With great anticipation, my wife and I walked into the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) 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 DIA 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 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 who 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 found that I needed to make this a multi-part series. Also, as I was digging for information on this iconic program, I came upon some very surprising connections with Howdy Doody, a Detroit suburb, and a somewhat forgotten California puppeteer; without who there would not have been the Howdy Doody we know.
Also, I’d like to thank my fellow members of the Facebook groups, “The History of American Television” and “The Doodyville Historical Society,” for their help in clearing up some of my Howdy Doody questions.
So take your place in the Peanut Gallery, because, “It’s Howdy Doody Time!”
This post was updated on July 10, 2020
It All Began With 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). By then Schmidt had changed his name to Robert Smith.
On his Triple B Ranch radio show Smith had created a character he called Elmer, who was kind of a country bumpkin. Smith had voiced Elmer as being sort of dimwitted. During the show, whenever Elmer was introduced, he’d start off by saying, “Well, uh, howdy doody Mr. Smith.” Elmer’s greeting, “howdy doody” was actually a take on the western expression, “howdy do.” Since it was radio, the children listening only heard Elmer say, “howdy doody,” and so they began thinking that was his name. When children visited the Triple B Ranch studio the first thing they’d ask was, “Where’s Howdy Doody?” Hearing this enough times Smith changed the character’s name to Howdy Doody. Soon, Howdy Doody became as popular as Bob Smith on the show.
Around that time television was just starting to develop. NBC needed more programing to fill the time slots, and was looking for a children’s program. Because of the popularity of Bob’s Triple B Ranch children’s radio show, the head of NBC television, Warren Wade, wanted to adapt it for TV. But Wade wanted to change it a little bit; he wanted the show to have puppets. Wade called a meeting with Smith to explain his concept.
Going along with Smith to the meeting was his young writer, Eddie Kean.
Edward George “Eddie” Kean
In his book, Hey Kids! What Time Is It? Notes from the Peanut Gallery, Stephen Davis refers to Eddie Kean as, “chief writer, philosopher, and theoretician,” for the show. While that sounds impressive, the basic fact is that without Eddie Kean there wouldn’t have been the Howdy Doody Show we all grew up with.
Some sources give credit for the shows creation to Bob Smith, that’s true to a point, he did create the Howdy Doody character. But it was Eddie Kean who came up with the continuing stories and all the interesting characters that appeared daily on the show. In short it was Kean who created the Doodyville we all came to love.
Kean came to the attention of Bob Smith from a song he had written called, “Where’s Sam.” Smith being an accomplished musician, with perfect pitch, appreciated the twenty-three year old Kean’s talent. Smith hired Kean to write jingles and copy for his early morning radio show, and later on for the Triple B Ranch program.
When Smith met with Warren Wade, head of NBC television, Kean tagged along. He had never seen the inside of a television studio. At that meeting Wade pitched his idea for a kids program, liking Smith’s Triple B Ranch. What Wade wanted was a show, “with puppets with strings.” Wade asked Kean what he thought the name of the show should be, and Kean offered quickly, “How about, Puppet Playhouse?” Wade promoted Kean on the spot as the shows chief writer.
Over the next eight years, between 1947 and 1954, Eddie Kean would create the many continuing stories that unfolded throughout the week; including the nationally famous, “Howdy Doody for President” campaigns. When asked to explain his thinking for his stories, Kean said he was writing, “A soap opera for kids.”
In the eight years that Kean was with Howdy Doody he wrote most of the songs we heard, including the show’s theme song “It’s Howdy Doody Time,” and the “Clarabell” song. Kean also created the famous word “Kawabonga.” Eddie kept prop and puppet maker Scott Brinker busy, constructing the puppet characters he dreamed up: Double Doody, Phineas T. Bluster, Inspector John J. Fadoozie, Dilly Dally, and Flub-a-Dub.
Besides the show’s puppets Kean also created the live characters of: Clarabell Hornblow, J. Cornelius Cobb, and Chiefs Thunderthud and Featherman. Kean would also create another character, which would become the actor’s persona for the rest of his life.
Mr. Smith Becomes “Buffalo Bob”
From his Triple B Ranch radio show and on to the Puppet Playhouse, Bob Smith was simply addressed as “Mr. Smith.” In 1949, Eddie Kean began making changes to the television show, one of them being Smith’s on air name.
