Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Fess Parker, RIP

You may have heard the news a couple of weeks ago that Fess Parker passed away on March 18, 2010.  The actor was most famous for his iconic portrayal of Davy Crockett in the Disney tv/movie series in 1954.  My students will tell you that one of my little-known (and probably little-valued) talents is that Prof. Festa can turn anything into a land use story.  So here we go . . .

Davy Crockett, if you know the Disney theme song, was "King of the Wild Frontier."  He was born on a mountain top in Tennessee, which happened to be the greenest state in the land of the free.  That in itself speaks to American conceptions of land use.  Understanding that the Disney version was a 1950s conceit, let's put that aside for a moment and look at the Davy Crockett legend. 

Some critics have complained that the Davy Crockett popularity of the 1950s was contrived or manufactured.  But they miss the point that the original Davy Crockett legend of the 1830s was also entirely manufactured.  I don't doubt that Crockett the man was handy with a rifle and earned his frontier bona fides, but so did a lot of people in his time.  Crocket went to Congress and had a best-selling autobiography based on his marketing of himself as the epitome of a frontier archetype.  Coonskin cap and all that.  The dandies on the East Coast ate it all up.  But it was an early example of the mythic power of the west in American memory: the notion that the land is untamed, and due to be settled and made productive by Americans of rugged determination and character. 

Fess Parker's portrayal followed Crockett from the frontier to Congress and then down to Texas.  I've bloggged about the role of the Alamo in Texas historical memory.  Here the land use story, as Crockett participates in it, transforms from taming the frontier to defending natural "American" rights to possess and use the land against oppression.  We'll set aside for now the controversy over whether Davy Crockett actually tried to surrender at the Alamo, as opposed to the mainstream/Disney portrayal as having gone down swinging. 

Parker's portrayal of Crockett as an American frontier archetype of quiet heroism, conviction, and moral certitude, was so popular (we'll return to the 1950s context in a moment) that he was essentially typecast out of many other roles.  Parker's second major role was Daniel Boone in a highly popular TV run from 1964-70.  I've always thought of Boone and Crockett as very different figures (Boone was a half-century older) but historical memory and pop culture have reduced them to the same coonskin cap.  Daniel Boone was perhaps the original American symbol of expansive land use.  Boone was the leader of the pioneers who settled Kentucky, and later in life he moved to Missouri because he needed more "elbow room," according to legend. 

So Fess Parker portrayed two iconic historical figures who symbolized the American frontier story of land settlement and development.  Fast forward to the 1950s.  When Disney showed Parker's Crockett in 1954-55, America went nuts.  They couldn't make fake coonskin caps fast enough to sell to boys in the U.S., England, and elsewhere.  So we can also place Parker's Crockett as a very important event in the story of postwar suburbanization.  Millions of families in Levittowns and other new  neighborhoods  gathered around their relatively new TVs to enjoy the Disney presentation of the American story as told through Fess Parker's Crockett.  The popularity of the show became one of the defining moments of the postwar era.

One last item that cements Fess Parker as a legend of land use is his post-Hollywood career: he became a real-estate developer!  Parker developed a number of properties in southern California, including hotels, resorts, and a winery that bears his name.

Farewell Fess Parker, American land use icon. 

Matt Festa

History, Property, Texas | Permalink

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