Saturday, March 20, 2010

Davy Crockett: Television's First Fad

The death of Fess Parker brings to mind the miniseries that made him a star. "Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter" debuted on Disneyland on December 15, 1954 . It was followed by "Davy Crockett Goes to Congress" on January 26. 1955 and "Davy Crockett at he Alamo" on February 23, 1955. The "Davy Crockett" episodes of Disneyland received extraordinarily high ratings for the time. Some 40 million viewers were estimated to have watched the "Davy Crockett" episodes of Disneyland. Indeed, the Nielsen ratings placed the number of viewers for the second instalment at over half of everyone watching television. Even with such success,what no one at the time, not even Walt Disney, realised, was that "Davy Crockett" would become television's first fad.

The genesis of the "Davy Crockett" miniseries on Disneyland is not particularly easy to trace. It might have started all the way back in 1939, when folklorist Richard Dorson, whose book Davy Crockett, An American Comic Legend, had recently been published, claims he approached Walt Disney about using his book as the basis for a feature film. It was at least as early as the mid-Forties that we know Disney had considered using Crockett as the basis of some type of film. A Walt Disney Productions story inventory report from 1947 included a rough outline for a Davy Crockett musical production, by famous Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton. In 1948 Walt Disney talked to Hedda Hopper about making some sort of film about Davy Crockett, although nothing apparently came of his plans--at least until Disneyland was scheduled to debut on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in the fall of 1954.

As originally conceived, Disneyland would air instalments based on the various sections of the soon to be opened theme park Disneyland: Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, and Tomorrowland. While the television series was in pre-production, Walt Disney encouraged the unit in charge of the Frontierland segments to develop stories based on American heroes. According to Disneyland producer Bill Walsh, the staff was unable to settle upon one hero. As a result, they simply chose a name of a hero at random. The name happened to be Davy Crockett. According to Walsh, Disney was originally a bit reticent about the "Davy Crockett" television project. His fear was that it would be "too much fighting Indians;" however, after the Frontierland unit created a treatment with storyboards, Disney gave the go ahead for the "Davy Crockett" miniseries.

For the role of Davy Crockett, Walt Disney initially considered James Arness, a young actor who had appeared in the movies The Thing (as the title creature), Big Jim McLain, and Island in the Sky. Disney went to see the movie Them, in which Arness was featured prominently, to appraise his performance. While watching the film, however, Disney's attention was drawn to another young actor, who played a nervous pilot in the film. Fess Parker then auditioned for Walt Disney, winning what would be the part of a lifetime by playing his guitar. As to James Arness, he would go onto fame as Matt Dillon on the TV series Gunsmoke.

While Disney had been initially reluctant regarding the "Davy Crockett" mini-series, once the project was underway he spared no expense. The majority of the mini-series was shot on location in Tennessee and North Carolina, in the end costing over $700,000. There was no means by which ABC could ever recoup this cost, as they had only paid $2 million for the entire first season of Disneyland.

Amazingly enough for so costly a production, Bill Walsh realised after shooting had ended that they had fallen short of the amount of footage needed for three sixty minute episodes. At first Walt Disney recommended they use the actual storyboards as an introduction for the episodes. When he looked over the storyboards, however, he thought they were a bit boring. It was then he suggested they find a song to accompany the storyboards. Bill Walsh called upon the writer Thomas W. Blackburn and composer George Bruns to write a theme song. The result was "The Ballad of Davy Crockett." Disney was impressed enough with the song that it was planned, even before the mini-series aired, to release it as a single. To this end, in August, Fess Parker,  George Bruns, and a group of musicians entered a recording studio to record "The Ballad of Davy Crockett."

As mentioned above, "Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter" aired on December 15, 1954. While it is difficult to determine precisely when the "Davy Crockett" craze began, it seems likely that it was even as that first episode of the mini-series aired. This would explain the dramatic increase in the number of viewers from the first instalment of the mini-series to the second. As stated above, the Nielsen ratings estimated that nearly half of all television viewers tuned into "Davy Crockett Goes to Congress" on January 26, 1955. By February Hedda Hopper was already addressing children's love for Davy Crockett in her column, before the final instalment, "Davy Crockett at the Alamo," even aired.

Indeed, if the "Davy Crockett" craze did not begin with "Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter" in December, it might well have taken shape in February, after the success of "Davy Crockett Goes to Congress." It was on February 26, 1955 Columbia Records released "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" sung by Bill Hayes (who had been a singer on Your Show of Shows). Fess Parker's version was released on March 12, 1955. Yet another version, this one by Tennessee Ernie Ford, was released on March 19, 1955. All three versions would reach the top ten of the Billboard singles chart. Bill Hayes' version went all the way to #1, where it remained from March 26 to April 23. Fess Parker's version topped out at #6. Tennessee Ernie Ford's version peaked at #5. It was around February 26, 1955 that Walt Disney announced the three Davy Crockett episodes had been edited into a feature film. Between Hedda Hopper's column, the success of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," and Disney's announcement of the feature film, it seems obvious that the fad must have already been underway in February and March of 1955.