The theme and sets for Puppet Playhouse were designed around a traveling circus. This was based on the show’s first master puppeteer Frank Paris’s “Toby Tyler at the Circus” segment. After Paris left the show (I write about this later in this post) Kean began to transition from the circus to the town of Doodyville. Also, he changed the shows name from Puppet Playhouse to the Howdy Doody Show.
Kean felt that calling the second most important character on the show Mr. Smith just didn’t fit. So how did Eddie make Mr. Smith into “Buffalo Bob?” According to Bob Smith, in Davis’s book, Kean’s storyline had Mr. Smith being the great-great grandson of the Sigafoose Indian tribe’s “Great White Leader, Buffalo Tom.” When Tom went to the “happy hunting ground” the title then went to Bob.
The magical transition was assisted by Chief Featherman (Bob Keeshan), and by using special effects; Mr. Smith, in his shirt and slacks, rematerialized in his well-known fringed costume as Buffalo Bob. Kean would again use this process to transform Princess Summerfall Winterspring.
As Davis states, Kean scripted, “almost every line spoken and every note sung,” and you can also add, just about every character that appeared on Howdy Doody came from the mind of Eddie Kean.
But after eight years of creating characters, songs and stories five days a week, and doing it live, Eddie Kean ran out of gas; he just couldn’t handle the grind any longer.
After Kean left Howdy Doody he worked in the field of public relations, as a stockbroker, and a columnist for the Consumer Madvocate newspaper. He also authored stories for Doody Dell comics, as well as other non-Doody books. His last career was as a lounge pianist in Miami and Detroit. It was seeing Detroit listed that caused me to perk up. Living in the Detroit area I was interested in knowing how deep Kean’s Detroit connections really were. And it turned out to be quite a lot.
Eddie Kean, the creator of Doodyville’s citizenry had retired to the Detroit suburb of West Bloomfield Township in Oakland County. And Kean was also on hand to welcome his old buddy Howdy Doody to Detroit, when he arrived at his new home at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Edward “Eddie” Kean passed away from emphysema on August 13, 2010, at the age of 85. Kean was buried at Congregation Beth Tefilo Cemetery’s Nusach H’ari Cemetery on Woodward Avenue in the City of Ferndale, Michigan. I was so excited; the man behind the creation of the Howdy Doody Show was buried only forty-minutes from my house. It was time to go pay my respects.
My wife and I figured that finding Kean’s grave would be a piece of cake. The Find-A-Grave listing had really good directions to its location. It had the section, the row, and how many graves in from the path it was. It should have been real easy, but it wasn’t. The listing was completely wrong.
Luckily, the cemetery wasn’t that big. But after an hour of walking around, trying every possible interpretation of the Find-A-Grave directions, with no luck, we thought we’d failed. That’s when I noticed the cemetery’s gardener near the back.
He was extremely, I mean extremely, helpful. He retrieved the grave record book. It didn’t list Kean. He dug up (sorry for the pun) another list, this time it did have Eddie’s grave listed.
Walking to the front, the gardener pointed to the grave of Edward “Eddie” Kean, the only grave in the entire cemetery not marked. On the Find-A-Grave listing it showed only a temporary grave marker, which is now long gone.
I placed a stone on his grave. Standing there, I thanked him for all the joy and excitement that his adventures and characters had given me so many decades ago.
Frank Paris, The First Puppeteer
Now that the new show had a name, Puppet Playhouse, and a theme for writer Eddie Kean to work with, they needed a puppeteer to fulfill Wade’s puppet show idea. NBC hired Frank Paris, one of the top puppeteers in the country, to bring his marionettes from his touring puppet show, “Toby Tyler at the Circus” to NBC, and to create a Howdy Doody puppet from the radio character.
To help Paris, Smith made a recording doing his Elmer/Howdy Doody voice. Using this recording, Paris tried to create a Howdy Doody to match the voice. But when the show aired on December 27, 1947, Paris hadn’t finished the puppet.
To cover for the lack of a Howdy Doody, Kean wrote that Howdy was very, very shy; and he wouldn’t come out of Smith’s desk drawer. During the show Smith would continue to try and coax Howdy out, but to no avail. In his Elmer/Howdy voice Smith would answer, “Gorsh, Mr. Smith, ah’m too darned bashful to come out.” And for that first show, Howdy stayed in the drawer.
Originally Puppet Playhouse was to be three different productions: the first was Bob Smith’s TV version of his Triple B Ranch, the second was to be hosted by announcer Ed Herlihy, who would later appear on the soap operas As the World Turns and All My Children, and the third was with Paul Winchell and his dummy Jerry Mahoney. Whichever one got the best viewer response would be green lighted as a regular TV program.
