Walt Disney was unaware how his 3-part mini-series about the life and times of Davy Crockett would become a national sensation. Merchandise was rushed into manufacturing to capitalize on the craze: everything from pocketknives and pencil boxes to comic books and, of course, coonskin caps. This latter item being the most lucrative, the most desired and, by far, the most remembered. That and its infectious theme song that is still so easily recognizable, even today.
Every little boy and girl in America wanted to be Davy Crockett, wanted to fight the Indians, wanted to ignore history and beat General Santa Anna at the battle of the Alamo.
Oh, and fight bears.
Real bears, not those burly guys in the Castro district.
The Davy Crockett craze was the result of a combination of timing, charm and pure luck.
After the craze died down, ABC, who broadcast Walt Disney Presents, wanted to compete with the other networks that were generating a ton of revenue via westerns. ABC put pressure on Walt Disney to produce more westerns, indirectly saying, “Hey, you know that lightening you caught in a bottle with Davy Crockett? Yeah, do that a few more times. Thanks, buddy.”
Granted, Walt Disney was producing Zorro, a half-hour series that did quite well and spawned its own share of merchandise. While Zorro was popular, it wasn’t quite Davy Crockett, which I take to mean ‘it wasn’t western enough’. So, Walt Disney began producing other mini-series’ that ABC hoped would transfix the nation.
None of them really did.
The Swamp Fox – From 1959 to 1961, The Swamp Fox told the tales of Francis Marion, a real life hero of the American Revolution. Leslie Nielsen (yup, Leslie “And don’t call me Shirley” Nielsen) played Swamp Fox in the 8 episodes that were full of camaraderie, distorted history and bloodless battles.
Swamp Fox also wore a foxtail on his tri-cornered hat.
So, why no Swamp Fox craze? Why no kids falling asleep still wearing their foxtailed hat?
It’s hard to say. The episodes themselves are interesting enough, not boring, not great. Leslie Nielsen is competent as the non-charismatic Marion, but didn’t have the audience connection that Fess Parker had as Davy Crockett.
Also, the theme song wasn’t as catchy:
I’m going to go out on a limb here, but when trying to endear a character to the same audience that embraced Davy Crockett, a character who was last seen fighting to his death at the Alamo, maybe not make one of your character’s leading attributes: ‘Hiding in the glen’ or ‘He’ll ride away to fight again’. It makes it hard for kids to act out the adventures when the main character is constantly running off.
Texas John Slaughter – From 1958 to 1961, seventeen episodes were produced around the life and times of historical figure John Slaughter, Texas Ranger. Tom Tryon played the main character as a law abiding Texas Ranger who believed that sometimes a gun was necessary. In fact, a line from the theme song was “…Texas John Slaughter made ’em do what they oughta, and if they didn’t, they died” Cooooool!
Tryon wore an oversized white hat as his defining dressing piece, was tall, handsome and believable.
Still, no oversized white hats ended up lining the toy shelves of America’s department stores.
The few episodes I have found were entertaining and adventurous, full of crooked ranchers and gangs of murderous crooks, so I’m not sure why this didn’t have the Crockett following. Maybe it was simply missing what Fess Parker’s Crockett was soaked in: luck and good timing.
The Saga of Andy Burnett – Six episodes aired between 1957 and 1958 that featured the adventures of fictional Andy Burnett, a young pioneer who, well, let’s let Fess Parker tell it:
“Well kids, the story started a long time ago. Andy Burnett was a frontier boy from Kentucky who inherited Daniel Boone’s rifle. As he grew up, he moved west across the country. In a way, the story of Andy growing up is the story of America growing too” — Fess Parker to Mouseketeers
An endorsement from Davy Crockett himself! Surely, Andy Burnett was next in line to accept the mantle of pop culture icon.
Jerome Cortland played Andy Burnett.
I have yet to find a single episode of this show, except listed on ebay as someone’s VHS copy. I have absolutely no idea whether Cortland was fun to watch or whether Andy Burnett was a show that made me want to tune into the next episode.
What I do know is this: no Andy Burnett craze.
Daniel Boone – This one surprised me. I knew Fess Parker spent the 1960’s playing American legend Daniel Boone on a weekly television show, but I had no idea that Walt Disney ever produced aDaniel Boone mini-series.
Apparently, they did. Apparently, not many people cared.
From 1960 to 1961, four episodes were produced that featured actor Dewey Martin in the lead role. Again, the only episodes I can find anywhere are available only on VHS.
If there is anyone who remembers this show and knows how to use a computer, please let me know about this show.
Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh – This three part mini-series from 1963 was based on a series of books. Dr. Syn, played by Patrick McGoohan, leads a gang of smugglers who assist coastal farming communities in thwarting the heavy taxation by King George.
A sort of Zorro-type figure, this priest by day, smuggler dressed as a scarecrow by night character did not become a craze. And I can think of one reason….oh, what is it…Oh, that’s right: It was creepy!
Ray Bolger had a hard enough time making a scarecrow not look like it was going to haunt your dreams, but this one is borderline sadistic-looking.
With the exception of some color, it isn’t too far removed from Scarecrow in Batman Begins. If you can remember how not a lot of kids were running around in Cillian Murphy-inspired scarecrow masks, then it’s easy to understand why this was not a sensation with kids.
The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca – Ten episodes were produced between 1958 and 1960 that told the stories of this famous gunman, lawman, lawyer and politician. Robert Loggia played the title role and, while rejecting many of the Mexican stereotypes of the day, did so with a likability and charm that made the character human, but whose deeds and moral compass made him a hero.
The first episode, using as much historical information as it could, tells of the legendary shootout between Elfego Baca and over forty ranch hands. In retaliation against Baca’s arresting of a drunken cowboy, the group of forty plus sent over 4000 rounds into the adobe building where Baca took cover.
After 33 hours, four cowboys were dead, eight others were wounded and Elfego Baca emerged unscathed.
Escaping death left and right, not backing down from confronting any injustice he saw, Loggia’s Elfego Baca was a wonderfully heroic character and one that should definitely have become the next Davy Crockett.
And, yet, for whatever reason, it wasn’t meant to be.
The reason so many sequels are produced, the reason television off-shoots premiere, the reason the term ‘reboot’ is so common is that whenever there is something that unexpectedly grabs the public consciousness and takes on a life of its own (whenever that lightning is caught in that bottle), there will always be someone who believes they can market or repackage that same idea…and these same people always seem surprised when it doesn’t work out how they’d hoped.
Does that stop them from continuing to try?
Oh, God no!
That would require learning a lesson.