Indeed, it would seem by March the Davy Crockett merchandising boom had begun. A display ad from the March 7, 1955 issue of The Chicago Tribune advertised "Davy Crockett Style: Suede Leather Jackets." By April there would be ads for coonskin caps, such as one in the April 28 issue of The Milwaukee Journal, which read: "Davy Crockett coonskin cap with real tail." By late spring, the Davy Crockett merchandising bonanza was well underway.

Even by today's standards, the amount of money spent on Davy Crockett merchandise in 1955 is staggering. Not only did Bill Hayes' version of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" spend an astounding thirteen weeks on the Billboard charts, but in all of its  versions the song sold over 10 million copies. Over ten million coonskin caps were sold. There were over 5.5 million books on Davy Crockett sold. As far as other merchandise, in the end over $100 million worth of Davy Crocket towels, pyjamas, toothbrushes, lunchboxes, costumes, and so on, were sold. Released on May 25, 1955, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, the feature film compiled from the three episodes of the mini-series, brought Davy Crockett to children who did not have television sets and only fueled the craze even more. Even though many had already seen the "Davy Crockett" episodes on television, the movie ultimately earned $2.5 million at the box office.

Walt Disney did not expect the demand for Davy Crockett merchandise at all. Worse yet, he had no legal means by which he could prevent simply anyone from producing such merchandise.  As Davy Crockett was a historical figure, he was technically in the public domain. This fact probably made the Davy Crockett merchandising boom even bigger than it might have otherwise been. This is not to say that Walt Disney did not make a good deal of money from Davy Crockett merchandise. Disney licensed goods under the heading "Walt Disney's Davy Crockett," the packaging often featuring a picture of Fess Parker as the frontiersman. Davy Crockett may have been in the public domain. Fess Parker was not.

Ultimately, the success of the "Davy Crockett" episodes of Disneyland would result in two more "Davy Crockett" episodes being made. It was around Mach 21, 1955 that Walt Disney announced the man in the coonskin cap would return to Disneyland. The two new episodes would team Davy Crockett up with another American legend, Mike Fink. "Davy Crockett's Keelboat Race" aired November 16, 1955. "Davy Crockett an the River Pirates" aired December 14, 1955. Unfortunately, by the time the new "Davy Crockett" episodes aired, the craze was nearly over. Regardless, these episodes would also be edited together as a feature film, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, released on July 18, 1956.

As mentioned above, the "Davy Crockett" craze appears to have begun in early 1955. It grew steadily during the next several months, until by May it was nearly unavoidable. Reaching its peak in the summer months of June, July, and August, it slowly declined as 1955 progressed. By November and December, when the final two "Davy Crockett" episodes aired, the fad was a mere shadow of itself. By January 1956, the fad was officially over. By March 7, 1956, a United Press article reported that toy manufacturers considered the Davy Crockett fad to be dead.

While the Davy Crockett fad ended, the "Davy Crockett" mini-series would have a lasting influence. This would immediately be felt upon the TV series Disneyland. Eager to repeat even some of the success of the "Davy Crockett" mini-series, Disneyland would regularly feature similar frontier, Western, and adventure mini-series through the rest of the Fifties into the Sixties, even as the series' title changed from Disneyland to Walt Disney Presents to Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour. Over the years there would be mini-series featuring Andy Burnett (hero of a series of novels by Stewart Edward White), historical figures such as Elfego Baca, John Slaughter, Daniel Boone (not to be confused with the Sixties TV series), and Francis Marion (AKA "the Swamp Fox"), as well as Dr. Syn (the hero of novels by Russell Thorndike). The TV series Zorro starring Guy Williams, produced by Disney, may have also been the result of the success of the "Davy Crockett" mini-series.

In 1956 TV Guide even asserted that the Davy Crockett craze may have been responsible for the adult Western cycle on television in the late Fifties, which was then only beginning. While the "Davy Crockett" mini-series did have a huge impact, to count it as responsible for the adult Western cycle of the Fifties may be overestimating that impact. The adult Western cycle began in 1955 when three such series debuted: Cheyenne, Gunsmoke, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. Even in the Fifties the amount of preparation for a filmed series could be considerable, so that Cheyenne and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp were probably already in the planning stages as "Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter" debuted. As to Gunsmoke, plans to bring the popular radio show to television were already underway even as Disneyland debuted. It would be the success of these three series, rather than the Davy Crockett craze, that would lead to the adult Western cycle which would last until 1960.

