By the time 1960 rolled around I had long stopped watching the Howdy Doody Show. I had outgrown it, and now had other interests for my twelve-year-old mind; like the Mickey Mouse Club and Annette Funicello.
It was September 24th, 1960; I remember that day well. It was a Saturday, and since I didn’t have anything going on, I decided to turn on the TV and watch my old Howdy Doody friends. There was good old Buffalo Bob doing his opening. But, he didn’t start by asking that familiar question he’d asked for the last thirteen years, ”Say, Kids, What time is it?” Instead, looking into the camera with a sad face, he said, “Oh, hi, boys and girls…it is our last Howdy Doody Show…,” and at that moment my heart stopped.
It couldn’t be, not Howdy Doody. It wasn’t until the ever mute Clarabell the Clown, in a tight close-up, looking straight into the camera, with tears in his eyes, said, “Goodbye kids,” that I knew it was really over.
Perhaps you could say that I was a little too self-centered; but I actually blamed myself for the shows ending. However, the fact was that it wasn’t just me; it was also my fellow Baby-Boomers who had stopped watching Howdy Doody. In addition, that simple program we had grown-up with wasn’t attracting the new generation; they had so many more options on what to watch.
In an interview Bob Smith stated; that although he was disappointed on being canceled, he concluded, “It was a pretty good run. How many can say they were on a TV show that had lasted thirteen-years.”
However, Smith wouldn’t have to wait long before he found that he and Howdy Doody weren’t quite finished.
Life after Howdy Doody
When the show ended Bob Smith and the others went their separate ways. For the most part the Howdy Doody Show was just a job for them, and it had ended. It was now time to get on with their lives.
Bob Smith left New York and Television. Except for a minor role in the 1968 movie “Track of Thunder,” he was out of show business. His new careers were in real estate and running the three radio stations he had purchased in Maine. For Smith, he thought his “Buffalo Bob” days were over.
Rufus and Margo Rose, the head puppeteers on the show, returned to their pre-Howdy Doody careers. On TV, they were the puppeteers for the syndicated television program, “The Blue Fairy;” for which they won a Peabody Award. In 1961, Rufus was elected to the Connecticut State Legislature, where he served for twelve years. Margo would teach at the Institute of Professional Puppetry, as well as conducting puppetry workshops. When asked about their involvement with the Howdy Doody Show, they said that it wasn’t their best work.
As for Howdy and the other marionettes used on the show; seeing no value in keeping them, NBC gave them to the Roses, but there were a couple of provisions on the deal: first, that none of the puppets and marionettes be used in any commercial manner as characters from the Howdy Doody Show, and that Dawson’s original Howdy Doody eventually be placed in the care of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). The DIA has a world renowned historic marionette and puppet collection.
The Rose’s agreed to the terms and took possession of Howdy, Double Doody, and all the other marionettes used on the show. The only one of the principle three Howdy Doody’s not given to the Roses was Photo Doody. Photo Doody was individually owned by the show’s producer E. Roger Muir.
Reconnecting with Howdy Doody
For us Baby-Boomers, the war in Vietnam had deeply shaken our world; and that innocent life we had in the 50s and 60s was now gone. We were desperate for that peace we knew in our youth. Hoping to regain some of that innocence, we turned to that which made us the happiest back then, one of those was Howdy Doody. It was Howdy Doody that the students at the University of Pennsylvania wanted to see again in 1970. To those students, Howdy best represented that simpler life they all remembered.
The university sent an invitation to Bob Smith, asking if Buffalo Bob would come and speak to their students; they also asked if he could bring Howdy Doody. Smith contacted Rufus Rose, asking if he could take Howdy along with him to the speaking engagement. Rose agreed, but let Smith know that he was just loaning Howdy to him. Rose also reminded Smith that he was getting the “one and only original Howdy Doody,” and that under his agreement with NBC, that Howdy would eventually be given to the Detroit Institute of Arts.
On Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1970, Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody appeared before an overwhelming crowd of students at the University of Pennsylvania. It was like a homecoming; Buffalo Bob and Howdy reconnected with those now young adults, who they had entertained when they were children. From that point on, until his death in 1998, Bob Smith would never stop being the much loved Buffalo Bob.
Its Howdy Doody time again
On February 18, 1975, Buffalo Bob made a cameo appearance on the very popular television show Happy Days. Happy Days was set in the 1950s, during the time that the original Howdy Doody Show was on the air. From the wide public response that this episode received, Howdy Doody’s original producer, E. Roger Muir, felt that it was time to bring Howdy Doody back to TV.
Muir, along with his producing partner Nick Nicholson (who was also Clarabell #2 and Corny Cobb) acquired the rights to Howdy Doody from NBC to create their new 70s version. Because the major networks weren’t committing to daily after-school programing, they opted to release the new show through syndication. Syndicating television programs was a new concept in the mid-1970s, and wouldn’t catch on for a few more years.
In August of 1976, taping began on the “New Howdy Doody Show” in Florida, rather than in New York City, were the original show had been produced. Now a whole new generation of children could hear Buffalo Bob ask that question, “Hey, kids, what time is it?”
This new Howdy Doody Show was somewhat similar to the original, and it had many of the same characters that were on the 50s program; but there were a lot of differences also. First of all, the budget for this revival was much bigger than the one they had in New York. The circus themed set was huge, and the “Peanut Gallery” was gigantic. Instead of that small group of 40 children in the original, this Peanut Gallery spread around three sides of the set, and was filled with both children and their parents.
The principal live actors on the new show were: Buffalo Bob still played by Bob Smith, Corny Cobb, still played by Nick Nicholson. But gone where Chief Thunderthud and Princess SummerFall WinterSpring. The shows new characters were: Nicholson Muir (played by Thunderthud’s actor Bill LeCornec), the fictional flamboyant producer of the show, and Happy Harmony, Doodyville’s Schoolteacher.
Happy Harmony, played by Marilyn Patch, was the replacement character for the Princess, and with her “Hot Pants” outfit, you can guess who they wanted her to appeal to. After the New Howdy Doody Show ended, Marilyn Patch (Arnone) went on to get her PHd from Harvard, and is the director of educational media for Syracuse University’s Center for Digital Literacy. Dr. Arnone is also the co-founder and president of Creative Media Solutions.
As for the puppet characters on the new show, there were many of our favorites from the original series; but the biggest change of all was the NEW Howdy Doody. This new Howdy wasn’t the same. His cheeks weren’t as big; his dimpled and freckled face wasn’t as warm as the Howdy we remembered. But the biggest difference by far was that he had actual hair in a 70s style.
The question is; why didn’t they use the original Howdy Doody on the new show? It seems, from looking at videos of this program, that they did use many of the other original marionettes: Phineas T. Bluster, Dilly Dally and Flub-a-Dub; why not Howdy? We know that the original Howdy Doody was still in Bob Smith’s possession at the time. Whatever the reason may have been, I couldn’t find the answer.
Perhaps nostalgia can only go so far, or that Sesame Street and Captain Kangaroo were more appealing to the new generation of children. Whatever the reason, or reasons, may have been, the New Howdy Doody Show only lasted for 26 episodes. As for the new Howdy Doody puppet, he disappeared, and there is no record that I could find as to what became of it.
The 40th Anniversary Howdy Doody Special
In 1987, Roger Muir once again reassembled members of the old 50s cast for a two-hour special, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the original shows first broadcast. Muir once again offered this program in syndication, but it worked out much better this time around than it did for the New Howdy Doody Show ten years before.
As the show opened, a stage hand walks across a darkened set to turn on the studio lights. You can hear a familiar voice singing in the background as the camera slowly pans through a dressing room. At first you only see his shadow, but then, there he is, standing in front of a makeup mirror, OUR Howdy Doody. For this very special program they brought back Velma Dawson’s Howdy Doody; the real, original, Howdy Doody.
