Smokey imparts his famous message.


Original Medium: Spokestoon
Speaking for: U.S. Forestry Service
First Appeared: 1944
Creator: Albert Staehle
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It was during World War II that the possibility of forest fires became a national security concern, with growing fear that Japanese pilots might attempt to destroy America's manufacturing capability at the raw material stage, by firebombing forests — or might at least be glad of assistance from careless campers who let their fires get out of control. Accordingly, posters from the early war years, exhorting people to help prevent forest fires, featured caricatures of Hitler and Tojo. Later ones, through the …

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… cooperation of The Walt Disney Company, depicted Bambi. But the agreement by which the U.S. Forestry Service borrowed Bambi for that use expired after only a year, so that character was replaced by one belonging to the Forestry Service itself. The first Smokey Bear poster was released August 9, 1944, a date which has been adopted as his birthday.

Smokey's designer was Albert Staehle, an artist working for The Ad Council, an agency that coordinated public service announcements for various governmental and non-profit organizations. The Ad Council was also responsible for advertising icons such Rosy the Riveter and the Crash Test Dummies, as well as slogans like "Friends don't let friends drive drunk" and "A mind is a terrible thing to waste". He was named after "Smoky" Joe Martin, a New York City fireman (not that kind) who became a famous hero in 1922. The E was added to distinguish the bear's name from the adjective "smoky".

Smokey (no relation, by the way) was soon taken in-house for production. Forestry Service employee Rudy Wendelin painted most of Smokey's posters until his 1973 retirement, and was considered Smokey's "manager" during his tenure.

There is a widespread belief that Smokey was named after a real-life bear that was rescued from a forest fire. Actually, it was the other way around, and the bear wasn't rescued from the actual fire, but from likely death in its aftermath. In 1950, a bear cub was found with bad burns on his hind legs, clinging to a treetop in New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest, after a fire had destroyed 17,000 acres, and was saved from starvation in the devasted land. Originally called "Hotfoot Teddy", he was renamed after the famous toon after being brought to Santa Fe for veterinary treatment. Under that name, he became a national celebrity. From there, he was brought to a zoo in Washington, DC, where he lived for 26 years. He is buried in what is now Smokey Bear Historical Park in New Mexico.

Prevention of forest fires isn't quite the only cause Smokey crusades for. He also fights a never-ending battle to be known by his correct name. In 1952, songsters Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins (who also collaborated on Frosty the Snowman) wrote a song about Smokey, in which they found it necessary, for rhythm purposes, to insert the word "the" into the middle of Smokey's name. From then on, in the public consciousness, Smokey has had a "middle name" just like that of Marvin the Martian. The Forestry service didn't try to correct that for several years, making the "middle name" even harder to erradicate.

That wasn't Smokey's only nedia penetration in the 1950s. In fact, Smokey became so commercially popular, Congress passed a special law, taking him out of the public domain, where most otherwise-copyrightable U.S. government creations reside. The Smokey Bear Act makes him the property of the Department of Agriculture, which uses his royalties in pursuit of his familiar goal of preventing forest fires. Later, he was getting so much mail, the Postal Service gave him a Zip Code all to himself.

Smokey was done as comics during that period, including a short-lived newspaper comic from Columbia Features (a minor 1950s-'60s outfit that also syndicated Henry Boltinoff's Stoker the Broker) and eight issues of Dell's Four-Color Comics (whose more mainstream stars include Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck). There, he had the "middle name".

Ideal Toys (Captain Action) did him as a doll in 1952. He was also on television in 1953, in a quarter-hour special titled Little Smokey: The True Story of America's Forest Fire Preventin' Bear, narrated by William Boyd in the role of Hopalong Cassidy. In 1956, he made a cameo in Humphrey Bear's cartoon, In the Bag, where his voice was done by radio personality Jackson Weaver, who also did Smokey in TV PSAs and whose screen acting career consists almost entirely of Smokey's voice. He was merchandised as coloring books, Little Golden Books, and every other way a '50s toon was merchandised. Radio spots would depict him having "conversations" with stars like Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore and Roy Rogers.

In 1966, he was back on TV, in an animated special produced by Rankin/Bass Productions (Silverhawks), titled The Ballad of Smokey the Bear. James Cagney did the narration. It featured songs by Johnny Marks, best known for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In 1969, Rankin/Bass did Smokey as a series, this time with the "middle name" properly excised. Weaver reprised the role as his voice. Gold Key Comics adapted the series for 13 issues, February 1970 through March, 1973.

By the time he reached his 60s, Smokey had become one of the most familiar and enduring of our public service spokestoons, easily eclipsing such relative pipsqueaks as Officer Gruff and Woodsy Owl. Weaver died in 1992, but with actor Sam Elliot (General Ross in The Hulk) doing his voice. Smokey's PSAs continue to inform us that only we can prevent wildfires.


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Text ©2009 Donald D. Markstein. Art © U.S. Department of Agriculture.