Friday, March 19, 2010

American Originals

Fess Parker will always be Davy Crockett to me. The American pioneer, trailblazer and hero-of the Alamo as played by one of early televisions stars.

Fess Parker's death stirs memories of "Ozzie and Harriet", "I Love Lucy", "Father Knows Best", "Kukla, Fran and Ollie", and "The GE Theater" with Ronald Reagan. In the early fifties television was not in every home, especially those in rural communities. The average television set was large, half the size of a refrigerator, the screen was small, the picture was black and white and the reception was spotty in some areas. Yet television soon became the centerpiece of every American living room.

Television producers and executives were finding their way with this new medium when, in 1954, Walt Disney launched the series "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier." Crockett was a daring frontiersman, marksman, a real American legend. Disney studios cast the 6' 6" Fess Parker to play Davy Crockett, and dressed him in a coonskin cap, leather pants and a coat with fringe on the sleeves. He wore leather moccasins and he was armed with a musket. By the end of 1955, Disney had successfully launched a whole product line of clothing and toys in the Davy Crockett theme. I owned a coonskin cap, as did many of my friends.

My sister and I watched Davy Crockett every week. My friends and I could sing the words to the theme song, "Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier." The words seemed silly but fun, "He was born on a mountain top in Tennessee" and "Kilt him a b'ar when he was only 3." The last episode of Davy Crockett was broadcast in early 1955, but the clothing style remained popular for some time afterward.

During Ronald Reagan's presidency in the early eighties I traveled to Santa Barbara, California, while working at CBS News as part of the White House press corps. President Reagan vacationed nearby on his ranch.

Each summer the Reagans had a party for the White House press corps. The first was in the summer of 1981 at the Biltmore Hotel along the Pacific Coast on the southern edge of Santa Barbara. I introduced myself to President Reagan as the CBS News producer who had installed a camera with a huge lens on a nearby hill overlooking his ranch. The media tried to photograph Reagan's every public movement and it had become a real network battle of the lenses. So practically every night, while Reagan was at the ranch, Americans would see blurry pictures of the president clearing brush and riding his horse on that night's evening newscasts.

"Well, you know Joe," President Reagan began with a devilish twinkle in his eye, "I once suggested to the secret service, well, that one morning I would walk out on the porch." The president then cocked his head and twisted his body slightly as he continued, "Then I would, well, do this." The president then slapped both his hands over his heart and feigned a stumble. President Reagan then tilted his head with a smile and said, "The secret service said, 'We don't think that would be a good idea Mr. President.'" Reagan then laughed and shook his head from side to side.

As I smiled I said "Mr. President, I don't think that would be a good idea either!" He laughed, gave me a wink, and then introduced me to First Lady Nancy Reagan.

One year the press party was held at Fess Parker's ranch, which is near the Reagan ranch. By then Parker was a successful businessman and rancher, and he later opened a winery. So I was thrilled to find myself in the company of two American legends and actors, President Ronald Reagan and Fess Parker. Two men who had played important starring roles in the early days of television and in my life. Even then, nearly thirty years later, they were tall and impressive looking men with an easy going demeanor, dressed in western jeans and a cowboy hat.

There will probably never again be anyone like these two American originals.

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