Howdy Doody

Howdy Doody
Genre Children's television series
Created by E. Roger Muir
Presented by Buffalo Bob Smith
Howdy Doody
Starring Bob Keeshan
Lew Anderson
Bobby Nicholson
Country of origin United States
Producer(s) E. Roger Muir
Running time 60 minutes (1947–1949)
30 Minutes (1948–1960)
Original network NBC
Picture format Black & White (1947–1954)
Color (1955–1960)
Original release December 27, 1947 – September 24, 1960

Howdy Doody is an American children's television program (with circus and Western frontier themes) that was created and produced by E. Roger Muir[1] and telecast on the NBC network in the United States from December 27, 1947 until September 24, 1960. It was a pioneer in children's television programming and set the pattern for many similar shows. One of the first television series produced at NBC in Rockefeller Center, in Studio 3A, it was also a pioneer in early color production as NBC (at the time owned by TV maker RCA) used the show in part to sell color television sets in the 1950s.

Characters and story

On the air with the first Howdy Doody puppet. The original Howdy is immediately to Smith's left (our right). The two other puppets are Mr. Huff and Eustis who appeared only for a short time on a Saturday edition of the Puppet Playhouse show.
Howdy Doody views the results of his "plastic surgery".

Bob Smith created Howdy Doody during his days as a radio announcer on WNBC. At that time, Howdy Doody was only a voice Smith performed on the radio. When Smith made an appearance on NBC's television program Puppet Playhouse on December 27, 1947, the reception for the character was great enough to begin a demand for a visual character for television. Frank Paris, a puppeteer whose puppets appeared on the program, was asked to create a Howdy Doody puppet.[2]

Bob Smith, the show's host, was dubbed "Buffalo Bob" early in the show's run (a reference to the historical Buffalo Bill and Smith's hometown of Buffalo, New York). At first the set was supposed to be a circus tent, but soon was changed, during the show, to a western town. Smith wore cowboy garb, and the name of the puppet "star" was derived from the American expression "howdy doody"/"howdy do", a commonplace corruption of the phrase "How do you do?" used in the western United States (The straightforward use of that expression was also in the theme song's lyrics.) Smith, who had gotten his start as a singing radio personality in Buffalo, used music frequently in the program. Cast members Lew Anderson and Robert "Nick" Nicholson were both experienced jazz musicians.

As both the character and television program grew in popularity, demand for Howdy Doody related merchandise began to surface. By 1948, toymakers and department stores had been approached with requests for Howdy Doody dolls and similar items. Macy's department store contacted Frank Paris, the creator of the puppet, to ask about rights for a Howdy Doody doll. While Paris had created the puppet, it was Bob Smith who owned the rights to the Howdy Doody character; an argument ensued between the two men, as Paris felt he was being cheated out of any financial benefits from having made the puppet. After one such disagreement, Paris took the Howdy Doody puppet and angrily left the NBC studios with it about four hours before the show was to air live; it was not the first time Paris had taken his puppet and left, leaving the live television program with no "star".[2][3][4]

With Paris' past disappearances, impromptu excuses regarding the whereabouts of Howdy Doody had been hastily concocted. This time, an elaborate explanation was offered—that Howdy was busy with the elections on the campaign trail. NBC hurriedly constructed a map of the United States, which allowed viewers, with the help of Smith, to learn where Howdy was on the road. The explanation continued that while on the campaign trail, Howdy decided to improve his appearance with some plastic surgery. This made it possible for the network to hire Velma Dawson to create a more handsome and appealing visual character than Paris' original, which had been called "the ugliest puppet imaginable" by Bob Smith.[4][5] Since Paris did not provide the voice of the character, Howdy's voice would stay the same after his appearance changed. The puppet which is remembered as the "original" Howdy Doody replaced the actual original made by Frank Paris.[2][3][4]

