Encore

The Biggest, Shortest Fad

Davy Crockett on TV -- How Disney made a mint from the Alamo patriot in 1954

January 1, 1946, was the official start of the postwar baby boom. Within the year, 3.4 million bundles of joy were born — a 20 percent rise from 1945's birthrate — and an unprecedented U.S. population group had taken its first toddling steps. Soon this now-legendary herd of ankle-biters was ready to walk, talk, and, in a few years, Hula Hoop. On December 15, 1954, Walt Disney discovered that they were also ready to spend money.

That night, 40 million viewers tuned in for the premiere of Davy Crockett, a three-part kiddie series starring Fess Parker on ABC's Disneyland, and the ensuing merchandising frenzy still makes Bart Simpson look like a wanna-be. Here's what happened:

''The Ballad of Davy Crockett,'' was sung on the show by series regular Buddy Ebsen (later of The Beverly Hillbillies), but Bill Hayes' version was the No. 1 hit for 13 weeks.

Coonskin caps like Davy's became the Nikes of the day, as wholesale pelt prices soared from 25 cents a pound to $8. Over 10 million hats were sold.

More than $100 million ($496 million in 1990 dollars) was exchanged for Davy Crockett pajamas, toothbrushes, sleds, curtains — 3,000 Crockett items in all — according to Landon Y. Jones' baby-boom history, Great Expectations.

''It was beyond my comprehension,'' says Parker, a 30-year-old bit player when Crockett made him a star. Blessed with a 10 percent cut of the merchandising booty (a rarity for actors at the time), the 6'6'' actor promoted the show in 42 U.S. cities and 13 foreign countries. ''Crowds would push out windows in the store fronts,'' recalls Parker. ''In Holland I had to escape in a cab because I feared for the kids' lives. I was a prisoner of the moment, just like Elvis Presley and the Beatles were later. I never envied their success.''

Although history dictated that Crockett had to die at the Alamo during the third installment of the series, the following fall Davy was revived in The Legends of Davy Crockett, and the frontier sagas continued to air on The Wonderful World of Disney into the '70s. But a year after its 1954 debut, the Crockett merchandising craze had already died. The boomers had flexed their strongest muscle — buying power — and exposed their greatest weakness: the shortest attention span in history.



TIME CAPSULE

Dec. 15, 1954
Norman Vincent Peale teaches The Power of Positive Thinking in his best- seller. Jaye P. Morgan sings ''That's All I Want From You'' on the radio. Folks can't wait to see the hyped movie musical There's No Business Like Show Business, with Ethel Merman and Marilyn Monroe.

Originally posted Dec 14, 1990 Published in issue #44 Dec 14, 1990 Order article reprints
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