Friday, January 27, 2017

Remembrance of Things Past: Gatlinburg #16

Davy Crockett Shop in Gatlinburg next to the Sky Lift

In the 1950s, Tennessee was cool. 

Patty Page welcomed in the decade with the number one song, "Tennessee Waltz," while Pete Seeger and the Weavers version of "On Top of Old Smokey" reached the charts that same year. Later in the decade, Tennessee Ernie Ford added "Sixteen Tons" a Billboard number one about how hard it was to work in a coal mine. Born in Bristol, Ernest even got his own TV variety show on NBC beginning in 1956 called The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show. 

And at the movies, Robert Mitchum spawned a film noir tale called Thunder Road based on a factual event about an East Tennessee moonshine runner killed in a roadblock on Bearden Hill in Knoxville about eight miles from where I currently live. Mitchum's Luke Doolin drove a '57 Ford Fairlane just like my Dad and "thunder was his engine, white lightning was his load." We knew every line of "The Ballad of Thunder Road." The movie became a cult classic playing a drive-in theaters every summer for years. We thought the raffish moonshiner was our kin, our story, although none of us knew a lick about making shine but it was in our DNA, but of course we were kids. What did we know about our bloodline?

But, none of these had the pop culture POW of the state's number one favorite son, Davy Crockett or at least the Walt Disney version played by coonskin cap wearing Fess Parker. First it was a TV miniseries that aired in five installments on Disney's anthology series called "Disneyland" on ABC from December 1954 to December 1955. It was so hugely popular, the TV chapters were edited together and released as a wide screen feature film for the theater: Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. Wow. Davy in Technicolor! We had only seen him on a small Sylvania black & white set.

March 24, 1952
And speaking of color, back then, Tennessee was not a "Red State" but rather "the greenest state in the land of the free." 

Everyone knew by heart "The Ballad of Davy Crockett." And even our beloved U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver who was running for vice president at the time, was pictured on the cover of Time magazine wearing a coonskin cap. Although Kefauver's Time cover presided Disney's Davy by two years, it set the mark. Cool Tennesseans wore coonskin. I still have one, albeit a bit too small for my adult noggin. Kefauver was a senator in the days when people were elected to go to Washington to actually find solutions to the people's problems.

The country went crazy over Disney's Davy, "born on a mountain top in Tennessee." The original episodes were filmed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina side, and even though the real David Crockett was born in 1786 near the Nolichucky River in Limestone, Tennessee in Greene County, i.e. bottomland, to the world Davy was born on a mountain top and that summit had to be on top of old Smoky and what a better invitation to go visit a mountain top in Tennessee and come to Gatlinburg along the way. No modern day national ad agency could have created such a buzz. 

We kids were energized, captivated, enthralled. We all wanted to be Crockett. But how could Davy have "killed him a bear when he was only three"? Being only four-years-old at the time, I felt markedly lacking, mystified. All I had was a rubber knife.

Gatlinburg had a Davy Crockett Theatre next to the bus station and a Davy Crockett Shop specializing in all things Davy next to the Sky Lift, both on the Parkway.     

Brother & sister in Davy Crockett t-shirts, 1956
Davy was the first mass marketed merchandising phenomena much like Star Wars is today with items that included t-shirts, glasses, cups, puzzles, games, lunch boxes, clothing, trading cards, plastic weaponry, even lamps. (Darlene and I are wearing Davy Crockett t-shirts in the photo to the right.) And I still have a kid-sized Davy Crockett "TV chair" to sit on after a long day looking for bears on the wild frontier. 

Davy Crockett TV chair
Davy was everywhere in all the stores nationwide. By the end of 1955, Americans had purchased over $300 million worth of Davy Crockett merchandise and a lot of that was bought in Gatlinburg while on vacation. 

We were proud to be from "the greenest state in the land of the free" because that is where our Davy was from.

My Gatlinburg friend Emily reminded me of a Tennessee Ernie 1949 hit. To hear the "Ol' Pea-Picker" click: Smokey Mountain Boogie. 

©2017 — From the upcoming book, 
"Vintage Gatlinburg: 
The Transformation of a Small Timber Town to Mountain Resort
 Family Remembrances 1899-1969
by University of Tennessee Press author and native son
Stephen Lyn Bales 

Davy Crockett Theatre next to the bus station

For links to other Gatlinburg history posts click:

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