With great anticipation, my wife and I walked into the Detroit Institute of Arts through its Woodward Avenue entrance. Perhaps it was because I looked the right age, or that there were others like me who had also come to the D.I.A. on this quest, that the greeter knew exactly what I meant when I asked, “Where is he?” With a smile she said, “He’s down the stairs, then take the last opening on the left. You can’t miss him,” while pointing the way.
Hurriedly, I took the winding stairs down to the Kresge Court, heading to the last opening on the left when my wife called, “Slow down Ron, he’s not going anywhere!” But that was hard to do, because I was about to meet a major figure from my childhood that I never thought I’d ever see.
As we came into the room off the court I heard that long past, but still familiar question, “Say, kids, what time is it?” And in my mind, I responded, “It’s Howdy Doody time!”
That question I had heard came from a replica of an old 1950s black and white TV. It was playing a video of one of those long passed shows I remember. And there he was, in a glass case wearing his well-known plaid shirt, western jeans, gloves, boots and bandanna; with his dimpled, freckled, ever smiling face, Howdy Doody. I must admit, I did get a little teary.
For us Baby-Boomers, the thirteen year run of “the Howdy Doody Show” covered our childhood like no other TV show of its time. And although many, if not most, of us sat in front of the TV spellbound by all the characters of “Doodyville,” and dreaming to be a part of the “Peanut Gallery,” we really didn’t know much about this iconic children’s program.
Originally, I had planned this to be a single post, but as I began researching the story of Howdy Doody, his origins got deeper and deeper. To truly tell his tale, from television to Detroit, I needed to make this a multi-part series. In addition, I came upon a very surprising connection between Howdy Doody and a much loved person who lived in Palm Springs California.
So take your place in the Peanut Gallery, because, “It’s Howdy Doody Time!”
“Buffalo Bob” Smith
Howdy’s story began in the mid-1940s, when the popular Buffalo New York radio host Robert Schmidt came to NBC in New York. He was hired as a disc jockey on their flagship AM radio station WNBC.
Besides being a DJ, NBC allowed Schmidt to create a children’s radio show in March of 1947, that he called, the Triple B Ranch Show (which stood for Big Brother Bob). Schmidt had already changed his name to Robert Smith, and since the show had a western theme he began referring to himself on the show as Buffalo Bob Smith. Where the title “Buffalo” actually came from is up for debate: one source has it that he created it after the old west hero Buffalo Bill, while another says it was because he came from Buffalo. Whatever the true reason was, that’s when our “Buffalo Bob” came to be.
For his show, Bob created a cast of characters to support the stories. One of those was named Elmer, who was kind of a country bumpkin. While other radio actors provided the voices for the other characters, it was Bob himself who did the voice for the, sort of, dimwitted Elmer.
During the radio show, whenever Elmer was introduced, he’d start off by saying, “Well, uh, howdy doody Mr. Smith.” Elmer’s “howdy doody” was actually a take on the western expression, “howdy do.” Since it was radio, the children listing only heard Elmer say, “howdy doody,” and so they believed that was his name.
Puppeteer Frank Paris creates an Elmer
Around that time television was starting to take off. NBC needed more programing to fill the time slots, and because of the popularity of Bob’s Triple B Ranch radio show, they decided to adapt it for television. To help to bring Bob’s characters to life, NBC hired Frank Paris, one of the top puppeteers in the country, to create the shows marionettes, including Elmer.
When the show first aired on television, December 27, 1947, it was called Puppet Playhouse. When children visited the show, one of the first things they’d ask Bob was, “Where’s Howdy Doody?” And that’s how Elmer became Howdy Doody. The character of Howdy Doody was so popular that Bob and NBC decided to change the shows name to “The Howdy Doody Show.”
In 1947 there was no taping of shows, they were all live broadcasts. So that Bob could continue to voice Howdy, they came up with a creative way for them to talk to each other. Before each show they’d record Bob doing Howdy’s lines. During the show when Bob and Howdy would talk to each other the sound director would put his finger on the record, stopping it; Smith would deliver his line, and the director would lift his finger, letting Howdy respond.
