In my previous posts on the history of Howdy Doody, I told how the Howdy Doody Show got started in 1947, who built our beloved Howdy Doody marionette, the creators of all the show’s many characters, and all the stars who brought them to life. I also tell what happened after this popular show ended in 1960, and of the revival of Howdy Doody that sprang up in the 1970s and 80s. However, there’s another, darker, story on the history of this early television icon.
With this post and the one that follows, I’ll unfold the events that would eventually be pivotal to the courts’ final decision in the historic custody battle for the original Howdy Doody marionette. So it’s very important to follow these chains of events as I present them, to completely understand what took place.
I’d also like to mention that one of my main sources for these posts is the actual Ruling on the Motions for Summary Judgement in the case of the Detroit Institute of Arts Founders Society vs. Rose, of 2001, as delivered by the United States District Court of Connecticut.
I begin the story shortly after the original Howdy Doody Show ended in 1960, and those series of events that followed which would be the foundation for the material facts in the Howdy Doody court fight. And it begins with the Agreement.
The Rose’s Connecticut Workshop
As I wrote in my post Howdy Doody’s Mom, Rufus and Margaret “Margo” Rose already were well-established puppeteers by the time they joined the original Howdy Doody Show in 1952, after the infamous “Christmas Eve Massacre” (see my Crisis in Doodyville).
Because of their notoriety, NBC put Rufus and Margo in complete control of all the show’s marionettes. Besides being the show’s master puppeteers, they also took over the creating and maintaining of the puppets, replacing Scott Brinker.
Most of the general maintenance and repairs were done at the Rose’s workshop in Waterford Connecticut. In addition, they also used this workshop for storing the puppets when they weren’t being used on the show. For this storage service, NBC paid Rufus $75.00 per week. This arrangement would become critical in the future lawsuit between NBC and the Rose’s.
As I wrote in Goodbye Kids, on September 24, 1960, Clarabell the Clown looked into the TV camera and said, “Goodbye Kids.” After which the studio lights were turned off and the sets dismantled; Howdy Doody’s thirteen-year run, and its 2,343 broadcasts, had ended. As I also wrote, the question of who would retain possession of the show’s marionettes was decided by the show’s executive producer Roger Muir and Rufus Rose. Muir and Rose came to the understanding that the Roses would continue to store the puppets, except “Photo Doody” which was owned by Muir, until a formal agreement could be made with NBC on their final distribution.
The Workshop Fire of 1961
At first, NBC didn’t seem to have much of an interest in the Howdy Doody Show’s puppets. That was until the fire at the Rose’s Connecticut workshop on April 23, 1961.
According to Rose’s son Christopher Rose, the fire seemed to have been caused by an old tube radio that his father Rufus had left on. This fire was devastating, and at first, it was believed that the Howdy Doody Show’s puppets had been ether severely damaged or destroyed, including Dawson’s original Howdy Doody.
However, when they went through the devastation the next day they discovered a steel storage drum. What they found inside this drum was one of the wooden marionette storage trunks made by Scott Brinker. Inside this trunk, undamaged, was the original Howdy Doody. The combination of the steel drum and trunk had protected Howdy from damage and destruction. In 2002, this steel drum was auctioned off by Leland for $143.75.
NBC vs. Rufus Rose
The workshop fire caused NBC and its insurance carrier to take notice. The network quickly brought a lawsuit against Rufus Rose for not adequately protecting their property. Rufus then brought his countersuit against NBC.
In 1965, the courts finally concluded in Rose’s favor, that he had indeed taken proper care of the puppets and that the fire was an accident. With the lawsuit behind them, Rufus felt it was time to try and work out an agreement with NBC for the ownership of the Howdy Doody Show’s puppets.
Rufus Rose’s Proposal
On June 3, 1966, Rufus Rose sent a letter to NBC General Manager William J. Schmitt. In this letter Rose asked to be compensated for the maintenance and storage of the Howdy Doody marionettes while in his care. Rose calculated that since the show ended in 1960, using the $75 per week NBC had paid him when the show was on the air, that the network owed him $11,062.50.
But what’s really important about this letter, for the purposes of these posts, is the proposal Rufus made for the future of the Howdy Doody puppets. His proposal reads:
“In the matter of the final disposition of the HOWDY DOODY puppets I would like to propose that the main characters such as HOWDY DOODY, MR. BLUSTER, DILLY DALLY, JOHN J. FEDOOZLE, FLUB-A-DUB and several others, be turned over to the Detroit Art Institute wich [sic] houses the recognized museum of Puppetry in America… As for the balance of the puppet, many of which have considerable fire damage, I feel have little if any commercial value. However, I could use them up in my own future private work, without of course keeping or using their identities as HOWDY DOODY characters, if you would allow.”
This unsolicited letter from Rose to NBC clearly shows that it was Rufus’s intention all along that the Howdy Doody Show’s puppets, including the original Dawson Howdy Doody, go to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA).
One of the reasons Rufus may have chosen the DIA is that it’s one of three museums with the largest collections of puppets and marionettes in the nation. The other two being the Center for Puppetry Arts Museum in Atlanta, Georgia and the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry in Connecticut. But in sheer size, the DIA is also the fifth-largest art museum in the United States.
Schmitt turned Rose’s letter, and the power to negotiate an agreement, over to Howard Singer in the NBC legal department.
After several months of negotiations, Rufus Rose and Howard Singer came to an agreement.
That agreement stated that:
1) NBC would pay Rose $3,500 to cover all previous storage and maintenance fees, 2) Rose would release NBC from any and all other claims for compensation, 3) that the original Howdy Doody would eventually be sent to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), 4) that Rose and the show’s producer Roger Muir would “arrange for the disposition of the various Howdy Doody puppets,” except for Howdy Doody, 5) that none of the puppets kept by Rose and Muir would be used commercially as Howdy Doody Show characters; 6) and that Rose would inform NBC what other puppets would be “going into the PUPPET MUSEUM,” with Howdy Doody.
On March 23, 1967, Rufus Rose sent Singer a signed letter of release; agreeing to all the terms. Also, Rose indicated that he’d be sending along with Howdy Doody, “at least” two other of the show’s “main characters” to the DIA: Mr. Bluster and Dilly Dally. With this agreement, ownership of the shows puppets was officially transferred to Rose, and it guaranteed that Howdy Doody would eventually end up at the Detroit Institute of Arts. But what’s really interesting about this story is that it seems no one, not NBC or Rufus Rose, had notified the DIA that they would eventually be getting Howdy Doody.
After the agreement the only known usage of any of the Howdy Doody Show’s puppets by Rufus Rose was while he was a member of the Connecticut legislature. It’s told that from time to time he’d bring in the marionettes, and most likely Howdy himself, to entertain his fellow legislators.
In 1970, as the Howdy Doody nostalgia craze was beginning, Buffalo Bob Smith asked his friend, the old puppeteer, if he could borrow his old friend Howdy. Rufus agreed, but it was with an understanding.
The Story’s Not Over Yet
With my next post, I’ll bring together the NBC Agreement and the Rufus and Buffalo Bob’s understanding, and tell how they impacted Howdy Doody’s journey to Detroit.
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