Disney's Davy, Davy Crockett

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Spending too much time inside my house by myself this last year, I got a chance to screen some of the Disney movies in my personal collection that I hadn't watched in years.

I found myself reconnecting with two of my earliest Disney heroes who are pretty much forgotten these days even though they were phenomenons who generated a fortune in merchandise: Guy Williams' Zorro and Fess Parker's Davy Crockett.

As the popular Ballad of Davy Crockett that sold over 10 million copies and was showcased at the beginning of each episode told the story: "Born on a mountain top in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free. Raised in the woods so's he knew ev'ry tree, kilt him a b'ar when he was only 3. Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier!"

By the time of the opening of Disneyland, the lyric had been changed to "tamed him a b'ar when he was only 3" even though the Davy Crockett Arcade at the park had no hesitation to sell replicas of Davy's rifle, pistol and knife to eager young guests.

Fess Parker as Davy Crockett and Buddy Ebsen as Georgie Russel from the Disney series.

Walt Disney's Davy Crockett was one of the biggest pop culture crazes of the mid-1950s. He was better known and more beloved than many contemporary figures and ignited a mania that took everyone, including the Disney Studio, by complete surprise.

Department stores around the country were full of Davy Crockett merchandise from lunch boxes, gum cards, pencil boxes, comic books, pajamas, dolls, wrist watches and just about anything else that could be imagined. Over 3,000 different Davy Crockett products were licensed by Disney. Over 10 million coonskin caps were sold. Raccoon pelts that had been selling for 0.25 cents a pound skyrocketed to over $5 a pound. Anything with fur was recycled into hats, including vintage raccoon coats in the closet. More than $300 million (over $2 billion by today's dollars) was spent on Crockett merchandise in just the first few months. Disney's Zorro merchandise only got as high as $200 million.

Davy Crockett was a real 19th century American folk hero noted for his life as a frontiersman. In 1954, for his new weekly television show, Walt Disney dramatized the life of Crockett, who was played by actor Fess Parker.

Five Davy Crockett episodes were telecast on ABC-TV's Disneyland: Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter (12/15/54), Davy Crockett Goes to Congress (1/26/55), Davy Crockett at the Alamo (2/23/55), Davy Crockett's Keelboat Race (11/16/55) and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (12/14/55).

The first three episodes were later combined and edited into the feature-length film Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955), The final two episodes were edited together as the theatrical film Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956). Since they had only aired in black-and-white on tiny television screens, audiences were eager to pay to see the same material in color on a big movie screen.

By the way, few Disney fans know that Walt had his story department work on two more installments that were never filmed: How Davy and Russel Met and Davy Crockett on the Great Plains. They were never put in to production because by that time the Crockett Craze had subsided and it was felt that Fess Parker was more valuable in feature films.

Walt had also seriously discussed a 15-part serial for television's Mickey Mouse Club titled Young Crockett to star actor Tommy Kirk. In fact, the two episodes of the river pirates were originally written to star Mike Fink, the King of the River, but were hastily rewritten to make Davy and Georgie the stars and Mike a supporting player.

Buddy Ebsen was a strong original contender for the role of Disney's Davy Crockett, but close to two-dozen other actors, including Sterling Hayden and George Montgomery, were also considered. Walt liked Ebsen and had a part written for him as Davy's friend and sidekick, Georgie Russel.

When Walt Disney went to see a science-fiction movie about giant ants titled Them! (1954) to check out a young actor named James Arness for the Crockett role, he came in late just in time for Fess Parker's two-minute appearance and was instantly taken by the actor and shouted, "That's our Davy Crockett!"

Walt's staff had to do some research to find out the unknown actor's name. Parker went through two auditions and a final meeting with Walt before being hired.

In 1955, DELL Publishing released a 38-page one-shot magazine titled The Real Life Story of Fess Parker to cash in on the huge popularity of the first three Davy Crockett segments on the Disneyland television show. On the first page, the text began:

"My name is Fess Parker. I am an actor and a son of Texas. There have been several turning points in my life, but the most important one came the day I stepped in before the cameras as Davy Crockett. I want to tell you what this has meant to me.

"There is one man who has had more to do with where I am today than anyone else, and that man is Walt Disney. I shook hands with him for the first time early in August, last year, when he decided to hire me. Just meeting a person isn't getting to know him, and I didn't feel that I knew Mr. Disney at all until the last week in August, 1954, the day I reported to the studio for first shooting on the preview sequence for 'Davy Crockett' on the first 'Disneyland' show and I was to sing the Ballad of Davy Crockett.

"Mr. Disney was there in front of the cameras, working like a Trojan. He didn't have anything on his mind but just what he had figured to do to tell people about Disneyland. While he did that, I waited on the set for four hours. Ordinarily, I just couldn't wait that long for anything, but there is something about Mr. Disney that sort of takes hold of everyone around him, and I am not just saying that to apple polish the boss.

