What I really love about doing research for my blog posts is discovering those often overlooked little pieces of Interesting and unexpected information. They always popup and it causes me to say, “OH WOW! I didn’t know that!” That makes the telling of historical stories so much more exciting than just a bunch of dates.
So it is with this series on the history of the television icon Howdy Doody. What had inspired me to begin writing about the Howdy Doody Show was the fact that the original Howdy Doody marionette is at our own Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). As I told in my introduction to part 1, being a Baby Boomer the Howdy Doody Show has a deep personal connection for me, and to actually have seen him there was the thrill of my life.
My original plan was to write a post on the show itself and then go into the historic legal battle that would finally get Howdy to the DIA. I actually believed that I would be able to do that in one, or maybe two posts. But as I began digging through the many sources on the subject, collecting information, a few of those little tidbits I mentioned began to popup. It was then that I realized there was a lot about the show that I was unaware of, and I wanted to share that information. So, what I thought would be one, maybe two posts, became a seven part series.
My 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. Also, as I was digging through the many articles on Howdy’s custody battle, one of the articles had the name of a woman that I hadn’t seen mentioned before, and yet, upon investigating, she played a very unique and important role in Howdy’s life. There’s also the show’s prop man who constructed many of the non-human characters we all loved; and the famous husband and wife team, who brought a high level of professionalism to the program, and was pivotal in Howdy Doody’s post show history and legal battle.
So, this second post in my series is dedicated to Howdy Doody’s Mom, and all the other puppeteers and puppet makers, credited and uncredited, that helped to entertain us every day at 5:30 PM for thirteen years; working unseen above the stage pulling the strings.
This post was updated on September 17, 2021
Velma Dawson, Howdy Doody’s Mom
With head puppeteer Frank Paris gone, taking his “ugly” Howdy with him, Puppet Playhouse was left without its main character. NBC had to get a new Howdy Doody, and it had to be done fast!
Kean’s storyline of Howdy on the campaign trail and getting plastic surgery only went so far. The young audience could only be put off for so long without seeing the show’s star, and the sponsors didn’t want another “voice coming from the drawer;” they demanded a visible puppet.
To bridge the gap until a new Howdy Doody could be constructed, NBC hired New York puppet-maker Dorothy Zuconic to quickly build a stand-in Howdy. Going along with Kean’s plastic surgery story, this puppet’s head was completely wrapped in bandages, so it didn’t need any facial features. Otherwise, this marionette had a completely working body, which was operated by Sky Highchief, aka Ralph Emory.
Now the children in the studio, and at home, could see a bandaged Howdy Doody, which helped to build anticipation on how he’d look when the bandages were removed. Also, as I stated in Part 1, Smith had already been changing the voice of Howdy. The stage was now set, NBC just needed to create a Howdy Doody that would capture the hearts of children.
NBC programming manager Norm Blackburn, who had worked at the Disney Studios, put Bob Smith in touch with two Disney illustrators, Mel Shaw and Robert Allen. With Smith’s approval, they were hired to develop sketches of an innocent-looking young boy, which was the look that NBC and Smith wanted.
After Shaw and Allen’s design was approved, NBC needed to find someone to build their Howdy Doody. Again Norm Blackburn came to the rescue. Blackburn remembered seeing a young Hollywood puppeteer named Velma Wayne Dawson. Dawson was already well known in the puppet community in California, and 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. NBC sent Dawson Shaw-Allen’s drawings and a recording of Smith doing Howdy Doody’s voice. Amazingly, Dawson was able to finish Howdy on time and sent him off to New York. For her work, she was paid $300.
On June 1, 1948, Dawson’s Howdy Doody arrived at the NBC studios. When he was unboxed everyone was overjoyed with what Dawson had created. It was now time to introduce him to the world.
On June 7th, NBC sent out this news release that read:
HOWDY DOODY WILL BE WEARING A NEW LOOK AFTER FACE-LIFTING ON COAST, REJOINS BOB SMITH ON NBC TELEVISION SHOW TOMORROW.
To prepare for the transformation Zuconic’s stand-in Howdy was replaced with the face-wrapped Dawson Howdy Doody. On June 8, 1948, after months of waiting, it was time to reveal Howdy’s new look. Near the end of that day’s show, Bob Smith and Clarabell (Bob Keeshan) slowly, building up the 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).
Since Paris’s Howdy was used only for the first few months of Puppet Playhouse, it’s Dawson’s Howdy Doody that’s considered to be the original, and the only one we 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.
But Dawson’s second Howdy didn’t go to waste. During the “Howdy Doody for President” campaign story, Howdy’s opponent was the mysterious “Mr. X.” The show’s quick thinking writer, Eddie Kean, came up with the storyline that Mr. X was really Howdy’s evil twin brother, “Double Doody,” for which they used Dawson’s second puppet for that character. That marionette was only used once as Double Doody, and it was later repurposed as John J. Fadoozle, America’s #1 Private Eye. Also, the name “Double Doody” would be use again; more on that later.