The original Dawson Howdy Doody at Detroit Institute of Arts

Howdy Doody himself is a freckle-faced boy marionette with 48 freckles, one for each state of the union (up until January 3, 1959, when Alaska was admitted as the 49th state), and was originally voiced by Buffalo Bob Smith.[6] The Howdy Doody show's various marionettes were created and built by puppeteers Velma Wayne Dawson, Scott Brinker (the show's prop man) and Rufus Rose throughout the show's run.[7] The redheaded Howdy marionette on the original show was operated with 11 strings: two heads, one mouth, one eye, two shoulders, one back, two hands and two knees. Three strings were added when the show returned—two elbows and one nose. The original Howdy Doody marionette now resides at the Detroit Institute of Arts. There were duplicate Howdy Doody puppets, designed to be used expressly for off-the-air purposes (lighting rehearsals, personal appearances, etc.), although surviving kinescope recordings clearly show that these duplicate puppets were indeed used on the air occasionally. Double Doody, the Howdy stand-in puppet, is now in the collection of the Division of Culture and the Arts at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.[8]

Photo Doody is the near-stringless marionette that was used in personal appearances, photos, parades, and the famed NBC test pattern. He was sold by Leland's Sports Auction House in 1997 for more than $113,000 to a private art collector, TJ Fisher.[9]

Phineas T. Bluster.
Buffalo Bob with Howdy Doody and Flub-a-Dub.

Puppet characters

Other puppet characters included:

Animal puppets

The show also featured animal puppets such as Hyde and Zeke the bear; Mambo the elephant; Tizzy the dinosaur; Paddle the gnu and Tommy Turtle.


Howdy Doody dolls were also sold commercially, as well as marionettes of Howdy Doody and Flub-a-dub. There were also two other marionettes, Don José, and Hector Hamhock Bluster, brothers of Phineas T.

Replicas of Howdy

In addition to the original vintage puppets, puppetmaker Alan Semok (at the request of Bob Smith in the early 1990s) created several exact replicas of Howdy, including (thanks to improved materials and new molding techniques) a more exact marionette replica than had ever been produced in the past, as well as a new Photo Doody which Smith used in personal appearances until his death in 1998. One of Semok's marionette duplicates appears on a 2005 cover of TV Guide magazine as part of a series recreating classic covers from the magazine's history. The cover featured Howdy with Conan O'Brien dressed as Buffalo Bob Smith. Another of the Semok duplicates resides in the International Museum and Library of the Conjuring Arts, the private museum owned by renowned illusionist David Copperfield.

Characters and actors

Clarabell the Clown.

There also were several human characters, most notably the mute Clarabell the Clown, who communicated in mime, by honking horns on his belt, and by squirting seltzer, J. Cornelius Cobb, Sir Archibald the Explorer (played by Dayton Allen), Chief Thunderthud, head of the Ooragnak tribe of American Indians (kangaroo spelled backward), played by Bill Le Cornec. Edward Kean originated Thunderthud's greeting "Kowabonga!" Princess SummerFall WinterSpring was played by actress Judy Tyler. The characters inhabited the fictional town of Doodyville. Several characters (including Ugly Sam, the world's worst wrestler, and Pierre the Chef) were played by comedian Dayton Allen, who later went on to become a cast regular on NBC's primetime The Steve Allen Show. The Howdy show's non-televised rehearsals were renowned for including considerable double-entendre dialogue between the cast members (particularly the witty Dayton Allen) and the puppet characters. Corny Cobb was played by Bobby "Nick" Nicholson in 1952, by puppeteer Rufus Rose in 1953 and 1954 while Nicholson assumed the role of Clarabell, and again by Nicholson from early 1955 until the end of the show.[10]

Clarabell was first played by Bob Keeshan (who also played The Featherman). Keeshan continued in that role until December 1952, when he, Dayton Allen, puppeteer Rhoad Mann, and Bill LeCornec left the show over a salary dispute (LeCornec was later rehired). Keeshan later became Captain Kangaroo at CBS. The role of Clarabell was then taken by Nicholson, who played it for about 22 months. In January 1955, the role was turned over to Anderson, who kept it until the series ended and for all subsequent revivals and specials, while Nicholson took on the role of J. Cornelius "Corny" Cobb.[10] At the end of the final episode, telecast on September 24, 1960, Clarabell broke his series-long silence to say the final words of the final broadcast: "Goodbye, kids."[11] Each of the cast members also played other roles as required.

Custody battle

After the death of Buffalo Bob Smith, a fierce legal and custody battle for the original Howdy Doody puppet erupted among the heirs of Bob Smith, the Rufus Rose estates and a museum to which the marionette had been bequeathed. Howdy was once again in the news, with his face and story making headline broadcast, wire, talk show and print news around the world. For a while, during the tug-of-war fight, the puppet was held in a bank safety deposit box while the saga played out in the federal courts.

