Crockett Memories from Fess Parkerby Wade Sampson, staff writer
Buddy Ebsen was a strong 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. When Walt Disney went to see a science-fiction movie about giant ants titled Them! to check out a young actor named James Arness for the role, he was taken by an actor playing a small part in the film and that is pretty much the story of how Fess Parker became Disney’s Davy Crockett.
Today, the newsstands are flooded with fan magazine devoted to Miley Cyrus or “High School Musical” and more than 50 years ago, it was no different. Stories of Hollywood celebrities sold magazines to readers who were curious about the lives and thoughts or their favorite stars of movies and television.
In early 1955, DELL Publishing—which was then responsible for such magazines as Modern Screen, Screen Stories, Screen Album, Hollywood Family Album, Hollywood Life Stories, Hollywood Romances, Who’s Who in Hollywood, and many more similar publications—released a 38-page one-shot 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. The magazine originally cost a quarter although I spent considerably more than that to purchase a tattered copy to share some of its contents with MousePlanet readers.
Although the magazine proclaimed that it was authored by actor Fess Parker, the tiny type in the magazine’s indicia stated “This issue written by Carl Schroeder.” Based on the information in the magazine, I have no doubt that Parker was extensively interviewed, especially about his early life, while the actual text where it is in Parker’s “own words” was probably edited by Schroeder to match similar biographical magazines published by DELL.
“My name is Fess Parker,” began the text on the first page, “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.”
For those readers seriously interested in the 1950s phenomenon of Disney’s Davy Crockett, track down a copy of the out of print book, The Davy Crockett Craze by Paul Anderson (R&G Productions 1996) that is 160 pages packed with information and black and white and color photos. While that book lists more than 50 different periodicals in its sources, “The Real Life Story of Fess Parker” is not one of them. Many of the stories in the DELL magazine haven’t been reprinted or covered in the many interviews with Parker over the years.
Of course, some of the stories that really stuck out for me were Parker’s impressions of Walt Disney. So from half a century ago, in Parker’s own words, here are some memories of the King of the Wild Frontier when the Crockett Craze was at its peak:
“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.”
The section of memories about Davy Crockett were written as if they were transcribed from Parker himself but the rest of the magazine recounting Parker’s life leading up to Crockett was written in the more familiar third-person biographical style, peppered with quotes from friends, family and associates.
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.
In addition, there are some great photos I’ve never seen anywhere else including one of Fess towering over Walt and Lillian, in costume with Buddy Ebsen standing next to a very modern dressed Helene Stanley and Parker sitting with a guitar next to Walt and director Norman Foster.
The last paragraph of the magazine has Buddy Ebsen sharing a conversation he had with Fess 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.’”
By the way, besides the adventures of Davy Crockett that were filmed, 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.