As part of my ongoing, sporadic look at pop culture fads of the past, I explored the Davy Crockett craze. It wasn’t the first pop culture fad, but it was the first that was generated by TV.
It began with a three-part serial on ABC as part of Disney’s show Disneyland in 1954. The episodes were filmed in color but appeared in black-and-white on TV because ABC didn’t broadcast in color at that time. They were part of a joint project with the opening of Disneyland, to promote the Frontierland section of the park.
When the first three episodes gained so much popularity, Disney wanted to make more. The problem was that their hero had died at the end of episode three. Not to worry. They made two more episodes in 1955—prequels—that explored the legend of Davy Crockett. Unlike the stories in the first three shows, these were almost entirely fiction. I can better understand how they could appeal to kids. There was more rollicking adventure and fewer morality lectures. Crockett is teamed with Mike Fink, another frontier legend, to track down some bad guys and kill them, but there’s no blood and no real danger. By the time these episodes were televised in late 1955, the craze was almost over.
The first three episodes—Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter; Davy Crockett Goes to Congress; and Davy Crockett at the Alamo—were stitched together and shown in theaters as the color movie Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier in 1955.
The fourth and fifth episodes—Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates—were combined into the color movie Davy Crockett and the River Pirates in 1956.
I watched the two films in January. Sixty-three years later, with all the “sophisticated” options available now, it’s difficult for me to understand the show’s popularity. The leads, Fess Parker as Crockett and Buddy Ebsen as his (fictional) sidekick George Russel, always look like they’re viewing the events around them with cynical detachment. There is zero character development. The fight sequences were wooden and unconvincing. The battle of the Alamo apparently featured 15 Texans against 35 Mexicans.
Occasional footage, particularly that of animals—was obviously spliced in from other movies. Sometimes the setting changed back and forth from, for example, the river where Crockett was wading and the river where an alligator was swimming. In one scene, a gator swims up behind Crockett and apparently nips his behind. Crockett turns and smashes his rifle butt into the water. We get another angle of a gator thrashing in the water, but it’s alone. There’s no Crockett to be seen. Then, suddenly, we’re back to Davy smashing his rifle butt into the water.
There are estimates that more half the people around the United States who were watching TV when the second episode aired were watching ABC. The craze caught Disney by surprise, but it didn’t take them long to flood the market with coonskin caps, trading cards, lunchboxes, and hundreds of other items. Disney failed to trademark Davy Crockett, which allowed anyone to put the Crockett name on anything. It’s estimated that as many as 4,000 different items were sold with some connection to Davy Crockett, including coffee, furniture, and women’s underwear.
Just before the original episodes aired, it was discovered that there wasn’t enough footage to fill the allotted time. A song was written quickly to fill the gaps and help tell the story. Twenty-three versions of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” came out in 1954. All together, they sold over 10 million copies. Three of them— Bill Hayes, Fess Parker, Tennessee Ernie Ford—all released within a three-week window in early 1955—were on the top 10 chart at the same time.
Several parodies of the song came out quickly. And then there was this—”Davy Crockett Mambo“.
One theory about the cause of the fad is simply the timing. Because of the Baby Boom (the oldest members of that generation were nine in 1955), there were more children around than ever before. That, coupled with the growth of TV and the high-for-the-time production values of the show, caused the craze. I was born in 1958, four years after the nuttiness began. The fad was long over, but I grew up with an awareness of Davy Crockett, the song, and coonskin caps even though I never saw the show.
It wasn’t until Batman in 1966 that another TV show created such a stir.
In an attempt to find out more about the real Crockett, I read David Crockett: the Lion of the West, by Michael Wallis. Turns out he was as popular during his lifetime as he was in the 1950’s, and for no more substantial reason.
Crockett’s father was a failure at everything he tried. At times, he resorted to loaning out his own children to bring in cash. David was hired out to a complete stranger when he was 13, to take a load of goods from Tennessee to Pennsylvania. He grew up young and learned to shoot and live in the woods. Always likable, but no better at making a living than his father, Crockett bounced around from place to place ahead of his creditors. He was married twice and had a slew of children, but neglected his wives and children to roam the woods or to head off with Andrew Jackson to fight the Creek Indians.
Still, his honesty and friendliness made him a likely candidate for local office and, eventually, the state legislature. He liked to talk and tell tales of his own exploits killing bears, and on the frontier, these were popular qualities. When he was elected to the U.S. Congress, he was in stark contrast to the eastern elites in that assembly and his homespun stories began to spread. Crockett milked this for all it was worth, although he was not as stupid as the stories made him seem and he never showed up in Congress in buckskin and a coonskin hat—at least until later.
During his third term, a popular play, The Lion of the West, or a Trip to Washington, by James Kirke Paulding, hit the stage. The hero was a buckskin-clad hunter named Colonel Nimrod Wildfire who began his performance by introducing himself as “half horse, half alligator and a touch of the airthquake—that’s got the prettiest sister, fastest horse, and ugliest dog in the District, and can out-run, outjump, throw down, drag out, and whip any man in all Kaintuck.” The resemblance to Crockett was unmistakable, and the play was a huge hit.
Crockett decided to take advantage of the craze and wrote an autobiography called A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee. It too was an immense hit. He traveled around the eastern U.S. promoting it and was a big draw wherever he went. Unfortunately, his book tour took place while Congress was in session, which his opponents milked for all it was worth. Crockett lost the next election and decided to head to Texas to try his hand as a failed land speculator. He ended up at the Alamo, and the rest is history.
Even in the later half of the 1800’s, there were books and plays about Crockett. When Disney chose him to be the feature of their mini-series, he was a known commodity, although nobody could have predicted the extent to which the fad took off.
I also read The Davy Crockett Craze, by Paul F. Anderson which explored the TV show in depth and included photos of many of the Crockett items sold in the ’50’s. There wasn’t a whole lot in the book that I hadn’t already discovered online.
Between the time I watched the movies and read the biography of Davy Crockett, we went to the National Western Stock Show. A booth there was selling, among other fur products, coonskin caps. I had to buy one for my own.