LUTHERAN CHURCH Davey and Goliath return to teach a new generation
The church is taking the animated duo into the mainstream.
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
ORLANDO, Fla. -- By the elaborate standards of today's ultra-slick, multimillion-dollar vacation Bible school industry, "Davey and Goliath's Camp Creation" at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Orlando is a modest affair.
There are none of the banners, props or costumes typical of other camp packages at this small church. Just a music CD with sing-along lyrics, hand-copied onto an overhead-transparency screen. And DVDs of vintage segments from Davey and Goliath.
The classic, stop-motion animated television series was developed by the Lutheran Church in the late 1950s. The 15-minute segments feature a good-natured but mischievous boy who tends to make the wrong choices, and his drawling dog, who suggests the right path.
There are lots of theories about what is needed to turn around a mainline Protestant denomination in decline, but few have ever thought the answer might be a clueless animated boy and his canine conscience. For the five-million strong Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, whose membership is aging, Davey and Goliath may be the route to salvation.
After three years, the ELCA's effort to revive the characters is gaining momentum, with a national soft-drink commercial, a Christmas television special and a growing line of merchandise, in addition to the vacation Bible school curriculum, offered for the first time this summer.
"Like many mainline Protestant denominations, we are struggling with how to be effective in a culture that represents both a spiritual desert and a spiritual jungle," the Rev. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the ELCA, said in a 2001 Orlando Sentinel interview.
The Davey and Goliath video messages are direct, if a little old-fashioned, which is fine with Emmanuel's children's minister, Barbi Worswick.
"They're so simple," she says. "The lessons are timeless."
The old programs deal with real-life situations, such as cleaning your room, treating others fairly, working together and taking your responsibilities seriously. God is mentioned, but the touch is light. There was also racial diversity; even in the early 1960s, white Davey had a black friend.
At first, Worswick thought the crude animation -- the predecessor to claymation -- might not hold the children's interest, given the far more sophisticated fare most are now accustomed to watching on television, computer and movie screens.
But she is delighted that most of the 35 children attending the five-day session are entranced.
"I think they're really good," says Jessica Chavez, 10, of Orlando. "They send morals out. I like that they're pretty simple. You can get the message. You don't have to guess."
"The series emphasizes God's love for children, and the wisdom of parents," says the Rev. Eric Shafer, director of communications for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "Those are themes that resonate with people of all faiths--and with people of no faith."
Since the early 1980s, more than 600,000 videocassettes of the Davey and Goliath episodes have been sold, and the prospect of a DVD release holds the promise of even greater sales.
Developed by Gumby creator
The Lutherans developed the series with Art Clokey, creator of the equally beloved Gumby and Pokey. "Davey and Goliath" ran from 1960 to the early 1970s, with reruns airing weekends through the mid-1980s.
In its most visible recent foray, the Lutherans licensed the boy and his dog for a 30-second Mountain Dew commercial, which ran nationally between February 2002 and February 2003. The spot turned Goliath's line, "Oh, Davey," into a teen catchphrase.
Some in the denomination objected to hyping a sugary, caffeinated drink to children. Others complained about Davey's ironically out-of-character line, "We got hosed."
"We did have some criticism about the language in the spot, as well as about the product," Mr. Shafer says. "We justified it. It was a tradeoff."
Then, in 2003, a documentary about the history of the show, called "Oh Davey!" aired on ABC affiliates. The denomination is now shopping a new holiday special, "Davey and Goliath's Snowboard Christmas" -- financed in part by the Mountain Dew fee -- to commercial broadcast and cable networks. It is also stop-motion animation.
During the past three years, the denomination has produced and licensed merchandise ranging from T-shirts and key chains to Davey and Goliath figures with bobbing heads.
Shifting to the Davey and Goliath curriculum this year has raised Augsburg Fortress' vacation Bible school revenue by $300,000, according to the publisher. Next summer's curriculum, already being marketed, is "Davey and Goliath's Circus Spectacular." It, too, uses segments from the old series. A book titled "Life Lessons from Davey and Goliath" was published in 2003.
Last week, the denomination signed a deal with Scholastic Books, the world's largest publisher and distributor of children's books, to create coloring and activity books based on the series.