I was talking to a friend of mine, and he asked what I was up too. I told him that I was writing a series of blog posts on the history of the Howdy Doody Show.
At that point he then began reciting the names of the show’s characters: “Buffalo Bob, Clarabell the Clown, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, Chief Thunderthud, and what was the name of the bad puppet?” “Phineas T Bluster,” I said, “Yes,” my friend agreed, “that’s right, Phineas T Bluster. And, what was the name of that funny looking dog?” he asked. “Flub-a-Dub,” I answered, “and he wasn’t a dog. He was a South American animal made up of different animals.”
We Baby Boomers do know our Howdy Doody characters, but do we? Let’s take a walk down Doodyville’s Memory Lane, and meet once again its beloved citizens.
(This post was updated on April 2, 2020, with new information)
The Human Characters
In its time the Howdy Doody Show was very Unique, in it had live actors interacting with puppets and marionettes. Here are some of the most remembered human characters that entertained us every week.
Clarabell the Clown
Perhaps the best known citizen of Doodyville, besides Buffalo Bob and Howdy, was Clarabell the Clown. Clarabell wore a baggy striped costume, and belted to his waist was a box with his name on it. Attached to this box were two horns: one marked “Yes” and the other marked “No.” Clarabell would use these two horns, along with pantomime, to communicate.
Clarabell also had a fringe of bright red hair, and a tuff of it sticking straight up on the top of his head. RCA, who owned NBC at the time, wanted to use their shows to promote their new color television set sales. In 1955, The Howdy Doody Show would be the first children’s program to be broadcast in living color. In color Clarabell’s hair and costume really stood out.
It seemed that Clarabell’s lot in life was to play pranks on Buffalo Bob, which drove Bob crazy. After which Clarabell would always baptize Bob with seltzer water from a bottle.
There were three main Actors who played Clarabell: Bob Keeshan, Robert “Nick” Nicholson and Lew Anderson.
Keeshan was the first to bring Clarabell the Clown to life. He played this character from 1947 until 1953. Keeshan left the show after a contract dispute. But leaving the Howdy Doody Show didn’t hurt Bob Keeshan’s career one bit, he would go on to play another children’s television icon, Captain Kangaroo.
Robert “Nick” Nicholson
Replacing Bob Keeshan was Robert “Nick” Nicholson, who would be Carabell from 1953 till 1955. Nicholson was by no means new to the Howdy Doody Show when he put on the Clarabell make-up. He was already playing other characters on the show, including J Cornelius “Corny” Cobb.
After Howdy went off the air in 1960, Nicholson went on to partner with the show’s producer, E. Roger Muir, forming the television production company Nicholson-Muir Productions. Nicholson-Muir would produce some of the best known games shows, one being the Newlywed Game. They also produced the short lived, The New Howdy Doody Show (more on that in my next post).
Besides his work on Howdy Doody, and in television producing, Nicholson was also an accomplished musician. He was a composer, arranger, and conductor. He conducted the NBC Symphony for ten years (while on Howdy Doody), and he would also fill in for Skitch Henderson in leading the Tonight Show orchestra.
Nicholson was one of the founders of the Westchester Philharmonic, and later in life, he was the principal conductor for the Florida Symphonic Pops (now the Boca Raton Symphonic Pops).
After playing Carabell for two years, Nicholson requested that fellow musician Lew Anderson be hired to take his place.
Lew Anderson would honk the horns and spray the seltzer: on the original Howdy Doody Show from 1955 through its last episode, on the 1970s New Howdy Doody Show, the 40th Anniversary Special, and with Bob Smith’s Buffalo Bob on their nostalgia public appearances.
Before becoming Carabell Anderson was a successful jazz musician, preforming on the radio and on the Ed Sullivan Show with his singing group “The Honey Dreamers.” In 1989 Anderson formed a 16-piece jazz orchestra called “The Lew Anderson All-American Big Band.” His band would play at such hot New York jazz clubs as: Red Blazer Too; Birdland Jazz Club, The Half Note Club, to name just a few.
There is another piece of history with Lew Anderson’s Clarabell. In the thirteen years of the Howdy Doody Show, Clarabell was always mute, never speaking; except once. And I’ll be telling about that one time in my next post.
Gil Lamb: the forgotten Clarabell
Most of the articles and books on the Howdy Doody Show that I’ve read have only the above three actors as playing Clarabell the Clown. But, like James Bond’s George Lazenby, there was a fourth, mostly unknown Clarabell, Gil Lamb.
