Happy Birthday: Smokey the Bear turns 65

One dude who just turned 65 is still so hot, he’s smoking. Too bad he’s just a cartoon.

Smokey rocks/Ryn Gargulinski

Smokey rocks/Ryn Gargulinski

But he’s a cartoon with a big campaign, bigger shoulders and the very big message that “Only you can prevent wildfires.” Well, you and Mother Nature.

In any event, Smokey the Bear celebrates his birthday this week, perhaps with a cake sporting battery-operated candles, and he doesn’t appear ready to retire anytime soon.

Forest fires, or in the case of southern Arizona, dry brush desert area fires, have already eaten up more than 4.18 million acres of America this year alone, thanks to careless campers, severe storms and that stuff called lightning.

This week alone, more than 30 large wildfires were raging across the nation, according to Smokey’s online Real Time Wildfire Map, with four and one-half of them in Arizona. The one-half was partly in New Mexico. One of the most visible has been blazing in the Grand Canyon.

Perhaps our area’s mot notable was the Aspen fire that wiped out most of Summerhaven in June 2003.

Smokey must have had the day off.

But his efforts have earned him the distinction of being part of the longest running public service announcement in U.S. history and one of the most recognizable icons of our time.

A whopping 97 percent of adults recognize Smokey’s image at the drop of a ranger hat, according to an Ad Council survey, and three out of four folks can recite his sizzling wildfire mantra without looking at a cue card.

Because Smokey is one of the hottest spokespersons to hit the market, we have to ask why he has been so successful.

Illustration Ryn Gargulinski

Illustration Ryn Gargulinski

Few other cartoon spokespeople have achieved such heights, although we do have the pleasure of McGruff the Crime Dog and his little sidekick Scruff, neither of whom can hold a candle to Smokey.

Smokey has staying power for a number of reasons. One is his sob story of origin. The icon had a real live counterpart when folks found a baby bear cub cowering in a charred tree after a New Mexico wildfire.

The cub was rescued, tended to, healed up and dubbed “Little Smokey.” His new home became Washington D.C.’s National Zoo.

You can’t help but love any icon with a beginning that sweet.

Another reason Smokey is effective is because of his delivery. He doesn’t hit folks on the head with a shovel to instill his message. He uses the age-old method proven to work almost every time on almost everybody: guilt.

One of Smokey’s 1940s-era posters features a disappointed-looking bear sadly pouring a bucket of water on an unattended campfire.

Another depicts dear Smokey actually kneeling down in prayer with the words, “And please make people careful, amen.”

A 1950s poster shows Smokey cradling the near dead body of a doe while a fire rages in the background with the words, “Our Most Shameful Waste.”

OK, OK, I promise to put out my campfire.

Smokey’s final claim to fame is the fact that he’s so dang personable. He may be big, burly and potentially deadly, but he caters to our compassionate side.

Illustration Ryn Gargulinski

Illustration Ryn Gargulinski

He got his start because of the massive news coverage following the discovery of the charred-up New Mexico bear and has been in the limelight since.

Smokey has been featured in Ladies Home Journal, the star of entire comic books and is a regular on countless posters, radio and TV, not to mention the thousands of schools and other venues he’s visited over the years.

That’s quite a campaign. But then, he’s quite a bear.

Happy birthday, Smokey.

Ryn Gargulinski is a poet, artist, performer and TucsonCitizen.com Ryngmaster who never started a fire or killed a gerbil on purpose.  Listen to a preview of her column at 8:10 a.m. Thursdays on KLPX 96.1 FM. Her column appears every Friday on Rynski’s Blogski. E-mail rynski@tucsoncitizen.com.


Do you care about Smokey the Bear or are you more into Woodsy Owl?

Do cartoon icons deter you from acting stupid?

In addition to Smokey, Woodsy and McGruff, what other icons do we need?


About Rynski

Writer, artist, performer who specializes in the weird, wacky and sometimes creepy. Learn more at ryngargulinski.com.
This entry was posted in danger, environment, health, Heroes, life, Media, notable folks, Pets/animals, Rynski Column and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Happy Birthday: Smokey the Bear turns 65

  1. azmouse says:

    Your drawing of Smokey is so great! It’s spot on.

    Oh, Mornin Rynski!
    (sorry RadMax, had to do it! lol)

    • Rynski says:

      Mornin AZMouse (seems RadMax is sleeping this morn – haha) – glad you liked the Smokey drawing. I especially enjoyed drawing the shovel magically attached to his hand.
      Are you a Smokey fan? or do you prefer Woodsy? or are you in McGruff’s camp?