"There is something hard to describe in his enthusiasm, the way he puts his dreams to work and his 'bigness' that gets to you. The main thing with him is to get it right. And when he walked off the set a little after five o'clock, I felt I was getting to know him for the first time. Then he stopped and said to me, 'Fess, I'm sorry to hold you up. I didn't mean to take so long.'

"I figured that if Mr. Disney, the boss of all of us at the studio, could work that hard, well, I'd just have to dig the spurs into myself kind of deep just to keep up.

"One day when Mr. Disney asked me, 'Fess, how soon can you leave for location in North Carolina?' I came right back and said, 'Mr. Disney, I'd say I can be ready in about twenty minutes, as soon as I throw my stuff in the back of my old car and park it.'

"I think almost everyone knows, though, that the story of Davy Crockett in the movie and television version wouldn't be half so powerful if it weren't for the man who plays his sidekick, Georgie Russel. I guess you'd say that Georgie is an historical character of convenience. I'm not aware that in history Davy and Georgie had exactly the same sort of relationship. However, in real life the man who plays Georgie—Buddy Ebsen—has become a very close friend mainly as the result of our doing the picture together.

"One thing Buddy and I were laughing about just the other day. That was the food we had on location. The movie company, you know, was quite a far piece from most conveniences, and for our lunches we were most of the time practically up to our ears in peanut butter sandwiches.

"One day I was having a tomahawk fight with Pat Hogan, who played Red Stick in the picture. We were covered with mud and we were mighty hungry. I must say we weren't looking forward to peanut butter and bread. When we broke for lunch, Buddy said to me, 'Mr. Disney has just arrived, and you watch. We'll eat big today.'

"They delivered the lunch, and sure enough there was a change in the menu—we had pork chop sandwiches. Mr. Disney sort of grinned when we kidded him about it being so nice working in pictures on account of the great food you got to eat. It wasn't his idea, those pork chop sandwiches, and nobody really complained, but we all noticed that he must have done something, because all of a sudden from there on the eating was really first class.

"During the first week of shooting on the picture, I had a scene with an Indian boy named Richard Crow. He's a fine young fellow who is a real athlete and a local actor who has a big part every year in the wonderful Cherokee pageant called Unto These Hills which more than 25,000 people come to see. I tell you this to show that Dick Crow is no amateur. Anyway, in the picture, he was an Indian sentinel standing duty on a bank twenty feet above the river.

"The camera was shooting from behind my right shoulder and I was to spot the Indian and fire just as he drew a bead on me with his bow and arrow. Then, my bullet was supposed to hit him and knock him off the small cliff. All this was arranged by the studio experts for split-second timing. But one thing nobody could exactly reckon on, and that was the amount of smoke my flintlock would make.

"In the actual shot, I took a bead on Dick and fired. He started his fall and let go the arrow which looped over at me from about 60 feet through the big puff of powder exploding. It hit me smack in the forehead right above my left eye and as things went black for a few seconds, I thought to myself, 'Well, this is one Davy Crockett who's never going to get to the Alamo.'

"Well, you never saw a man as sorry as Dick Crow. He felt very bad, but it wasn't his fault at all, and I wasn't really hurt as it turned out. I feel that he is a good friend of mine, perhaps more so because of the accident, and I wish I had more space here to mention some of the other Cherokee folks.

"They are wonderful people, with a fine sense of humor. They are mighty unspoiled. They are intelligent but simple. You know, they have an average income of around $250 a year for each family, but they are a contented people and the big thing in their lives is to hunt bear in their Great Smoky Mountains.

"Another thing stands out in my memory of the picture. We'd been doing a lot of the 'rough stuff' for about a month when one day my wife came to North Carolina. Not my real wife, of course, because I'm not married, but Helene Stanley, who played Davy Crockett's wife in the picture. Her showing up gave everybody a good feeling, because she was so attractive and personable, and the whole company felt as though they'd been off somewhere on a deserted island.

"I have to admit that I really enjoyed playing those love scenes with Helene, although the rest of the company gave me a lot of kidding, and some of the men offered to take my place in case I thought I was getting tired. Seriously, I think Miss Stanley's performance was and is one of the really fine things about the picture.

"The high point of the whole experience, though, to me occurred after we had come back from location to the studio to finish up. For quite a while I had been studying up on the speeches of Davy Crockett in Congress, but I was nervous the day we started shooting and I was afraid I was going to 'blow my lines' all over the place.

"A funny thing, though, from the moment I started all the unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach disappeared, and from my maiden speech in Congress right up through the final speech where I tear up the Indian bill, I felt that I knew just what I was doing. This was the biggest day of the picture to me, doing those three speeches, and I don't think I'll ever have another acting experience in which everything goes so right.

"I can't really take any credit. It's just that I was surrounded by my friends. They made everything easy for me, acting like I was actually Davy Crockett so much that I felt that way and hardly felt as though I was giving a performance.