When Bob Keeshan was fired in the contract dispute in 1953, NBC needed to find another actor for the part. That’s when they hired film actor Gil Lamb to be Clarabell. But Lamb would appear as Clarabell in just ONE episode! NBC rehired Keeshan, letting Lamb go. Then for some reason they quickly re-fired Keeshan. And that’s when Nickolson got the part.
Gil Lamb was a very successful character actor, with some of his appearances being: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Bye, Bye, Birdie, Good Neighbor Sam, The Shakiest Gun in the West, The Love Bug, and others.
There was one other actor to play Clarabell the Clown, well kind of
Also, in researching for this post I found another actor that sort of played Clarabell. That actor was Bob Brunner, and his Clarabell didn’t appear on any of the Howdy Doody Shows or their specials. On the February 18, 1975 Happy Days episode titled, The Howdy Doody Show, Richie Cunningham took a photo of Clarabell (Brunner) without his make-up. Buffalo Bob (guest star Bob Smith) talked Richie into destroying the photo, to protect the mystery of Clarabell.
Princess SummerFall WinterSpring
Perhaps the best known, and loved, Indian princess is SummerFall WinterSpring of the Tinka Tonka tribe. When this character was first introduced on the show it was a marionette. But in 1951 the producers changed the character into a real live person. The first actress to bring the Princess to life was Judy Tyler.
Tyler was a 19-year old teenager when she was added to the show. Tyler would play the Indian princess until 1953. After leaving the Howdy Doody Show she would follow in her mother’s footsteps as a chorus girl, landing a starring role in Rogers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream on Broadway.
Life magazine did a cover story on Tyler, calling her an up-and-coming Broadway star. In 1957 she was offered movie roles in Hollywood. That year she appeared in two films: Bop Girl Goes Calypso, and opposite Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock. Tyler also made a guest appearance on the Perry Mason Show, as the character Irene Kilby, in the episode, “The Case of the Fan Dancer’s Horse,” that aired December 28, 1957. Sadly that was almost six months after her tragic death.
On July 3, while driving back to New York, Tyler’s new husband, Gregory Lafayette, swerved to miss hitting a car and trailer, and collided with another vehicle outside Rock River Wyoming. Judy Tyler, her husband and another passenger in their car were all killed. It was said that Elvis Presley was so distraught by her death that he refused to watch Jailhouse Rock.
After Judy Tyler left the show in 1953, the part of Princess SummerFall WinterSpring was given to radio actress Edith Ivey. Ivey described her Princess as being: “bright, bouncy and young.”
Ivey considered her Howdy Doody co-stars as being extremely talented, diverse and fun. She also related how hard it was to work on a live TV show. Every day had a new storyline. To help the actors with their lines, Ivey said, NBC used a primitive teleprompter, which broke down often. So the crew had to resort to good old cue cards.
After Howdy Doody ended, Ivey appeared on a host of different TV soap operas, one was “Days of Our Lives.” Her motion picture credits include: “Norma Rae” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”
I have to thank one of my followers for informing me about Edith Ivey. The first sources I used didn’t list Ivey as being the Princess after Tyler left.
Chief Thunderthud, played by
William E. “Bill” LeCornec
Chief Thunderthud was another Native American live character living in Doodyville. Chief Thunderthud was a member of the Ooragnak (Kangaroo spelled backwards) tribe.
At first the Chief was a villainous leader of his tribe, and a nemesis to Howdy and Buffalo Bob. However, Howdy’s good nature and positive attitude converted the evil Chief, who went on to become one of the most popular characters on the show.
The Chief (along with the show’s writer, Edward Kean) created a word that surfers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Michaelangelo, and Bart Simpson would be lost without, and that’s “Kowabonga!” Kowabonga, or also Cowabunga, was first said by Chief Thunderthud, but it was soon picked up by the other Native American’s in the show: Princess SummerFall WinterSpring and Chief Thunderchicken.
Bill LeCornec would be the only actor to play Chief Thunderthud on the show. LeCornec began playing the Native American character on Puppet Playhouse in 1947, and throughout the thirteen year run of the original Howdy Doody Show. LeCornec would pick up the Chief’s headdress once again for Howdy’s 40th Anniversary Special.
In 1976, he played the television producer character Nicholson Muir (a takeoff on the show’s producing team of Robert Nicholson and Roger Muir) on the New Howdy Doody Show. In addition, LeCornec also did many of the voices for the show’s puppet characters.