During one day of deposition, puppetmaker Alan Semok (who had performed various maintenance and re-painting of the original Howdy marionette beginning in 1989) was called upon to unseal a trap door on the back of the puppet's head; Velma Dawson, the puppet's original builder, who was 88 years of age at the time of the deposition, was present and given the opportunity to examine the inside of the head in an effort to verify that the puppet in question was the original that she created. Despite 50 years of numerous repairs, repaints, and replaced body parts, Dawson eventually declared the head of the puppet to be the one she originally made in 1948. The Detroit Institute of Arts ultimately prevailed and has custody of the original Howdy.[2]

Broadcast history

Originally an hour on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays (at 5 pm), the show moved to Monday through Friday, 5:30–6:00 pm EST in September 1948. During part of its run, it was preceded by the 15-minute program, The Gabby Hayes Show, hosted by George "Gabby" Hayes. In June 1956, it began to be shown on Saturdays only, in a morning timeslot (10-10:30 Eastern time), continuing until its final broadcast on September 24, 1960.

Peanut Gallery

The peanut gallery, circa 1949.

A distinctive feature was the Peanut Gallery, on-stage bleachers seating about 40 children. Each show began with Buffalo Bob asking, "Say kids, what time is it?" and the kids yelling in unison, "It's Howdy Doody Time!" Then the kids all sang the show's theme song (set to the tune of "Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay"):

It’s Howdy Doody time
It’s Howdy Doody time
Bob Smith and Howdy too
Say “Howdy do” to you
Let’s give a rousing cheer
’Cause Howdy Doody’s here
It’s time to start the show
So kids, let’s go!

It was thus one of the first television shows with audience participation as a major component.

In many of the 1949–54 episodes released on DVD by Mill Creek Entertainment in 2008, the children can even be heard singing jingles for commercial breaks, with Buffalo Bob or Howdy leading them and the lyrics appearing on screen. Colgate toothpaste, Halo Shampoo, 3 Musketeers candy bars and Poll Parrot Shoes are among the products advertised this way, as well as series-long sponsor Wonder Bread.

The popularity of Howdy Doody and its Peanut Gallery led executives at United Features Syndicate to the name Peanuts for syndication of Charles M. Schulz's Li'l Folks comic strip, to the lifelong chagrin of Schulz.[12]

Smith's absence

Ted Brown fills in for Bob Smith as "Bison Bill".

In September 1954, Bob Smith suffered a heart attack and was ordered to recover at home. NBC managed to keep the show going with guest hosts, including Gabby Hayes and New York disc jockey Ted Brown as Bison Bill, explaining that Smith was vacationing at Pioneer Village.[13] While kids generally were satisfied with the explanation, show sponsors insisted that they wanted Smith himself to hawk their products. In response, NBC set up a special studio at Smith's home so that he could appear live "from Pioneer Village" to do commercials. During Smith's absence from the show, Howdy was voiced by Allen Swift. Swift continued to voice the character for the remainder of the show's run, even after Smith's return in September 1955. [14]

Final episode

The final episode, "Clarabell's Big Surprise", was broadcast on September 24, 1960. The hour-long episode was mostly a fond look back at all the highlights of the show's past. Meanwhile, in the midst of it all, Clarabell has what he calls a "big surprise." The rest of the cast attempts to find out the surprise throughout the entire show, with only Mayor Phineas T. Bluster succeeding, and promising to keep it a secret. ("But", he says upon leaving, "it won't be very easy to keep something like this a secret for long!")

Finally, in the closing moments, the surprise was disclosed through pantomime to Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody; as it turned out, Clarabell could actually talk. Amazed, Bob frantically told Clarabell to prove it, as this was his last chance. An ominous drum roll began as Clarabell faced the camera as it came in for an extreme closeup. His lips quivered as the drumroll continued. When it stopped, Clarabell simply said softly, "Goodbye, kids." A tear could be seen in Clarabell's right eye as the picture faded to black.

The show quietly ended with a roll of credits over an empty, darkened set as "Auld Lang Syne" was played on a celeste, followed by an announcement that The Shari Lewis Show would be seen in its place at that time next week, followed by a spot for National Velvet.