"I also made another discovery that scared me a little at first. This was that any degree of success, in any profession, is not without obligation. To explain, when I was trying to get myself set in movies, on the outside looking in, so to speak, I always wore Levis and T-shirts. I guess I looked like a bum a lot of the time. But after Davy Crockett, I found myself suddenly on what you might call a 'big team'. I began to learn that the Disney people think first about what good they can do in any enterprise.

"I've been thinking, since I started this, of a way to say in just a few words, how I feel about Davy Crockett—to sum the whole thing up. And this is the best I can do: God touches the lives of some people, like Davy Crockett, choosing them for great achievements in order to show the rest of us the right way."

In addition, there is a story of Parker's parents "going through the Disney Studios and looking into every nook and cranny of the famous Disneyland, fast nearing completion" and a two page spread about Parker and Ebsen writing a Davy Crockett inspired song titled Be Sure You're Right.

The last paragraph of the magazine had Ebsen sharing a conversation he had with Parker. "Fess said to me, 'I had a funny dream last night. I dreamed that while I had my head back on the pillow, snoring a little, a whole lot of people in Hong Kong were singing Davy Crockett in Chinese'."

There was so much merchandise created for the Davy Crockett franchise, including comic books.

Parker became interested in opening a Davy Crockett-themed amusement park. In the late 1960s, he optioned land in northern Kentucky at the intersection of Interstates 71 and 75 basically in Boone County, with the intention of building Frontier World but financing fell through when Taft announced building an amusement venue two miles away.

In 1973, he tried again in Santa Clara, California. Frustrated with the city and other potential partners such as Ray Kroc of McDonald's, he sold his idea and the land to Marriott who built a Great America there in 1976.

When Disneyland opened, a Davy Crockett Museum was prominent in Frontierland, with an Alamo exhibit including life-size wax figures of Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen (portraying Crockett's fictitious companion Georgie Russel) as a photo opportunity.

Davy Crockett's Ranch (originally called Camp Davy Crockett) is a campground at Disneyland Paris and was the first resort to open there.

Of course, Walt Disney World is also home to several Davy Crockett inspired elements.

Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes debuted in Frontierland on opening day at Walt Disney World in 1971. The 35-foot long canoes traveled along the same path as other watercraft on the Rivers of America, like the long-gone Mike Fink River Keel Boats that were directly inspired by two of the Davy Crockett television episodes. That trip included a glimpse of Wilson's Cave Inn that was also inspired by Disney's Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1955). Each canoe required two cast members attired as frontiersmen who in the beginning wore Davy's iconic coonskin caps, making the attraction expensive to operate in relation to its capacity, so it closed in 1994.

Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn & Café that opened in Frontierland in 1998 includes among its many artifacts left in the restaurant by Bill's famous friends Davy Crockett's satchel and powder horn, as well as a version of Davy's encounter with Big Foot Mason, hand written by Georgie Russel.

Across Walt Disney World, there are American Amusement Machine Association Non-Violent rated Arcade Games that use rechargeable play cards.

At Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, Daniel Boone's Wilderness Arcade is located near the Meadow Swimmin' Pool while Davy Crockett's Wilderness Arcade is over by Pioneer Hall. Both feature a variety of classic and contemporary games.

The finale of the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue at Pioneer Hall includes a sketch accompanied by the famous Disney Davy Crockett theme song.

However, a hidden treasure missed by most guests is Crockett's Tavern. Opened in 1985, it is an extension of the Trail's End restaurant but is only open in the afternoon and early evening. It is a nostalgic full-service bar capturing the spirit of the untamed wilderness of the late 1880s and its famous namesake. It offers adult beverages like beer and wine as well as a variety of snacks like pizza, nachos, and chicken wings. The tavern is made of natural wood and glass and while it has indoor seating, many guests prefer the outside covered porch and the oversized rustic rocking chairs.

Dale Moore, Manager of Resort Design, who was given the job for creating the tavern, was a huge Disney Davy Crockett fan, so he included a lot of "Crockettana" for observant fans. A small replica of the Gully Whumper keel boat from the television show, and paintings of Fess Parker as Davy and Buddy Ebsen as Georgie can be found, as well as a replica of Crockett's famous rifle, Old Betsy.

An imposingly terrifying stuffed grizzly bear stands next to a glassed-in display featuring the classic 1843 portrait of the real Davy Crockett, a coonskin cap, letters and other items.

The portrait of Andrew Jackson, who Davy served under during the Creek Wars, was painted by Priscilla Russ, a Senior Artist at WDW Marketing. She wanted to do it in dark brown sepia tones to capture a sense of the era, but neither acrylics or water colors would resist fading with time. Even her attempts experimenting with Doc Martin dyes weren't satisfactory, so she ended up creating an ink that had a secret ingredient, coffee grounds, and her likeness of Old Hickory has stood the test of time.