What I really love about doing research for my blog posts, is discovering those little tidbits of Interesting and unexpected information. They always popup, and it causes me to say, oh, wow, I didn’t know that. It makes reading history so much more exciting than just a bunch of historical dates.
So it is with this series on the history of the television icon Howdy Doody. At first I decided to write on this subject because the original Howdy is at our own Detroit Institute of Arts. Being a Baby Boomer the Howdy Doody Show has a deep personal connection for me, and seeing him there really meant something. My plan was to start by writing about the show itself, and then about the historic legal battle that the DIA fought to finally get Howdy Doody. While I was digging through the many websites collecting information, a few of those little tidbits I love to find popped up. From them I realized that there was a lot about the show that I didn’t know.
We fondly remember all of the characters of Doodyville who entertained us every day at 5:30. And we knew that Howdy and many of his friends were puppets. But we had no idea who was behind the scene working those puppets, and who had created them.
What I discovered, was the backstage drama that we viewers never saw; and that there were many artists who helped in creating the images that we knew as Howdy Doody. But the biggest surprise came when I found that Howdy had a Mom, and that she lived, and is buried, near were we go in Palm Springs California.
In this post, the second in my series on the History of Howdy Doody, I’ll tell the amazing story of how a twist of fate gave a young California puppeteer the opportunity to create what became one of America’s most famous marionettes. And I’ll also tell of the other gifted puppet artists whose talents contributed to the legend of Howdy Doody.
Howdy Doody’s Mom
Time was running out, the young audience could only be put off for so long; they needed to get a new Howdy Doody, and fast. NBC hired the character artists Mel Shaw and Bob Allen in Hollywood to create the new look for Howdy. Shaw had worked for Walt Disney Studios; and in my opinion what they came up with looks very similar to the dwarfs in Disney’s Snow White. The one thing that Bob Smith insisted on was, that the new Howdy have the look of an innocent boy of about eight years of age.
After Shaw and Allen’s design was approved, NBC needed to find someone to build the marionette. The issue was that NBC didn’t know of any puppet makers in New York at that time.
Norm Blackburn, the director of NBC, was from Hollywood, and he remembered seeing a marionette performance put on by a local Hollywood puppeteer named Velma Dawson. Dawson was already well known in the puppet community in California, and she was considered as one of the “pioneers of puppetry.”
NBC contacted Dawson, who accepted the job. However, there was a rush on it; she had to have it completed in just nine days. Dawson was able to finish Howdy on time, and sent him off to New York. For her work she was paid $300. Since Paris’s Elmer/Howdy was used only in the first few months of the TV show, it’s Dawson’s that’s considered to be the original Howdy Doody.
When NBC sued Paris for abruptly leaving the show, he brought a counter suit against them. In an out of court settlement in 1955, Paris received $250,000 from NBC, with a provision that Paris had to destroy his puppet. Puppeteers are a very close group of artist, and Dawson knew Paris. When they talked, he remarked that he had made more money off of Howdy Doody than she had. Dawson answered him with, ”Good thing I was good. It could have been a lousy puppet,” referring to his.
On June 18, 1948, after months of waiting, Howdy was back in Doodyville. However, Howdy came onto the show with his face completely bandaged. As the story went, it was time to reveal Howdy’s new look. Buffalo Bob slowly, building suspense, removed the bandages revealing the new Howdy Doody. This Howdy had a broad dimpled mouth, red cheeks, big ears, and 48 freckles (one for each of the 48 states at the time). It’s Velma Dawson’s Howdy Doody that all of us baby-boomers know.
NBC was so pleased with Dawson’s work that they hired her to make a “back-up” Howdy. But they wanted her to make alterations to Howdy’s face. Dawson disagreed, saying it would change Howdy too much. NBC couldn’t be swayed, so Dawson did what they asked, and sure enough, they weren’t happy with the result, it just wasn’t Howdy.
