- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
While numerous historians have portrayed Davy Crockett as a brave folk figure, many others have blasted him as being a self-serving con artist.
When Crockett claimed to have killed 105 grizzly bears in a span of nine months, some later cynics argued that the uneducated pioneer simply couldn’t have counted that high.
In the mid-1950s, though, baby boomer kids embraced only the positive Crockett image.
This was thanks to Fess Parker, a 29-year-old Navy veteran from Texas who stood tall (6 feet, 5 inches), was ruggedly handsome, and exuded a quiet on-screen confidence during ABC-TV’s Disneyland trilogy about the fabled frontiersman.
As Walt Disney’s debut foray into television, each episode of Davy Crockett was shown one month apart, from December 1954 until February 1955. It became arguably television’s first miniseries.
The shows hit an unexpected ratings home run when they attracted 40 million viewers. Parker’s Crockett — hailed as “the King of the Wild Frontier” — captivated America like nothing before.
People loved the catchy theme song. Suddenly nearly two dozen versions of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” were fighting for radio airplay; Bill Hayes’s rendition on Cadence Records beat the competition when it streaked up the Billboard charts and locked in the No. 1 spot for five weeks.
Few knew that Disney had commissioned the tune — which took less than an hour to write — only when the three Crockett shows had run a few minutes short of time before being shown.
Hayes’s success was only the beginning. In a feeding frenzy of epic proportions, manufacturers rushed a multitude of Crockett products onto the market — much to the chagrin and frustration of the Disney organization. (Since Davy was a historical figure and in the public domain, it was impossible to copyright his name.) Anybody could — and did — put a load of Crockett stuff on the market.
Kids rushed to buy “official” Davy Crockett regalia (buckskin jackets, leggings, moccasins) as well as 3,000 other items that included (deep breath here): lunchboxes, guitars, wristwatches, coloring books, trading cards, bedspreads, pajamas, bath towels, underwear, jigsaw puzzles, bubble gum, t-shirts — and 14 million hastily printed books.
Essential to any self-respecting young fan was the coveted coonskin cap, a faux fur creation that included a luxuriant raccoon snap-on tail that dangled from the back.
The caps sold at a rate of 5,000 a day, more than 1 million altogether. Girls as well as boys could show their devotion when they donned Polly Crockett caps of all-white faux fur.
Then, without warning and after sales of $300 million — $100 million from the caps alone — the Davy Crockett fad died. Overnight, it seemed, phones stopped ringing and orders stopped flowing in.
After seven frenetic months, it was over. Davy Crockett had become uncool, and merchants everywhere groaned.
The craze cannot simply be dismissed as a frivolous fad, though. It had become an unprecedented event in the early television age, an example of the power of a TV-product tie-in.
For the first time, baby boomers had — unknowingly — flexed their collective commercial muscles.
Although Randal C. Hill’s heart lives in the past, the rest of him resides in Bandon, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.