Hundreds of people from throughout Santa Barbara County, Hollywood, and beyond gathered on Friday afternoon in Santa Barbara to honor actor, developer, and winemaker Fess Parker, who died on March 18 at the age of 85.
Convening in the outdoor rotunda that’s the centerpiece to his eponymous Doubletree Resort hotel, the darkly dressed audience sported a mix of coonskin caps and cowboy hats while sipping the free-flowing bottles of Fess Parker chardonnay and syrah and listening to some of Parker’s closest friends and family relay their memories of the man. Known best as the starring actor in the Davy Crockett television series, Parker later became an integral visionary in the development of the Santa Barbara waterfront as well as an important face in the growth of the Santa Ynez Valley’s wine industry. It’s no wonder, then, that the Doubletree’s sprawling parking lot was nearly packed, that all of the available chairs were filled, and that the standing room only crowd fought for shady space on the outskirts of the rotunda.
At about 2:10 p.m., his son Eli Parker welcome the crowd and thanked them for the outpouring of support the family had received in the past week. “Dad would have gotten a kick out of seeing this turnout today,” said the younger Parker as he looked at the crowd. Recalling the days he would drive around the waterfront property prior to the hotel’s development, Parker explained that the rotunda area was a particular point of pride for his dad. “It was just this kind of thing that he envisioned being able to take place here,” he explained. Speaking of his father’s outlook on life, Parker said, “The glass was always half-full, and if it happened to have syrah in it, he’d probably drink it.”
The first speaker was former Tarzan actor Ron Ely, a friend of Fess Parker’s since 1965. Joking that Parker was not the typical Hollywood type, Ely exclaimed, “He even liked agents!”
Following Ely was Darby Hinton, a child actor who played the role of Israel on the Daniel Boone series. Although his father died when he was just one year old, Hinton believes that his dad led him to Fess Parker from heaven because of the need for a male role model. As evidence, Hinton recalled that he had gone to the studio wearing lederhosen to audition for a role in The Sound of Music, but instead wound up reading for a part in Davy Crockett even though a kid’s character was not originally scripted. They added a spot for him, and Hinton immediately looked up to Parker as a father figure. Recently, as Hinton was pursuing a Davy Crockett documentary, he was able to speak with Parker about his proudest achievements. One was what they did with television during the racial tensions of the 1960s. “They were able to bring into the living room the very hot topic of slavery,” said Hinton. “He was very proud of that.” But most of all, Hinton said Parker was proud of the people he surrounded himself with. “That’s you guys,” said Hinton to the crowd, “his family.”
A glance into the winemaking Fess was next, courtesy of vintner Jed Steele, who met Parker 17 years ago and helped him restart the winery with a deeper focus on quality. Steele recalled a legendary wine tasting with renowned critic Robert Parker (no relation), during which time the critic pulled Fess aside and asked him to spend some time with his dying father. Fess Parker agreed immediately. Steele put Fess Parker in a league with such esteemed wine country patriarchs as Robert Mondavi and Piero Antinori. “All three of them share a sense of history, a sense of family, and a sense of place,” said Steele. Although he had wanted to end his eulogy with a line from the bible, Steele instead recounted a conversation he had with the Algerian cab driver who had taken him from the Santa Barbara airport to the Doubletree the night before. The man explained that he had met Parker twice, both times shaking his hand, and told Steele, “He was very humble. He seemed to be a good man.”
One of Fess Parker’s longtime civic rivals was Dave Davis, formerly in charge of community development for the City of Santa Barbara. As such, Davis said that he spent half of his adult life dealing in one way or another with Parker, as the actor’s vision for what to do with the Santa Barbara waterfront became a matter of public discourse and debate for decades. Though Davis admitted to loving the Davy Crockett show and owning both the coonskin cap and the lunch box while a kid growing up in New Orleans, he said that dealing with Parker was often like a “game of whack-a-mole,” because of all the new ideas that would pop up. But at the end, Davis said Parker’s contributions as a developer were a plus for all. “Fess, the Parker family, and the community of Santa Barbara did it right,” said Davis, who also led the crowd in a verse from “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” At the end of his talk, Davis proclaimed, “Dave Davis loves Fess Parker. Santa Barbara loves Fess Parker.”
The final friend to speak was Rick Fogg, Parker’s attorney. He explained that listening to “Mr. Parker” over the years was like reading a special guidebook to life. Among other Parker prescriptions, Fogg said he learned to sing better and more, buy a Mercedes Benz coupe, stand up tall and straight, how to saunter, drink hot toddies when sick, distrust corporate vice presidents, keep lawyers out of your business dealings, exercise, eat more tomatoes, and move to the Santa Ynez Valley.
Concluding the event was Fess Parker’s daughter Ashley, who said she will mostly miss her father’s voice: “It was a bit like syrah — imposing and impressive, but at the same time, approachable and friendly.” She invited her brother Eli back to the stage, and together they took turns reading “Desiderata,” the poem that Fess made them memorize when children. It goes:
“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.”
Following that, the crowd sang along to “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” before exiting the rotunda.