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Norb’s Corner: “It’s Howdy Doody time!”

Buffalo Bob Smith’s opening welcome, “Hey, kids, what time is it?” produced the response “It’s Howdy Doody time!” from the Peanut Gallery, as the studio audience was known. The children were a vital part of the program, which also featured Clarabell the Clown, a nonspeaking character who communicated by honking a bicycle horn, Princess Summerfall Winterspring (who I was madly in love with), Phineas T. Bluster, Dilly Dally, Chief Thunderthud, Trapper John, and Flubadub.

Howdy Doody was a children’s television program that was telecast on the NBC affiliate, WBEN Buffalo from December 27, 1947, thru September 24, 1960. There were 3 television stations back then ABC, CBS and NBC.  Howdy Doody was an innovator in children’s television programs and it set the pattern for countless other shows. Howdy Doody was one of the first television series produced at NBC in Rockefeller Center. It was also an innovator in color broadcasting. NBC was at that time owned by the television maker RCA who used the show to promote the sales of color TV sets during the 50s.

Bob Smith who was born in Buffalo, New York on November 27, 1917 as, designed Howdy Doody during his stint as a radio announcer for WNBC., Robert Schmidt was required to take piano lessons as a child and took to the instrument, and turned professional at 15 with a part-time job at as pianist and singer on a local radio station. Smith had gotten his beginning as a singing radio personality in Buffalo on WGR. Back then, Howdy Doody was just a voice that Smith did on the radio. When Smith appeared on the television for the first time it was on a program called the “Puppet Playhouse” on December 27, 1947. The reaction to the character Howdy Doody was big enough to justify making a marionette for television. Frank Paris, whose puppets appeared on Puppet Playhouse, was asked to make the Howdy Doody puppet.

Bob Smith, the host of the show, was nicknamed “Buffalo Bob” very early in the show’s series (this was a reference to Buffalo Bill the American frontier character and Buffalo, N.Y. Smith’s hometown). The original set was going to be a circus tent but this was quickly converted to a western town. Buffalo Bob wore cowboy attire, and so did Howdy. The puppet “star” got his name from the American saying “howdy doody” a common version of the phrase “How do you do?” that is used in the western United States.

As the character and the television program both got more popular, the call for Howdy Doody merchandise started to appear. By 1948, department stores and toymakers were approached about Howdy Doody merchandise. Macy’s department store communicated with Frank Paris, the designer of the Howdy Doody puppet, to enquire about the rights for a Howdy Doody doll. The problem was while Paris had designed the puppet, the rights to the character were owned by Bob Smith. The two men argued with Paris stating he was being conned out of any monetary benefits. After one of these disagreements, Paris grabbed the puppet and left the NBC studios in a snit about four hours before the Howdy Doody show was to go on the air.

With Howdy’s disappearance, impromptu excuses had to be made regarding where Howdy Doody was were made up. The explanation that was given was that Howdy was busy on the campaign trail with the elections. NBC quickly drew up a map of the United States which allowed the viewers, with the assistance of Smith, to know just where Howdy was. The ruse continued that while he was on the campaign trail, Howdy chose to have some plastic surgery. This allowed hiring Velma Wayne Dawson to make a better looking puppet than Paris’ original that was called “the ugliest puppet imaginable” by Bob Smith. Howdy’s voice would remain the same after this change because Smith was responsible for Doody’s voice.

The second Howdy Doody, the one that everyone remembers, was a freckle-faced boy marionette that had 48 freckles, one for each state of the union. This was until January 3, 1959, when Alaska became the 49th state and Howdy got one more freckle. The Howdy Doody show’s marionettes were built by the puppeteers Scott Brinker, Dawson and Rufus Rose. The red-haired Howdy marionette was operated by 11 strings and the original marionette is now display at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

There were other Howdy Doody puppets that were intended for off-the-air purposes only, like lighting rehearsals, personal appearances, etc. Even though remaining kinescope recordings show that these duplicates were used occasionally on the air. A “Double Doody”, as the Howdy stand-ins were called is now located in the Division of Culture and the Arts at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

The show characters lived in the fictional town of Doodyville. Clarabell the clown was first played by Bob Keeshan. At the end of the final episode, telecast on September 24, 1960, the camera zoomed in on the face of Clarabell who had a tear in his eye. He finally spoke for the first time saying the final words of the final episode of the final season he said, “Goodbye, kids.”

Up next. Where did Bob Keeshan go?

Norb is a writer from Lockport who grew up in Buffalo. Email him at nrug@juno.com.

Lead image: Photo of Buffalo Bob Smith with Howdy Doody and Flub a Dub from the children’s television progam Howdy Doody.

Written by Norbert Rug

Norbert Rug

Norb is an independent journalist and blogger from Lockport. His work has been published in over 50 periodicals and websites including the Buffalo News, Lockport Union Sun and Journal, Niagara Falls Gazette, the East Niagara Post, The Lockport Star, The North Tonawanda Extra, the Niagara Reporter, and Artvoice. His work has been published on Press Reader, Good Cookery, the National association for Home Care and Hospice, and Konitono. , in over 7 countries and has been translated in at least 5 languages.

View All Articles by Norbert Rug
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