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Davy Crockett: America's first TV fad


Now and then this column has to be about something that's pretty exclusive to baby boomers. This is one of those columns.

Yes, the schools and libraries are facing disasters; the economy and health care reform are on everyone's mind; but, sorry, Fess Parker died last week, and for a day, at least, millions of my fellow pre-geezers were shunted back to childhood.

Parker played the role of Davy Crockett in the 1950s, beginning in the first season of the weekly Disneyland TV show, which was broadcast on early Sunday afternoons and for which I absolutely lived. I was only 4 years old when the first Davy Crockett stories were shown, but the thrill of the show and the craze it inspired returned in remarkable detail when I learned of Parker's passing.

One Sunday -- not just any Sunday, but the one where Davy was supposed to fight the pirates who dressed up as Indians to fool the law, for cripesake -- that Sunday, the family lunch ran long, and I was held prisoner at the table while grown-ups droned on about some boring thing or another. Meanwhile, I was antsy and squirmy, on the verge of bursting at the seams. TV was still pretty new -- just a year old in our home -- and the idea that a television show could be more interesting than adult conversation was an unheard of, radical concept to my parents. Luckily, the pirates/Indians hadn't been conquered by the time I got to plop down in front of the old Sylvania box, and I was able to catch the thrilling finale. But the anxiety of knowing I was going to miss the greatest thing to happen all week is a feeling I can revisit as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. (Actually, clearer than as if it had happened yesterday, considering the state of my aging brain cells.)

The Disney program, Fess Parker, and all things Davy Crockett became a raging fad -- the first TV-induced, mass psychosis in our history. The craze was so all-consuming at the time, it seemed to sweep all other things aside. Every kid -- and I mean every kid -- wanted the full panoply of Crockett merchandise: coonskin caps (more than 10 million sold), buckskin shirts, toy rifles modeled on Davy's "Old Betsy," powder horns, towels, bedspreads, wallets, lunchboxes, T-shirts, guitars, and, of course, recordings of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett." If you want some idea of the deep hold Crockettmania had on kids then, consider that this morning, the day after I learned of Parker's death, I got out of bed and instantly found myself singing, "Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free," the first lines of the show's theme song.

My repeated pleadings for a coonskin cap were so insistent -- what are they waiting for? Buy it! -- they produced arguments between my parents. We didn't have much money, and even if we had, my dad was one of the stingiest men on earth. What he saw as thriftiness was a never-ending source of irritation for my mom, but she saw how frenzied I became when a kid down the street showed up at our door wearing a coonskin cap. The next day, she and I headed to the McCrory's dimestore downtown. I didn't get all the Crockett regalia I wanted, but I did wind up with a kind-of coonskin cap (brown cloth, with some "fur" around the edges), a fake-buckskin shirt with plastic fringe, and a plastic powder horn that did me no good at all since Mom wouldn't buy me the toy rifle for which the powder horn was a mere accessory. Dad griped about the money spent on such "foolishness," and he and Mom yelled awhile about it, but I was used to their yelling, and besides, I was outside, wearing my shirt and cap and pretending to fight Indians. What a thrill. Soon afterward, Mom bought a copy of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," which I wore out within a month.

Fess Parker was an adequate actor, and he had a good sidekick in actor Buddy Ebsen who, a few years later, would play another type of Southerner, Jed Clampett, on The Beverly Hillbillies. Kids, though, don't know good acting from bad. This must have been particularly true of my generation, seeing as how some of our biggest TV heroes were the Lone Ranger, Superman, and Sky King. A few years ago, I watched a couple of episodes of The Lone Ranger and Sky King for the first time since childhood, and I was stunned by the dull storylines, wooden acting and cheap-o sets. But hey, at the time, all I knew was that those guys were heroes. But they came later. The all-important first hero? That was Davy Crockett. The amazing thing about the early TV era -- the same limited choices, shared by nearly 80 million kids -- is that today, there are tens of millions of baby boomers who would tell you exactly the same thing.

Deliver Us From Weasels, a collection of articles and columns by John Grooms, is available at Park Road Books and Joseph-Beth Booksellers in SouthPark Mall.

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