The recently discovered and restored color videotape of the final broadcast is now available commercially.

Merchandising and licensing

Chad Grothkopf's Howdy Doody (February 24, 1952)

A 1955 merchandise catalog had 24 pages showcasing the range of products licensed by the show. The extensive merchandising included the aforementioned puppet, toys and clothing, plus tie-ins with cereals and other food products. Dell published a comic book from 1950 to 1956 along with Little Golden Books and Tell-a-Tale books, many written by Doody head writer Edward Kean.[15] In addition Dell scribe John Stanley contributed scripts for the comic book.[16] Kean also did some scripting (along with Stan Lee) of a Sunday-only Doody comic strip through United Feature Syndicate which ran from October 15, 1950, to June 21, 1953. Milt Neil and Chad Grothkopf were the initial art team through December 3, 1950 after which Grothkopf handled the art solo.[17]


UPA was hired to do an animated cartoon (Howdy Doody and his Magic Hat) which was the first directorial effort of Gene Deitch and long thought lost until a print turned up at the Library of Congress in 2010.[18][19] On April 15 of that year, the film was posted online.[20]

DVD release

On November 4, 2008, Mill Creek Entertainment (under license from NBCUniversal) released Howdy Doody Show: 40 Episodes 1949–1954 on DVD in Region 1. The three-disc set features 40 of the best episodes from the series as selected by fans as well as bonus features.[21] This release has been discontinued and is now out of print.

Howdy Doody's return

Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) appears on The Howdy Doody Show after entering a Howdy Doody lookalike contest in Milwaukee.

The 1970s brought a wave of nostalgia interest in an idealised representation of the 1950s, and with it films such as American Graffiti and the TV show Happy Days. An episode of Happy Days was entitled "The Howdy Doody Show" (number 33 of the series; original airdate February 18, 1975), during the series' second season, having a Howdy Doody storyline featuring Smith as Buffalo Bob, with actor Bob Brunner as Clarabell.

Shortly thereafter, Nicholson-Muir Productions (owned by Nick Nicholson and E. Roger Muir) acquired from NBC the rights to produce the New Howdy Doody Show, an attempt by Buffalo Bob and most of the old cast to recreate their past fame. It was broadcast from August 1976 to January 1977 in syndication. For this incarnation, which lasted 130 episodes, the Howdy Doody marionette had actual hair in a contemporary 1970s style and was operated by puppeteer Pady Blackwood. Cast members included Bill LeCornec as flamboyant fictional producer Nicholson Muir (named for the production company); Nicholson himself as Corny Cobb (now working as a "prop man" rather than a shopkeeper), bandleader Jackie Davis, and Marilyn Patch (now Dr. Marilyn Plavocos Arnone) as Happy Harmony (filling in for the Princess Summerfallwinterspring role). Lew Anderson returned as Clarabell. It was staged before a larger Peanut Gallery of children and their parents, originating from and taped in Florida. These new episodes were not well-received, with many finding them tedious and nearly unwatchable. The magic was gone.

A decade later, the show celebrated its 40th anniversary with a two-hour syndicated TV special, It's Howdy Doody Time: A 40-Year Celebration, featuring Smith, Anderson, Nicholson and LeCornec, who reprised his former role of Chief Thunderthud for the special.

Late in life, Bob Smith befriended New York-based fan Jack Roth, who was already quite familiar with Smith's gallery of puppet characters. Since Smith's death in 1998, Roth has usually provided the voice for Howdy Doody in TV appearances and live venues. Actor-puppeteer Alan Semok, who was approached by Smith to re-create the Howdy marionette, has also voiced Howdy.

Cultural references

Pee-wee's Playhouse drew from Howdy Doody during its successful run on CBS from 1986 to 1990.

On a 2012 episode of Mad Men, the character of Pete Campbell claims he is the "President of the Howdy Doody Circus Army" while verbally upbraiding a train conductor.

The Dickies feature a song called "Howdy Doody in the Woodshed" on their 2001 CD All This and Puppet Stew.

International versions

Like the later Sesame Street, Canadian, Cuban, and Mexican spin-off shows were licensed using local casts and duplicate puppets.