  2. azmouse says:

    Smokey makes me think about that poor American-Indian man, with the tear in his eye when those horrible people throw trash out of their car window.

  3. radmax says:

    Mornin’ Rynski! Smokey is an icon. Now if everybody would listen to his message, we would have allot less man made forest fires. Sometimes he irritates me when his sign says that the fire danger is high or extreme-while it is raining, all in all, a cool bear. PS-someone in a woodsy owl suit stalked me at Park Mall awhile back, so I don’t care for this character very much…

    • Rynski says:

      Mornin, RadMax – you awoke! I agree with the fire danger HIGH! signs when it’s raining. But that’s not Smokey’s fault. He’s in his cushy forest while his workers are supposed to change the signs – but there’s so many of those dang things they don’t get to all of them. I’ve seen several only feet apart.
      Sorry you had a bad Woodsy experience. Why why he stalking you? Were you not giving a hoot and polluting? Were you throwing gum wrappers in the Park Mall parking lot?

      • azmouse says:

        Woodsy thought Maxxie was hot!

      • radmax says:

        Mornin’ az…certainly was unsettling, every time we turned around the little bugger was there, owl-eyeing us! 🙂

      • Rynski says:

        it’s those gum wrappers, i’m tellin’ ya. if you would have poked out his eye it would have taken out his whole face since his eyes are so giant. I’ll have to draw woodsy next.

      • radmax says:

        Yeah! Send me a copy too would you? I’ll print it out and use it for target practice… 🙂

      • azmouse says:

        Mornin’ Max-ter!
        I feel a little jealous of Woodsy…LOL!

      • azmouse says:

        Reminds me of one of my neighbors. I swim every morning and every night, and if that guy doesn’t always take his trash out to the alley dumpster, so he can look over the wall and say ‘hello’. Yuck….

      • radmax says:

        Rynski…trash? Me?…besides, they have people for that…

  4. Jennatoolz says:

    Aww Smokey the Bear! A fact about him: He is from a tiny village called Capitan, NM (only about 1500 people live there these days) . It also happens to be where I grew up!

    Needless to say, I was surrounded by Smokey as a child. He often made visits to my school…and of course they have a Smokey Bear Museum!

    • azmouse says:

      Wow! What kinda stuff is at the museum?

      • Jennatoolz says:

        Wow, it’s been so long since I’ve been there! I remember photo’s of him…and outside they have a nature trail type of thing with all kinds of paths through different types of trees and plants. It was pretty, but at the time I didn’t really care to see trees, lol.

  5. Jennatoolz says:

    Also, he has his own theme song that I often had to sing!! http://kids.niehs.nih.gov/lyrics/smokey.htm 

    • Rynski says:

      how cool, jeannatoolz…thanks for sharing all the info! congrats on having a gorgeous claim to fame from your hometown. I’m originally from Troy, Mich., where the claim to fame is/was Kmart headquarters (haha). Also – i am very very tempted to click on the link for the Smokey song, but i fear it will then run through my head all day.

      • Jennatoolz says:

        LOL! You can mute it (because it does play the music upon opening the webpage) but just read the lyrics. They’re kinda cute, lol. I was surprised that I actually remembered some of the words! What a blast into the past!! Haha

      • azmouse says:

        Cute tune, and that song is pretty long! lol
        Jennatoolz is like our resident Smokey expert.

      • Jennatoolz says:

        Hahah right…of course they cut the song down for us in elementary school. I also just remembered they even had a little dance to go with it. Right now, I can’t remember what the dance was, but at this rate I’ll be dancing to the tune by the end of the day!

        Anything you need to know about Smokey, you now know where to go! =P

      • Rynski says:

        i am honored to have a smokey expert in our midst, jennatoolz. i’ll add you to my rolodex in the smokey bear section. we also want a video of you dancing to the smokey song (haha).

  6. azmouse says:

    When I was in first grade the only song we sang was,
    A-R-I-Z-O-N-A is my state.
    Arizona U.S.A. I think you’re great!

    • Rynski says:

      that’s sweet – too bad nothing rhymes with michigan – haha.
      i remember an alphabet song that had the lyrics:
      E is for exercise – exercise, exercise, good for your hips, good for your thighs. and we would all dance and my friend had a pocket mirror in her bag, which she dropped, and it shattered. so that song became synonymous with seven years bad luck….
      and, of course, there is ALWAYS the fabulous carole king music my mom introduced me to at home: there once was a boy named pierre, who only would say “i don’t care.”
      ok, i’m going to make art now. someone ordered a giant evil bat that reads: not an exit.

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