It wasn’t too long after the new Howdy began performing that Dawson got an emergency call from NBC asking her to quickly come to New York. The reason was that Howdy’s head had been broken during one of the programs. Catching the first flight Dawson went and fixed Howdy. This revealed a major problem for NBC; their star could be broken at any time. They offered Dawson the job as head puppeteer for the show; Dawson declined, she loved California, and didn’t want to move to New York.
For a time Dawson wasn’t given credit for creating one of the best known marionettes in the world. Even the prestigious national Puppeteers of America insisted that Howdy Doody was made by Rufus and Margo Rose, the puppeteers that joined the show in 1952, which was four years after Howdy had already been introduced on the show. Dawson had to provide documentation from NBC to the organization to prove she was the rightful creator. Even today some of the sources I used for these posts still have the Roses as the ones who created Howdy Doody.
Part of the reason could also be that Buffalo Bob Smith didn’t acknowledge Dawson as Howdy’s creator until near the end of his life. A couple of years before his death Smith sent Dawson and autographed photo of him and Howdy. Under Howdy he wrote, “Hi Mom.”
Velma moved to Palm Springs California with her husband John Dawson, who was one of the pioneers in developing golf in that area. There she would continue 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.
As I wrote in my opening, Dawson’s final resting place is at Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City California, just minutes from where we spend our winters. So it was only logical to visit her grave, that’s just a few rows from Frank Sinatra’s.
Her headstone reads: Velma Dawson, 1912-2007, Howdy Doody’s Mom.
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 turned to local craftsman and the show’s 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 became the show’s puppet repairer and puppet maker until Rufus and Margo Rose joined the show.
Brinker is credited for changing Dawson’s second revised Howdy into the inspector John J. Fedoozle. And it was Brinker who took the characters that came from Eddie Kean’s imagination and gave them substance. Some of those were: Dilly Dally, Flub-A-Dub, and Phineas T. Bluster, to name but a few.
Brinker would continue as part of the show’s crew until it ended in 1960. Sadly, all that I could find on what became of Scott Bringer is that he passed away shortly after his 90th birthday. Not much for one of the most creative members of the original Howdy Doody Show; and the maker of so many of the characters we all loved.
The name Rhoda Mann caught my attention when I was researching for my post on Howdy Doody’s custody battle. The way she was presented in the court papers caused me to believe that she was of some importance to the show. But who was she? Rhoda Mann was only listed in two of my sources, with no information about her, other than she was one of the puppeteers on the show.
I knew that there had to be more, so I dug deeper. Then I found Stephen Davis’s book, Say Kids! What Time Is It? Davis goes into great detail on Mann’s convoluted tenure on the Howdy Doody Show. It seems that Rhoda Mann was a major contributor in the early years of the program. But she, as with Velma Dawson, was also overshadowed to some degree by Rufus and Margo Rose.
What I found was that Rhoda Mann had exclusively worked the strings of Velma Dawson’s Howdy Doody. She did this from the time he arrived and then for the next five and a half years. However, as I alluded to above, her time on the show wasn’t always pleasant.
Rhoda Mann story goes back to when she was only nine years old; when she taught herself to work marionettes. Her first professional gig in show business was as the assistant to Henry Gross on his Ali Benali, the Moroccan Wonderman. Then in 1947, at the age of twenty, she was hired by the renowned puppeteer Frank Paris, as one of his assistants on his touring show “Toby at the Circus.” When Paris went to NBC to do Puppet Playhouse, the Howdy Doody forerunner, Mann was there working alongside him on the puppet bridge. And when Paris walked out with his Howdy Doody, Mann went with him. However she wouldn’t be gone from Howdy Doody for very long.
When Dawson’s Howdy arrived it became very apparent that he was going to be more difficult to work than the other marionettes on the show. As a rule those puppets used for television with live actors had to be larger than the standard marionette. This was because of the visual perspective between the two. This made it very difficult to manage their actions. With Dawson’s Howdy it was even harder with his much larger head.
When one puppeteer had trouble working Howdy and damaged him, producer Roger Muir knew that he had to get a better operator. Bob Smith remembered Mann being a natural with the marionettes. He thought the way she perfectly moved and paced the puppets, matching their actions with the actors, was amazing. They had to get her back for Howdy.
Smith called Mann, offering her the fantastic amount of $100 per show. Frank Paris couldn’t match the offer, so he let her go back.
Another interesting fact about Mann and the show, she was also the only woman allowed to wear pants. In those days all women were required to wear dresses or skirts. The reason Mann was exempt from this policy was that she worked from the puppet bridge, which was 12 feet above the stage floor. So you can understand why they let her wear pants.
Besides Howdy, one of the other puppets worked by Mann was that of Princess Summerfall Wintgerspring. Unlike with Howdy she was the princess’s voice also. She did this until Judy Tyler came on as the live princess. But trouble happened when Tyler told a little fib; she told the producers she could also work puppets. Thinking that they could save money they let Mann go.
