Sunday, March 21, 2010

Good Night, Fess


During my teenage years, there was only one person who rivaled Elvis Presley in popularity and that was Fort Worth-born, San Angelo-raised Fess Parker.

I know, that fact seems hard to believe now, but Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, was as big as you could get back then. Of course, this was when national television was just beginning to have its impact on American culture, but influence of the Walt Disney production of Davy Crockett was immense. All the kids wore coonskin caps. Davy Crockett lunchboxes ruled the day. You could not turn on the radio without hearing the No. 1 hit The Ballad of Davy Crockett.

So it seems strange that the 85-year-old Parker's death last week seemed to go largely unnoticed and unmentioned. Perhaps it was because Parker was Davy Crockett and really not much else. I know he wanted to be more -- he desperately wanted the role opposite Marilyn Monroe in the film Bus Stop, but, according to stories I've heard, Walt Disney himself vetoed that.

So Parker, whose personal appearances in the 1950s attracted crowds larger than those by then President Eisenhower, wound up spending most of his professional career in real estate until he became forgotten by a public who once crowned him the king of television entertainment. He was running a successful winery in California's Santa Ynez Valley when he died Thursday of natural causes.

In assessing Parker's public life, it's interesting to play what-if as in what-if the original actors recommended for the Davy Crockett role -- Sterling Hayden, Glenn Ford and, yes, Ronald Reagan -- had gotten the part. They didn't and another casting director recommended a relatively unknown actor, James Arness. So Disney went to see a 1954 film, Them!, featuring Arness and, instead, discovered Parker who had a small role in that picture.

Disney's production of Davy Crockett had its coming attractions on national television on Oct. 27, 1954, with its memorable theme song, the opening lines of which were:
"Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so he knew every tree
Kilt him a b'ar when he was only 3
Davy, Davy Crockett
King of the wild frontier."

The song was a No. 1 hit for Bill Hayes and was also recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford, Eddy Arnold, Burl Ives, Mitch Miller and Parker himself.

There were only three Crockett television shows, Davy Crockett the Indian Fighter (Dec. 15, 1954), Davy Crockett Goes to Congress (Jan. 26, 1955) and Davy Crockett at the Alamo (Feb. 23, 1955). However, by that time we had the coonskin caps, the fringed outfits, Davy Crockett trading cards and board games. In 1955, the New York Times estimated there were more than 1,000 Davy Crockett items available for purchase. Later Disney made a pair of Crockett films with Parker, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955) and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956).

Parker married Marcella Rhinehart in 1960 and died on her 84th birthday. In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, a daughter, 11 grandchildren and at least one writer who remembers the days when we all wore coonskin caps.

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