On the Road Again

Posted on Thursday, June 2nd, 2011 in Stories

I am now on the tour circuit promoting three books — actually two new books and a third that is being re-published. Pretty Boy: The Life and Times of Charles Arthur Floyd was originally published in 1992 but has been out of print for a few years. I am delighted it is now back in print thanks to W. W. Norton, also the publisher of my new biography entitled, David Crockett: The Lion of the West. The third book just released from Abrams is The Wild West: 365 Days, a collection of authentic stories and more than 700 images and photos (many never before published) chronicling the Wild West between 1830 and 1930.

My first exposure to Mr. Crockett — this inimitable American icon came, and I can vividly recall the exact date — came on the frosty night of December 15, 1954, in my hometown of St. Louis. ABC television network had just aired Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter, the first of three episodes produced by Walt Disney for his studio’s then-new series that had premiered only two months earlier. Called simply Disneyland during its first four years, this anthology series, under a variety of other names, including most commonly The Wonderful World of Disney, which would become one of the longest showing prime-time programs on American television.

I was just nine years old that December evening but I could have predicted the show’s success. I was hooked only moments after hearing the theme music “When You Wish Upon a Star,” sung by cartoon insect Jiminy Cricket from the soundtrack of the movie Pinocchio. Longtime Disney announcer Dick Wesson introduced host Walt Disney and, with some visual assistance from a flittering Tinkerbell, Uncle Walt unleashed the legendary frontier character Davy Crockett into our living room, as if from a runaway train from the 12-inch screen of our 1950 table model RCA Victor television set.

As they say in 50s parlance, I was a goner. Within only minutes the larger-than-life Crockett, clad in buckskin and wearing a coonskin cap, had won me over. My fickle, nine-year-old heart pounded. That past summer at two separate appearance events on a department store parking lot, I had shaken the hands of both Hopalong Cassidy and the Cisco Kid but now they were instantly demoted to lower rungs on my list of heroes. Even Stan Musial — “swinging Stan the Man” — the legendary St. Louis Cardinal All-Star slugger, whose name was etched in granite at the top of that list, was in jeopardy of being topped.

By the time that first episode ended, the image of Crockett, as portrayed by 29-year-old Fess Parker was firmly ensconced in my psyche. I did not even consider staying up for Strike it Rich and I Got a Secret. I forgot about the promise of fresh snow and the good sledding sure to follow. Instead I headed straight to my room where I poured over the World Book Encyclopedia entry for Crockett, dreaming of the swashbuckler with a proclivity for dangerous behavior, a most commendable quality for any red-blooded American kid.

As I would quickly learn, I was not alone. More than forty million others tuned into Disneyland that Wednesday night. By the time the next episode, Davy Crockett, Goes to Congress aired on January 16, 1955, followed on February 23 by Davy Crockett, At the Alamo, I, along with much of the nation — especially the growing ranks of the so-called Boomer Generation — was swept up by the Crockett frenzy. We wanted more.

And more came in the form of an unprecedented merchandising whirlwind, in which Crockett was commercialized in ways that would have been unthinkable to the man himself. Every kid had to have a coonskin cap like Davy’s and almost overnight the wholesale prices of raccoon pelts soared from twenty-five cents a pound to six dollars, resulting in the sale of at least ten million furry caps. Within only months of the series premiere, more than $100-million was shelled out for at least three thousand different Crockett items, including pajamas, lunch boxes, underwear, comics, books, moccasins, toothbrushes, games, clothing, toy rifles, sleds, and curtains. The catchy theme song “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” sold more than four million copies and remained No. 1 on the Top Ten list for thirteen weeks. On May 7, 1955, I proudly wore my coonskin hat when Giselle Mackenzie sang the top tune of the week on “Your Hit Parade.” Like every one of my pals, I knew the words were true. We sang Crockett’s ballad at the top of our lungs as we built forts from old Christmas trees and cardboard boxes, transforming the school ground into our own version of Crockett Country. Davy Crockett quickly became our obsession.

It’s hard for anyone born, say, after 1958 to recall the “Davy Crockett” frenzy that swept America in the 1950s. So profound was Crockett’s cultural inundation that no baby boomer can fail to recall this charismatic American hero’s name. This recognition, to my way of thinking is a good thing, but the veritable flood of misinformation about Crockett’s life that resulted – something I became aware of only later in life, which in part has motivated me to write this book – has also created a Crockett mythology that continues to this day.

This is not another straightforward chronological biography of Davy Crockett, nor is it a regurgitation of the many myths and lies perpetuated about Crockett over the years. Instead this book is for those people interested in learning the truth — or at least as much as can be uncovered — about the historical and fictional Crockett and how the two often became one. Hopefully readers will gain some new historical insights into the actual man and how he captured the imagination of his generation and later ones as well.

Now the same hold true for The Wild West: 365 Days. Co-authored with my wife and creative partner, Suzanne Fitzgerald Wallis, and with more than 700 photos and images from the collection of Robert McCubbin, this book spans the century from 1830 to 1930. It begins with Indian Removal and such characters as Crockett and Sam Houston and ends in 1930 with the death of Wyatt Earp and the emergence of Pretty Boy Floyd and other Dust Bowl desperados.

All books are labors of love and passion, at least for me, but as Suzanne will attest, The Wild West: 365 Days was a particularly difficult book to assemble. We are ecstatic with the results and hope you share our feelings once you come to meet the array of characters, events, places, and untold stories we offer.