That having been said, the "Davy Crockett" mini-series would have some impact on the Western cycle of the Fifties. Some of the shows which debuted may have drawn upon the "Davy Crockett" mini-series for inspiration. Indeed, in 1956 a TV show debuted on ABC which featured as its protagonist one of Davy Crockett's fellow combatants at the Alamo: The Adventures of Jim Bowie. Centred on Bowie's adventures in Louisiana in the 1830s, the series featured several historical figures, including Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, and, of course, Davy Crockett. Another series that may have been inspired by the Davy Crockett craze was produced in Canada. Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans was based on a figure very similar to Davy Crockett, the fictional Natty Bumpo or "Hawkeye" who was the hero of James Fenimore's "Leatherstocking Tales." The series debuted in 1957 and aired in syndication in the United States.

The "Davy Crockett" mini-series was directly responsible for a frontier drama which debuted in 1964. It was in 1963 that the "Davy Crockett" mini-series was rerun on Disney's Wonderful World of Colour. It was while he was on tour with the musical Oklahoma that Fess Parker noticed an increase in the number of autograph seekers and found out that the mini-series had been rerun. Seeking to capitalise on the new found popularity of Davy Crockett, Parker approached producer Aaron Rosenberg about a new Davy Crockett series. The two sought permission from Disney to use the "Davy Crockett" name, but he refused. Realising that as a historical figure Davy Crockett was in the public domain, they sought to go ahead with the series anyhow. Unfortunately, neither Lloyds of London nor Fireman's Fund would insure them against lawsuits from Disney. It was then that they decided to base their new show around another historical frontiersman, Daniel Boone. Daniel Boone, starring Fess Parker in the title role, debuted in 1964 and ran for six years.

The Davy Crockett fad was an unprecedented event in the history of American television. Not even Walt Disney had expected the phenomenon. As to the underlying causes behind the craze, that is perhaps anyone's guess. It may have been the simple fact that in some ways there had been nothing quite like the "Davy Crockett" mini-series on television before. True, there were several juvenile Westerns on at the time, including The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Hopalong Cassidy, The Gene Autry Show, and The Roy Rogers Show; however, without exception these shows were produced on low budgets. The "Davy Crockett" mini-series was produced on a budget that was massive for television at the time, and it showed on the screen. Furthermore, the mini-series was created by veterans of feature films. Director Norman Foster's credits had included Think Fast, Mr. Moto and several Charlie Chan films. Cinematographer Charles Boyle and editor Charles Schaeffer also had considerable film credits. The "Davy Crockett" mini-series was no B production, but very much a first class affair all the way. This was probably not lost on the children of the early Fifties.

Another factor behind the Davy Crockett craze may have been the character of Davy Crockett in the mini-series itself. As portrayed in the mini-series, Davy Crockett is brave, strong, intelligent, adventurous, and even patriotic. He is a man with a sense of honour and a willingness to help others. At the same time, however, Davy has a sense of fun about him and a healthy defiance of authority. Essentially, Davy Crockett in the mini-series is a potent combination of father figure and perpetual adolescent. Children could look up to him and identify with him at the same time.

As to the sheer size and scope of the Davy Crockett fad, much of this may have been due to the fact that there were simply more children in the United States than at any point up to that time. The Baby Boom had begun in 1945, so that the oldest members of that generation were nine years old when the first "Davy Crockett" segment aired on Disneyland. The sheer number of Baby Boomers then made the Davy Crockett craze much larger than previous juvenile fads, to the point that it seemed to have permeated all of American pop culture at the time.

While it is difficult to explain why the Davy Crockett fad took place, it is not so difficult to explain why it ended. In the book Fads, Follies, and Delusions of the American People by Paul Sann, it is noted that often the more intensely a fad is adopted, the shorter its duration will be. The Davy Crockett craze took the country by storm in the early months of 1955 and had reached its peak by the middle of the year. The sheer intensity of the Davy Crockett fad then dictated that it would not last long. In simpler terms, it can be be said that children just grew tired of Davy Crockett and moved onto other things.

Regardless, while it lasted the Davy Crockett fad was huge. It is estimated that the craze accounted for $300 million in sales that year. Three different versions of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" made Billboard's top ten singles within weeks of each other. There were Davy Crockett books, colouring books, pyjamas, snow sleds, and many more items. And, of course, there were the ubiquitous coonskin caps. So huge was the Davy Crockett phenomenon was that it would remain unmatched in the history of television for many years. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. craze of 1965 would come close, but would ultimately fall short of the proportions of the Davy Crockett craze. In the end it would take a superhero to surpass the Davy Crockett craze in sheer intensity. In January 1966, over ten years after the Davy Crockett mini-series had first aired, Batmania swept the nation with the debut of Batman starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Curiously, the source of this new fad, this fad which would actually surpass the Davy Crockett craze in the annals of television, debuted on the very same network: the small and ever struggling ABC.

1 comment:

Millie said...

This was completely fascinating!

Great work on the research and the writing!