By Chuck Ross
We know what you’re going to say. Davy Crockett just didn’t die–it was the actor who played him, Fess Parker.
But to millions of boys who grew up in the mid to late 1950s, Parker WAS Crockett and vice versa.
Parker, who was 85, died Thursday morning, March 18, at his home in Santa Ynez, which is near Santa Barbara, Calif.
As TV took hold in the early 1950s, Walt Disney was looking to put a TV show on-the-air to help finance the construction of his new theme park and to promote it. ABC was interested, and in October, 1954 a new show hit the air waves, called–like the theme park–"Disneyland."
`"Disneyland” debuted on ABC with an episode about the theme park that was under construction and a preview of the studio’s upcoming movie `"20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” The "Disneyland” TV show was an anthology series, and the idea was to present original programming whose subject matter was somehow related to the various theme areas of the upcoming Disneyland park. Those areas were Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Adventureland and Frontierland.
Less than two months later, on Dec. 15, the show became a true cultural phenomenon with the introduction of a miniseries (TV’s first?) tied to the theme of Frontierland. "Reading from `Davy Crockett’s Journal,’ Walt introduces the story of the American folk hero and unknowingly starts a national craze,” is the way Bill Cotter described it in his book "The Wonderful World of Disney Television.”
More than just becoming a popular show, it made us want to be Davy Crockett. To look like him and act like him (at least as portrayed by Parker). Coonskin caps became the rage, as did the "Ballad of Davy Crockett ” song. After this miniseries, few doubted the powerful effect of television on popular culture.
No one was more surprised by the success of Davy Crockett than Walt Disney himself. "We had no idea what was going to happen on ‘Crockett,’ " Cotter quoted Disney as saying. "Why, by the time the first show finally got on the air, we were already shooting the third one and calmly killing Davy off at the Alamo. It became one of the biggest overnight hits in TV history, and there we were with just three [episodes] and a dead hero!”
The Disney studio scored another first when it combined the three episodes into a single story and released it as a movie in theaters. One theater chain operator said at the time, according to Cotter, "Frankly, if I had a theater and Mr. Disney asked me to play a picture which had been assembled from films shown on TV, I’d ask him how much he was going to pay me.” The film turned out to be a big financial success.
To hear the "Ballad of Davy Crockett" one more time–interspersed with clips from the show–click here. We found this on YouTube.
[Author’s Note: Most of the parts of this article about the "Disneyland" TV show came from an article I originally wrote for this publication in 2004.]