It wasn’t too long after the new Howdy began performing, when Dawson got an emergency call from NBC. What had happened was that one of the shows first puppeteers was rather inept, and had broken Howdy’s head. Catching the first flight to New York, Dawson went and fixed Howdy. This revealed a major problem for NBC; their star could be broken at any time, and it was almost stolen from Dawson when she was in New York repairing him. NBC offered Dawson the job as head puppeteer for the show; Dawson declined, she loved California, and didn’t want to move to New York.
With Dawson turning down their offer NBC had a big problem. They needed to find someone to repair their puppets, because they couldn’t keep flying Dawson to New York. The network went to local craftsman and the shows prop maker Scott Brinker. They asked Brinker, “Can you build puppets?” For which he answered, “I can learn.” After quickly studying up on marionette construction, Brinker would become the shows puppet maker until Margo Rose joined the show. Brinker is credited for changing Dawson’s second backup Howdy into the character of John J. Fadoozle, America’s #1 Private Eye.
While Dawson was in New York repairing Howdy she finally viewed the show for the first time. What she saw was awful; the way Howdy jiggled and walked on his knees. She told NBC that they better hire a puppeteer who could manipulate the intricacies of marionettes. But it would take the network another two years before they finally hired a couple who would make the biggest improvements to Howdy Doody and the show.
Rufus and Margo Rose
In 1952, NBC hired the leading husband and wife puppeteer team, Rufus and Margo Rose. The Roses were billed as, “America’s Foremost Artists of Marionette Theatre.” They brought a smoother and more natural movement to the show’s puppets, especially Howdy.
Rufus and Margo were true professionals in their field. They had already gained national recognition, starting with the 1936 Chicago World Fair, by the time NBC had brought them on to the Howdy Doody Show. Besides improving the marionette’s movements, with Margo’s creative talents in puppet making she expanded the characters of Doodyville.
The Roses were so connected with the show in the eight years that they manned the puppets, that Rufus was incorrectly regarded as Howdy Doody’s originator. Even today, some of the sources that I used in researching for this post, still had Rufus Rose cited as Howdy Doody’s creator, not Velma Dawson.
Part of this could be due to the fact that Bob Smith also f failed to recognize Dawson as Howdy’s creator publicly. It wasn’t until just before his death that Smith sent Dawson a photo of him and Howdy. On the photo, from Howdy, he signed, “Hi, Mom.”
Velma moved to Palm Springs California, where she continued to entertain with her puppet shows. The City of Palm Springs honored her with a star on their “walk of fame.” Velma Dawson passed away on September 27, 2007 at the age of 95. She was laid to rest at Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City California, just a few rows from Frank Sinatra’s grave. Her headstone reads: Velma Dawson, 1912-2007, Howdy Doody’s Mom.
Even though Dawson was the unsung originator of one of the nation’s most loved puppet, the Roses never took credit themselves for his creation while they were alive. And even though they didn’t build the original Howdy puppet they most likely did build some of his backups.
The chief creators
Throughout the thirteen year run of the original Howdy Doody Show, there would be many puppet makers and puppeteers, credited and uncredited, that would be involved with the show. Also, during Howdy’s revival in the 1970s, others would be hired to create duplicates of a newer version of Howdy.
However, there were only four puppet makers that are credited for creating what is known as the three original Howdy Doodys for the 1950s TV show: Velma Dawson, who created the Howdy Doody that was used in all the broadcasts; Scott Brinker, Rufus and Margo Rose, who created Double Doody, that was used for lighting tests, Howdy’s evil twin, and also as a backup for the main Howdy, and also the stringless “Photo Doody,” used for personal appearances.
Next: The Citizens of Doodyville
University of Connecticut . “Rufus and Margo Rose.” University of Connecticut, University of Connecticut, bimp.uconn.edu/education/american-puppeteers/rufus-and-margo-rose/. Accessed 18 Jan. 2020.
“Velma Wayne Dawson.” Find A Grave, Find A Grave, 4 July 2010, http://www.findagrave.com/memorial/54474539/velma-wayne-dawson.
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.
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.