There are few PSA characters as well-known and beloved as Smokey Bear. The anti-pollution crying indian holds a place in many hearts, even if “indian” is now a dubious term for “native American” and the actor portraying the character was European. Woodsy Owl has given it the college try but is absolutely a B-lister. McGruff the Crime Dog has had a pretty good run, and the spindly-limbed cartoon character Timer who taught kids to eat cheese and make the world’s tiniest ice pops was given plenty of exposure in the 1970s. Smokey, however, is undoubtedly at the top of the heap.
You already knew that, though.
What most people don’t know is that Smokey reversed the usual path of a living creature being rendered as a cartoon. Instead, he was a cartoon that was turned into a living creature… and then back into a cartoon.
Smokey Bear began as a World War II fire awareness effort. Japanese submarines had reached the coast of California and fired shells at an oil field, targeting American fuel reserves. Government officials quickly realized that the Japanese had, in selecting the strategically useful target, missed an opportunity to do incredible damage. The incendiary shells had landed not far from the Los Padres National Forest, and with most able-bodied men fighting in World War II, the ability to extinguish any wildfires would have been virtually nonexistent.
A campaign was started to teach people to prevent forest fires by simply being ready with water to extinguish any fires they might happen across. Not an ideal solution, but the best one available at the time.
After the war, the campaign continued, with campers being taught fire safety in an effort to minimize destructive wildfires. And then, in 1950, a New Mexico fire changed everything.
As the crew battled to contain the blaze, they received a report of a lone bear cub seen wandering near the fire line. They hoped that the mother bear would return for him. Soon, about 30 of the firefighters were caught directly in the path of the fire storm. They survived by lying face down on a rockslide for over an hour as the fire burned past them.
Nearby, the little cub had not fared as well. He took refuge in a tree that became completely charred, escaping with his life but also badly burned paws and hind legs. The crew removed the cub from the tree, and a rancher among the crew agreed to take him home. A New Mexico Department of Game and Fish ranger heard about the cub when he returned to the fire camp. He drove to the rancher’s home to help get the cub on a plane to Santa Fe, where his burns were treated and bandaged.SmokeyBear.com
The cub was given the moniker of Smokey and became the living representative of Smokey Bear. He remained so, living in relative luxury at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., until his death in 1976… when Smokey went back to being a cartoon character only.
Well, cartoon character and mascot. As with many other famous cartoons, live appearances are often required, and hundreds of people have climbed into a Smokey outfit over the years to mingle with kids and teach them fire safety.
These days, the voice of the cartoon Smokey is provided by a Hollywood legend, Sam Elliott. Elliott has been Smokey’s voice since 2008. He is an unusually apt choice for the character… not because of his authoritative voice or the stern-but-amiable demeanor often portrayed in his movie roles, but because the Smokey campaign was officially launched on August 9, 1944… the day Sam Elliott was born.
Question of the night: Who’s your favorite mascot character?