it on a high note of Crockett telling President Andrew Jackson to go to hell and leaving the remainder of his life as a post-script before the credits, Disney went ahead and ended it’s trilogy with something that could never be sugar coated: Crockett’s death.
Normally, television audiences would’ve seen the introduction of some fictional character (ex: an orphan boy), one who, in the end, is someone that gives the story a high note, a happy ending (in the case of the orphan boy, say he would don Davy’s cap and set out to continue the legend or something like that). Instead, viewers witnessed the hopelessness of the men in the Alamo, the death of Crockett’s best friend, Georgie Russell (played by Buddy Ebsen, who even then looked like he was 70), someone whom they’d followed through all 3 episodes.
Assuming many viewers were unaware of history, the fall of the Alamo and the death of their beloved icon must have been a shock to their system. Granted, Crockett is last seen, out of ammo and alone, swinging his rifle as a last defense against the overwhelming odds that swarm him, so we never actually see him die, but that their character was killed off was not up for debate by viewers. Disney had bookended his stories, instead of giving in and making something that could be expanded on at a later date.
For many kids, this may have been their first experience with the death of someone they felt they knew, someone whom they’d wanted to be, the awareness that no person is infallible or immortal, that fighting battles isn’t always just the bad guys dying and the good guys getting a scratch or two.
It’s not a surprise that the Crockett craze began to rapidly wane after this third installment. It was fun while he was alive, but now it was time to move on, the hero was gone. The three episodes were spliced together and made into a feature and were followed by two more episodes (tales of Crockett fun between Indian fighting and going to Congress), but the mystique was gone–as represented in the sales of Crockett merch.
I encourage everyone to watch these episodes on DVD. Try to place yourself in the mindset you had when you saw your first Star Wars film or watched Indiana Jones for the very first time, try to remember the awe you felt and the inevitable moments when you imagined yourself in the roles (admit it, you still do it). Take that feeling and hold onto it while watching Crockett’s Disney-ized tales and maybe you’ll understand the craze that took place in 1955 and maybe, just maybe, you will look on Ebay for a $5 coonskin cap to wear.