Tyler couldn’t hide the fact that she really didn’t know how to handle puppets. So again, Smith called and begged Mann to come back, which she did.
Rhoda Mann remained on the show until she became involved in a salary dispute, when on Christmas Eve 1952, she and other cast members were fired. This is referred to as “the Christmas Massacre.” I’ll be writing about that in a future posting.
The Show’s producer, Roger Muir, was ready to replace Rhoda Mann. Almost as Mann was walking out the door, puppeteer Lee Carney was walking in.
However, Mann did get a little revenge; later, with the help of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) union, Mann successfully sued NBC for years of back pay. She was awarded $4,000.
Mann went on to have a successful career doing voice overs on radio and television. She was the first woman to do a voiceover in a car commercial, even before Dinah Shore. Mann also did many of the voices on animated children’s programs; including the voice of Mother Nature in the long running 1974 “The Year Without Santa Claus.” And because of her exclusive work with Dawson’s Howdy, Rhoda Mann would become very important in the future court battle over the custody of the original Howdy Doody.
Rhoda married Robert Winkler in 1953. Rhoda Mann Winkler died of cancer in Dobbs Ferry, New York on March 18, 2015 at the age of 87.
Lee Carney is another almost forgotten puppeteer of the Howdy Doody Show. Carney, and her husband Mike King, were puppeteers living in Greenwich Village when she got the call from Roger Muir to come to the Howdy Doody Show. Although Muir had heard good things about her, Bob Smith and NBC feared that she wouldn’t be able to handle the difficult Howdy as well as Mann.
But as soon as Carney picked up Howdy’s strings, they found that his movements were much smoother, even better than with Mann. Howard Davis, one of the shows directors, commented that Carney was one of the best operators he’d ever worked with. It looked like Bob Smith wouldn’t have to make another phone call begging Mann to come back. NBC also got a bonus; Carney’s husband could fill in as a puppeteer when needed. From what I’ve found, it seems that Lee Carney was a puppeteer on the show until it ended in 1960.
I couldn’t find much information on Carney’s post Howdy Doody career, except that she also worked on the Kraft Television Theatre. In her biography it says that she moved to California with her husband. Lee Carney passed away from heart failure on February 16, 1995 in Encino, California at the age of 87.
Although, Smith, Muir and NBC were happy to have a puppeteer that could operate Howdy, they still needed a “master puppeteer” who not only could work the puppets, but also build, dress, and repair the shows many marionettes. For this they turned to another husband and wife team, Rufus and Margo Rose.
Rufus and Margaret “Margo” Rose
It’s easy to understand why Rufus and Margo Rose would standout, above Velma Dawson and Rhoda Mann, in many of the sources on Howdy Doody. Rufus and Margo were true professionals in their field, and were billed as, “America’s Foremost Artists of Marionette Theatre,” and were already nationally and internationally known by the time they began working on the Howdy Doody Show.
The Roses had begun their careers in professional puppetry together in 1931, the year after they were married, when they formed “the Rufus Rose Marionettes.” Their touring production company gained national recognition at the 1936 Chicago World Fair. On Christmas Eve 1948, they produced televisions first major puppet production with Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” for the ABC Network.
Four years later, on Christmas Eve 1952, after most of the Howdy Doody Show’s crew were fired in what is known as “the Christmas Massacre,” NBC immediately hired them to take over the operations of the show’s puppets.
The Rose’s brought a smoother and more natural movement to the show’s marionettes. In addition, Margo had a great talent for puppet design and construction. She was the one who created most of the new characters used on the show from 1952 until the show ended in 1960. Some of her creations were: Heidi Doody, Mambo the Elephant, Grandpa Doody, Hyde & Zeke, and Hop, Skip, & Jump.
Besides the show’s later characters, Margo made a mold from Dawson’s original Howdy’s head and used it to construct the two Howdy Doody’s that were used on the Canadian show. More importantly, Margo also made the stringless “Photo Doody,” used for personal appearances and photoshoots, and a backup “Double Doody.”
As I stated above, the Roses were so connected with the show over the eight years that they manned the puppets, that they were incorrectly regarded as Howdy Doody’s maker. Even with all the miss information about that, the Rose’s never publically took credit for creating Howdy.
The Roses would continue as the show’s master puppeteers until the show ended in 1960. But their connection and involvement with Howdy Doody went far beyond the end of the show, which I go into greater detail in Part 4 of this series.
In 1961, one year after the Howdy Doody Show ended, Rufus Rose ran for the Connecticut State Legislature, where he served for twelve years. Rufus passed away in 1975.
Margo continued to teach the art of puppetry after Howdy Doody at the Institute of Professional Puppetry Arts. In 1974 Margo, along with Rufus, were awarded the President’s Award from the Puppeteers of America. In 1997 Margo was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, shortly thereafter she passed away at the age of 94.
Next: The Citizens of Doodyville
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