Chief Thunderchicken, played by
There was another Native American character on the show named Chief Thunderchicken, played by veteran actor Dayton Allen.
Besides Chief Thunderchicken he also played Ugly Sam, the world’s worst wrestler, and Pierre the Chef on the show. Allen also helped in voicing some of the puppet characters such as: Phineas T. Bluster and Flub-a-Dub.
After Howdy Doody, Allen would be the voices of the cartoon characters Deputy Dawg and Heckle and Jeckle. He would also host a Sunday night variety show on NBC.
J. Cornelius “Corny” Cobb, played by
Robert “Nick” Nicholson
At first this character was a shopkeeper who had a strong dislike for clowns. The fact that Cobb disliked clowns is really funny, considering that the only actor to play Corny, Nick Nicholson, was also the second actor to play Clarabell on the show. On the New Howdy Doody Show Corny Cobb, still played by Nicholson, was seen as the shows prop man, no longer a storekeeper.
Bison Bill, played by Ted Brown
On Labor Day 1954, Bob Smith suffered a heart attack and was ordered to recover at home. The writers set up the story that Buffalo Bob was off visiting “Pioneer Village.” Because the Buffalo Bob character was so important to the show, they needed to have another host to fill in while Smith recovered.
NBC hired Ted Brown, one of their DJ’s, to be the character Bison Bob. The kids watching accepted the story, but the sponsors still wanted Bob Smith to promote their products. Since money talks, NBC built a set at Smith’s house so that Buffalo Bob could be seen pitching the sponsor’s products, live from Pioneer Village.
Besides Brown there were other actors that help to fill in while Smith was away, one being the famous western star, George “Gabby” Hayes.
Another interesting occurrence caused by Smith’s illness was, who would do Howdy Doody’s voice. Up until then it was Bob Smith from the very beginning; but while he was recovering he was unable to continue.
NBC hired voice actor Allen Swift to take over while Smith recovered. Swift would continue doing Howdy’s voice, even after Smith returned, until he left the show in 1956. After that other actors in the cast would be the voice of Howdy.
The Puppet Characters
Besides Howdy, there were a host of other puppet characters who would interact with the show’s live cast members. Here are, for me at least, the most memorable.
Bob Smith hadn’t had a vacation in years. The Howdy Doody show was broadcast live five days a week, and his Buffalo Bob was the very center that the show revolved around. It was almost impossible for him to be gone.
To solve the absence of Buffalo Bob, and so Smith could go on vacation, they created a story line where he traveled to South America in search of a mysterious animal that had: a Duck’s bill, Cat’s whiskers, a Cocker Spaniel’s ears, a Giraffe’s neck, a Dachshund’s body, Seal’s flippers, Pigs tail, and the memory of an Elephant. This animal they named Flub-a-Dub.
This strange looking puppet became one of the show’s most popular characters, and caused a little problem amongst the kids who watched the show. According to Bob Smith, the story for the character Flub-a-Dub had him just eating flowers. Soon NBC began receiving hundreds of phone calls and letters from upset parents. It seemed that children across the country had started to eat flowers. To correct this, Buffalo Bob told the kids that Flub-a-Dub only ate flowers from South America.
To the delight of the parents, Flub-a-Dub developed a taste for Spaghetti and Meatballs; but then again, that’s all the kids ever wanted to eat.
Phineas T. Bluster
Phineas T. Bluster was the mayor of Doodyville, and a complete skinflint. Bluster hated the clean and honest Howdy, and would go to great lengths to undermine him.
Inspector John J. Fadoozle:
“America’s No. 1 private eye”
The John J. Fadoozle marionette was Velma Dawson’s second creation for the show. Originally this marionette was made to the specifications of NBC as a backup to Howdy. When it didn’t meet what the network wanted it was re-purposed into the inspector by Scott Brinker.
Howdy’s evil twin, who turned out to be the mysterious “Mr. X,” who ran against Howdy for President of All the Boys and Girls during the beginnings of the Howdy Doody Show. It was Mr. X’s good looks that caused Howdy to have plastic surgery, and thus leading to the new look for Howdy.
Double Doody (created by Eddie Keen from Dawson’s original) was really a double. Not only was this marionette used as Howdy’s evil twin, but was also use for setting up Howdy’s studio lighting and as a backup for Howdy.
Some of the other puppet characters on the original show were: Heidi Doody, Petey Bluster, Don José, Hector Hamhock, and Dilly Dally.