La Hora de Jaudi Dudi

In March 1953, the Kagran Corporation, the organization which produced the original Howdy Doody for NBC, started production on La Hora de Jaudi Dudi, a daily Spanish-language version of the program filmed in Mexico City. The program aired over Canal de las Estrellas in Mexico and, beginning on April 27, CMQ-TV in Havana, Cuba. According to Billboard, the series featured a freckleless Howdy puppet and a new puppet named Don Burro.[22] While the aim was to produce a series to distribute to the entirety of Latin America, the company halted production after six months due to unforeseen production difficulties (At the time, Mexican television programming was scarce and often improvised, unlike the American-influenced Cuban market, apart from the fact that Mexican broadcasters weren't interested in foreign production) and market considerations (Until 1960, most South American countries did not have television services or supermarkets—by 1953, the only ones in the region were located in Havana-). 96 half-hour episodes were filmed.[23]

Cuban television later launched its own local version, named Chiriltin, which lasted through 1959 or early 1960.[24]

The Canadian Howdy Doody Show

The Canadian Howdy Doody Show made its debut on November 15, 1954, airing three times a week over CBC Television. Originating from the network's Toronto studios, the Canadian version of the show starred James Doohan and later Peter Mews as forest ranger Timber Tom, who corresponded to Buffalo Bob in the U.S. version. CBC's Clarabell was played by Alfie Scopp.[25] Robert Goulet is sometimes erroneously credited as Timber Tom (even by Goulet's official website and Buffalo Bob Smith), although he may have been an occasional fill-in host. William Shatner, the future Captain Kirk of Star Trek, also filled in for Timber Tom occasionally as "Ranger Bob".

The Canadian show appeared more low-budget than its American counterpart and seemed watered-down, with less raucous plots and less villainous villains, as well as a more educational orientation. Much as the American version of the show was of the Western genre, the Canadian version was a Northern. Some of the stories were evocative nonetheless, almost stepping into high fantasy, and often featured Dilly Dally as an everyman hero who muddled through and did the right thing.

Early in the run, there was a short-lived puppet character called Mr. X (no relation to a puppet of the same name who appeared on the American show) who traveled through time and space in his "Whatsis Box" teaching children about history. However, Mr. X was removed from the show due to parental complaints that he was too scary. It has been suggested that the Mr. X sequence may have inspired the creation of the long-running British science fiction series Doctor Who. In its earliest days, the series was likewise designed to teach children about history and, throughout the series, it has featured an alien known only as the Doctor who travels through time and space in his TARDIS, which is permanently in the shape of a police box. The series' creator, Sydney Newman, oversaw the production of the Canadian version of Howdy Doody while working as head of programming for the CBC.[26][27]

The Canadian Howdy Doody Show ended on June 26, 1959.[25]


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  14. The New York Times, Buffalo Bob Smith, a singing piano player and chatty radio disk jockey who created Howdy Doody and then teamed up with the puppet on one of early television's most enduring children's shows, died of cancer yesterday at a hospital near his home in Flat Rock, N.C. Mr. Smith was 80.
  15. Edward Kean, R.I.P.
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  19. tavm (16 April 2010). "Howdy Doody and His Magic Hat (1954)". IMDb. Retrieved 14 April 2015.
  20. "TV #22: Howdy Doody and His Magic Hat (1953) | Cartoon Brew: Leading the Animation Conversation". Cartoon Brew. Retrieved 2016-04-21.
  21. "Howdy Doody Show: 40 Episodes 1949-1954". DVDEmpire. Retrieved 14 April 2015.
  22. "Kagran Co. Plunges Into Vidpix Arena", Billboard, p. 8, 23 April 1953, retrieved 29 January 2010
  23. "'Jaudi Dudi' Quits: Kagran Gives Up In Spanish Market", Billboard, p. 10, 19 December 1953, retrieved 29 January 2010
  24. Shanley, J.P. (20 November 1955), "Cuban TV: Big Business in Rhumba Tempo", New York Times, pp. X11
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  26. Kentor, Peter TV North, p. 78. Whitecap Books, Vancouver/Toronto, 2001 ISBN 1-55285-146-X
  27. "The Torontonian roots of Doctor Who — the Canadian behind the legendary TV show". Spacing Toronto. Retrieved 14 April 2015.

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