As the show progressed Smith decided that he wanted to make some changes to the now Howdy Doody character. While originally Elmer was a country bumpkin, Smith wanted Howdy to be more of a quizzical young boy. So, slowly Smith began changing Howdy’s voice.
At first the Howdy Doody Show was only on Saturday’s, but as the popularity for the program grew it was quickly expanded to five days a week: Monday through Friday at 5:30 pm. It was only after a few months of being on the air, that there became a demand for Howdy Doody merchandise.
Macy’s department store, along with toy manufactures, contacted Paris for the rights to make Howdy Doody dolls. Although Paris had created the marionette, it was Bob Smith who owned the character. From this a heated argument erupted between Smith and Paris. When Paris felt that NBC was siding with Smith, cutting him out of financial benefits, he took his Elmer/Howdy Doody and angrily left the studio; just four hours before the show was to be broadcast live.
Howdy Doody goes on the campaign trail
With their “star” abruptly gone, and it getting close to air time, Smith and the writers had to frantically come up with a cover story to explain Howdy’s absence. They decided to capitalize on the already running plot line of Howdy running for “President of the Kids.” What Smith and the writers had Howdy doing was leaving Doodyville to work the campaign circuit across the country. Howdy was out fighting for: two Christmas Holidays, cheaper banana splits, one school day only each year, history books with only pictures, and free circus admission for all kids. And, yes, we all believed this to be completely true and logical.
Smith and the TV crew built a large map, where each week Buffalo Bob would show where Howdy was at throughout the country. During the show Buffalo Bob would even get telephone calls from Howdy; and Bob would have their prerecorded conversations.
Smith and NBC realized, even with the rest of the cast covering, that they couldn’t keep their campaign story going indefinitely. Smith wasn’t upset one bit when NBC and Paris couldn’t come to an agreement; Smith had never liked Paris’s puppet, calling it “the ugly Doody.” With Paris’s puppet out of the picture it was time for Howdy to get a makeover.
What they did was to expand the campaign story; that while Howdy was on the trail he had noticed that the other candidates had a better appearance. So he decided to have his face improved by using the “new” surgical procedure known as plastic surgery. This they believed would cover that when Howdy finally returned to the show he would be a completely different looking puppet. Now, all they had to do was to get another Howdy Doody, and do it fast.
Next: Howdy Doody’s Mom revealed
Deep-Fried Hoodsie Cups. “H*O*W*D*Y D*O*O*D*Y.” Deep-Fried Hoodsie Cups, Dee-Fried Hoodsie Cups , 20 Jan. 2011, deepfriedhoodsiecups.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/1202011.
Fletcher, Dan. “A Brief History of NBC.” TIME, TIME USA, 4 Dec. 2009, content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,19408,00.html.
McIntire, Mike. “Say, Kids, What Time Is It?” Hartford Courant , Hartford Courant, 6 May 2000, http://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-xpm-2000-05-06-0005060455-story-html.
“Robert “Buffalo Bob” Smith.” Find A Grave, Find A Grave, 27 Mar. 2003, http://www.findagrave.com/memorial/7294174/rober-smith.
Severo, Richard. “Buffalo Bob Smith, ‘Howdy Doody’ Creator, Is Dead at 80.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 July 1998, http://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/31/arts/buffalo-bob-smith-howdy-doody-creator-is-dead-at-80.html.
Smithfield, Brad. “Howdy Doody: The most celebrated children’s show in television history.” Vintage News, Timera Media , 18 May 2017, http://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/05/18/howdy-doody-the-most-celebrated-childrens-show-in-television-history.
Wikipedia. “Buffalo Bob Smith.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia , en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo_Bob_Smith. Accessed 16 Feb. 2019.
Wikipedia. “Howdy Doody.” Wikipedia, wikipedia, JJMC89 bot III.