The Peanut Gallery
This was the one place in the whole wide world where every Baby Boomer really wanted to be sitting. Each week forty lucky boys and girls got a chance to answer Buffalo Bob’s question by answering, “Its Howdy Doody Time!” were they would, along with us at home, sing the opening theme song that went,
(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!
In an interview, Bob Smith said that the name, “Peanut Gallery,” came from when the show first started. At that time the set had a circus theme, and peanuts were a part of a circus. So it seemed natural for it to be called that.
The term grew to such popularity that Charles M. Schulz would adapt it for his comic strip, “Peanuts.”
There were other
Howdy Doody Shows
Besides NBC’s five day a week Howdy Doody Show, the network also franchised the rights to other markets outside of the United States.
It’s Howdy Doody Time, Eh!
Even today I remember it well. I was either six or seven years old, and had just gotten home from school. I turned on the TV, and something really, really strange was on. There he was, Howdy Doody, but he didn’t look the same. And where was Buffalo Bob?
Where we lived in Michigan was really close to Canada, and we were able to receive the local Canadian television station. What I was watching was the franchised Canadian version of the Howdy Doody Show.
The Canadian Howdy Doody first aired on November 15, 1954, shortly after the American version. Instead of the western theme that the U.S. show had, the Canadian version was set in the Canadian north woods.
They had a Clarabell the Clown, played by actor Alfie Scoop, but their Buffalo Bob was called Timber Tom. Timber Tom was played by Canadian actor Tim Mews. In doing research for this version of Howdy Doody I came up with some very interesting information.
It seems that the part of Timber Tom was first offered to actor; wait for it, James Doohan. Doohan would go on to become Scotty on Star Trek. Also, there was another actor to “boldly go” on the Canadian Howdy Doody Show, and that was William Shatner. The future Captain Kirk played Ranger Bob, who would fill in for Mews.
Although some of the sources have Shatner appearing on the United States program, this is disputed on the website ShatnerWeb. In that article it states that Shatner was living in Toronto at the start of his career in 1954. And that it would be very likely that a young actor would be able to get a spot on the Canadian Howdy Doody Show. But the article goes on to point out Shatner hadn’t arrived in New York until 1956. Although the U.S. production was still being broadcast, according to ShatnerWeb, it seems unlikely that he would have been on that show. I should mention that this website’s theory goes against what Shatner wrote in his own autobiography.
Besides that, the name of Shatner’s character, Ranger Bob, does fit better with the north woods than in an old western town.
But there’s more! Another famous person that appeared on the Canadian version was singer and Broadway star Robert Goulet, who played the character Trapper Pierre.
Another interesting fact I discovered was with one of the show’s early characters, named Mr. X (not to be confused with the American Howdy Doody’s character of the same name). The Canadian Mr. X would teach history to the children watching. It’s how he got his information that’s really interesting. He would travel through space and time in what he called his, “Whatsis Box.” If this sounds familiar, I would point out that one of the Canadian show’s creators was Sydney Newman. Newman would move to England, where he’d help create the BBC program, “Doctor Who.”
The Canadian Howdy Doody ceased production on June 26, 1959.
Oye, niños, ¿qué hora es?
¡Es hora de Howdy Doody!
There were also two versions of the Howdy Doody Show produced for the Mexican and Cuban markets.
La Hora de Jaudi Didi
In 1953, the producers of the show in New York began a version in Spanish that was shot in Mexico City that was titled, La Hora de Jaudi Didi. Besides the Howdy Doody puppet there was another principal puppet character on the show named Don Burro. Due to production issues the show ended after only six months.
There was also a version that was broadcast in Cuba called Chiriltin. This show would last until the late 1950s.
Howdy Doody: a true American classic of
the Golden Age of TV
When the last show was broadcast on September 24, 1960, the Howdy Doody Show was then the longest running show on TV; and it would remain the longest running children’s show until it was eclipsed by Bob Keeshan’s Captain Kangaroo.
In its thirteen year run the Howdy Doody Show: had 2,343 episodes, was one of the first programs to be broadcast in color, and the first television show to be broadcast nationwide.
The show made superstars of its host and its star marionette. In the history of American television, the Howdy Doody Show sits right up there with the other greats of the Golden Age of Television, like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar.
Even though its broadcasts had ended in 1960, it wouldn’t be the last time we’d see Howdy Doody, Buffalo Bob and the other citizens of Doodyville.
In my next post, I’ll cover the decades after the Howdy Doody Show ended, and the rediscovery of Howdy Doody.
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