You know him as Smokey Bear, or maybe the more descriptive Smokey the Bear. Either way, you grew up being told by ol’ Smokey that only you can prevent forest fires. Your kids have probably already heard that a few times, too. And so did your parents, since Smokey Bear has been speaking out about the dangers of forest fires since August 9th, 1944. That’s when the first Smokey Bear poster was released as part of the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign. Back then, Smokey Bear sported jeans and a ranger hat while pouring water on a campfire. In fact, he looked like this:
Smokey Bear was brought in as a replacement for the Disney character Bambi, who had been briefly licensed for a public service campaign. The bear’s name was a tribute to “Smokey” Joe Martin. He was a New York City fireman who had lost his sight while performing a dramatic rescue in 1922. The urban hero’s namesake became a big hit all over America. There were official Smokey Bear dolls in the stores by 1944, and the Forest Service had already committed a full-time artist to the Smokey campaign. That was Rudy Wendelin, who’d maintain Smokey right up to his retirement in 1973.
And, of course, there had to be a real-life Smokey Bear. That idea came to life when an American black bear cub was saved from a 1950 forest fire in New Mexico. The little guy had climbed a tree to get away from the fire, but still had burns on his legs and hind paws. The cub was briefly known as “Hotfoot Teddy” before someone in Marketing had the smart idea of moving the bear into the National Zoo and naming him Smokey. The bear became so popular that the U.S. Postal Service had to give Smokey his own zip code.
By the way, you should really sing, “Happy birthday, dear Smokey Bear.” The only reason we even refer to “Smokey the Bear” is because of a hit pop song from 1952. The songwriters had to add “the” to pad out the lyrics to match the melody. The song was influential enough to have even Smokey calling himself “Smokey the Bear” by 1955. The name has always been spelled “Smokey,” though–in tribute to Joe Martin, of course. And speaking of tributes: the current Smokey the Bear ad campaign has a voiceover by actor Sam Elliott, who’s well known for his own distinct voice. And, just like Smokey, Sam is also celebrating his 69th birthday today! So happy birthday to Smokey and Sam. We’re going to look at some Smokey videos, though…