Appearing on this special were the principal characters from the 1950s show: Bob Smith’s Buffalo Bob, Lew Anderson’s Clarabell the Clown, Nick Nicholson’s Cornelius Cobb, and Bill LeCornec, back as Chief Thunderthud. One of the most memorable members of Doodyville was not forgotten.
During the program, game show host Monty Hall did a sort of, “This Is Your Life” for Howdy. During that segment they played a clip of Judy Tyler as SummerFall WinterSpring singing the song, “Just yell, Howdy Doody.” After the clip, Buffalo Bob stated that Judy Tyler was, “no longer with us.” What’s interesting, there was no mention of Edith Ivey, who took over the role after Tyler.
Later, Monty tells Bob that it’s sad that the Princess wasn’t there. But Bob’s says he has a big surprise, and that’s that Princess SummerFall WinterSpring had a granddaughter. The granddaughter was played by Canadian actress Stevie Louise Vallance (credited as Louise Vallance).
Although Vallance’s bio doesn’t list her appearance on the Howdy Doody special, she’s still had a very successful career. Her acting credits include: Knots Landing, the Ropers, Bosom Buddies, Lou Grant, L.A. Law, and is best known for her role as Detective Stevie Brody on the series Night Heat.
During the two hours the cast, both puppets and live actors, preformed the songs and skits that made the Howdy Doody Show so popular. There were also cameo appearances by popular television stars of the time, such as: Pee-Wee Herman, Dick Clark, Jerry Mathers (the Beaver), to name just a few. Another TV legend from the Golden Age of Television also appeared to congratulate Howdy on his 40 years, Milton Berle, Mr. Television himself.
As the show neared its end, each of the original cast members did their own good-byes. Finally, in the closing minutes, the cast: Buffalo Bob, Clarabell, Corny Cobb, Chief Thunderthud, the Princess’s granddaughter, Dilly Dally, Phineas T. Bluster, and Howdy himself, stood around the 40th birthday cake singing, “It’s time, to go, till our next show, goodbye, from us, to you.” This would be the last time the cast would ever appear on television together.
The Final Public Appearances
Buffalo Bob, Howdy and later Lew Anderson as Clarabell the Clown, would continue to tour colleges and other venues across the country into the 1990s.
Smith stopped taking the original stringed Howdy on these tours, preferring to use a stringless Photo Doody. Smith had used a photo Doody when making personal appearances in the 1950s, when the original show was on the air. The Photo Doody he used back then, and one of the three original Howdy Doodys, was owned by the 50s shows producer Roger Muir, and was unavailable. Bob Smith had hired Alan Semok, known as “The Dummy Doctor,” to build him a new Howdy for his appearances; and that most likely was the new photo Doody. As for the original Dawson marionette Howdy Doody, which was still in his possession, it remained in a glass case at Smith’s home.
As Smith’s health deteriorated he retired to Hendersonville, North Carolina. He continued to make infomericals promoting the sale of Howdy Doody memorabilia. His last television appearance was on July 3, 1998, on the cable sales channel QVC. The much loved Buffalo Bob passed away just a few weeks later on July 30.
NBC’s Walk of Fame Ceremony
On a cold day in February of 2000, the small group of surviving cast and crew members from the original Howdy Doody Show, gathered one last time at Rockefeller Center in New York City. They were there to honor the star of their show. Their beloved freckled- faced marionette was joining the ranks of other early television icons, as Sid Caesar and Milton Berle, with a star on NBC’s “Walk of Fame.”
As the camera’s captured the event, the adoring crowd applauded as the star was unveiled. But it wasn’t hard to notice that the star of the Howdy Doody Show wasn’t there. Howdy Doody was locked away in a New England Bank vault, as his ownership was being fought over.
My next post will cover this historic court battle over ownership of the original Howdy Doody.
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