However, Mother Nature stepped in, and changed history.
There May Not Have Been A Howdy Doody Show
Since Bob’s Puppet Playhouse segment could have been a “one and done” program there wasn’t a big push to get Paris to finish his puppet. However, on that post-Christmas winter afternoon when Puppet Playhouse first aired, the East coast was hit with a record-breaking snowfall. With everything shut down, there was nothing to do but watch Bob Smith and Howdy Doody on TV. This weather event is what launched Howdy Doody.
So popular was the show and the response from viewers, that NBC canceled the other two programs in the series, and made Bob Smith’s production part of their weekly line-up. Now, they really did need a Howdy Doody.
Paris presented his version of Howdy Doody at a staff meeting in January 1948. Paris did his best to match what he thought a country bumpkin looked like from the voice smith did. His Howdy Doody puppet had a large goofy grin, big ears, and light colored hair that stood straight up. It’s said that most of the staff and producers loved Paris’s puppet. But one member didn’t, Bob Smith.
Even though Smith called Paris’s puppet “the ugly Doody,” the new show must go on. Kean wrote Howdy out of the desk drawer, and for a time, it was Frank Paris’s Howdy Doody that first appeared on TV. But that wouldn’t last long.
Exit Paris With His Howdy Doody
At first the Puppet Playhouse was only on Saturday’s, but as the popularity for the program grew it was quickly expanded to three days a week: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Since Howdy Doody was the most popular of the characters on the show, and that Eddie Kean’s “It’s Howdy Doody Time,” became the show’s theme song, the name of the program began to slowly changed from Puppet Playhouse to The Howdy Doody Show.
It was only after a few months of being on the air, that there became a demand for Howdy Doody merchandise. Major retailers like Gimbel’s and Macy’s department stores, along with toy manufactures, contacted NBC, Smith, and Paris for the rights to make Howdy Doody dolls and other items. Although Paris had created the marionette; it was Bob Smith who owned the character of Howdy Doody, and that NBC owned the puppet, for which they paid Paris $500.
Paris believed that since he built the Howdy Doody puppet he owned it; and he was entitled to some of the financial benefits from the merchandising. But Smith and NBC didn’t see it that way. After a heated exchange, and seeing he was getting nowhere, Paris stood up, holding his Howdy Doody in a cloth bag, and said, “Well. If you think that you own him, you just see how you’re going to do your show tonight.” Then he stormed out the door with his puppet. And this was just four hours before the live show went on the air.
Although Paris was off the Howdy Doody Show, he went on to perform with his other marionettes at Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and the Baltimore Bowl in Los Angeles. Frank Paris retired in California. Where he died at his home in North Hollywood from lung cancer at the age of 70, on August 14, 1984.
Howdy Doody Goes On The Campaign Trail
With their “star” abruptly gone, Kean had to frantically come up with a cover story to explain Howdy’s absence. He decided to capitalize on the already running plot line of Howdy running for “President of the Kids.” Kean had Howdy suddenly leave Doodyville to work the campaign trail across the country.
The TV crew built a large map, which was used to track were Howdy Doody was. Also during the show Smith would get telephone calls from Howdy. To accomplish this, Smith prerecorded Howdy’s lines before the show. This worked so well that a new technique was developed for when Howdy came back.
On the radio it was easy for Smith to do his lines and Howdy’s, because no one was watching. However, TV was different; everyone could see everything. At first doing it live worked fine; with Smith being off camera, or with his back to it, when he delivered Howdy’s lines. But once he got caught, live on-air.
They came up with a creative way for Smith and Howdy to talk to each other. Before each broadcast Smith would record Howdy’s lines. During the show when Smith said something to Howdy, the sound director would put his finger on the record, stopping it; when it was Howdy’s turn he’d lift his finger and Howdy would respond. This process was used until Smith had his heart attack.
We Need A Howdy Doody!
With Paris and his “ugly Howdy” out of the picture, Smith saw it was time for Howdy to get a real make-over. Smith had already been slowly changing Howdy’s voice, from that of the country bumpkin Elmer, to that of a quizzical young boy. But how do they sell a different looking Howdy Doody to the millions of fateful children that watch the show every day? Once again, they turned to Eddie Kean to save the day.
Kean again used 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 the fact that when Howdy finally returned to the show, he’d look completely different, and we would all believe it. Now, all they had to do was to get another Howdy Doody, and do it fast!
In the next post I write about the creation of the Howdy Doody we all know, and introduce you to his Mom.
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