Connections: Of Raccoons and Rabbits (Really Tall Rabbits)

What connection does a house in southwest Fort Worth . . .

have with . . .

the 1950 Jimmy Stewart film Harvey?

Our first—in fact, our only—connection is Fess Parker. Fess Elisha Parker Jr. was born in Fort Worth on August 16, 1924. Fess Sr. and wife Mackie were living on West 2nd Street at the time.

Fess Jr. was born in Pennsylvania Avenue Hospital. The hospital had opened in 1921 (one of the early encroachments of the town’s original medical district on Quality Hill). The hospital charged from $3 to $8 a day for a room. Pretty pricey, but that rate did include room, board, and nurse.

By 1930 the Parkers were living in San Angelo. During World War II Fess Jr. enlisted in the Navy, then attended the University of Texas. By 1950 he was in Hollywood.

Like most actors, at first Parker struggled to land roles. But by 1954 his acting career began to take off. For example, he appeared in an episode of Dragnet.

In 1954 Parker also had a small role in the sci-fi film Them. Fess Parker appeared with another tall actor, James Arness. Both men were about to become stars: Gunsmoke went on the air in 1955.  And on December 15, 1954 the five-part Davy Crockett miniseries premiered as part of the Disneyland anthology TV program.

After the Davy Crockett miniseries began in late 1954, two movies followed in 1955, stitched together from the TV episodes. In 1955 Disney’s Davy Crockett character became a merchandising mint: coon skin caps, knives, pajamas, curtains, lunch boxes, watches, moccasins, pins, patches, comic books, guitars, books, bubble gum cards, dolls.

parker fess elston 55Star-Telegram entertainment columnist Elston Brooks interviewed Parker when the king of the wild frontier and sidekick Buddy Ebsen were in town promoting their movie at the Worth Theater. Note that Parker said that for his appearance on Dragnet he had to play closeup scenes on his knees so he would not be taller than Jack Webb and Ben Alexander. Parker also credited his appearance in Them with landing him the Davy Crockett role.

The song “Ballad of Davy Crockett” was part of that craze in 1955. Four versions of the song were hits that year, including one by Parker himself:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=txcRQedoEyY

There was even a Davy Crockett coonskin cap-inspired hairdo for women.

The success of the TV miniseries, the two movies, and the merchandising mania made Parker a superstar.

fess elston 69In 1969, when Parker was back in Fort Worth to attend the rodeo, Elston Brooks recalled the first meeting of the two men in 1955 and a meeting in 1956 when Parker revealed that Texas remained close to his heart.

In 1955, a year before Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, Parker was mobbed at personal appearances, such as premieres of the Crockett movies. Sometimes his plane couldn’t land at airports because the runway was covered with waiting fans. He received thirty-six thousand fan letters a day. Fess Parker was Elvis in buckskin.

Elvis would break out in 1956, about the time the Davy Crockett craze cooled.

fess parker tadIn 1955, as Fess Parker’s star rose, his parents moved back to Fort Worth, living in the house on Overhill Road. In fact, the house was built that year. Is it the house that Disney dollars built?

Fess Parker continued to visit his parents on Overhill Road for a few years but eventually moved them out to California to be closer to him.

After Fess Parker hung up his coonskin cap, he developed two resorts and a winery.

parker obitWhen Fess Parker died in 2010 he was buried with his parents in Santa Barbara.

Oh. And the connection to the 1950 film Harvey? Fess Parker’s first movie role was a small one. He was not even listed in the film’s credits. In fact, he was not even seen, just like Harvey the six-foot rabbit. In a brief scene featuring Jimmy Stewart, we see actor William Val as Leslie, the chauffeur of Mrs. Chumley. But when Val speaks, we hear Parker, whose voice was used instead of Val’s. In this twenty-two-second video clip, listen for the distinctive drawl of the future king of the wild frontier (“Yes, ma’am. That’s what the man said”):

Scene from Harvey

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One Response to Connections: Of Raccoons and Rabbits (Really Tall Rabbits)

  1. Claudia says:

    I have a bottle of wine from Mr. Parker’s vineyard in California and it has a little coonskin cap on it. It was a gift from my sister and I have never opened it. It’s really cool!

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