In my previous four posts on the history of Howdy Doody I presented: the creation of the Howdy Doody Show, who created our beloved Howdy, the stars that brought the Howdy Doody characters to life and what happened after the show ended in 1960.
Those posts, however, were just the general story of the Howdy Doody Show. With this post, and the two that follow, I’ll go into greater detail on the events which would set the stage, and eventually be pivotal to the courts final decision, in the historic custody battle for the original Howdy Doody. So it’s very important to follow the chain of events as I unfold them, to completely understand what took place.
I’d also like to mention that my main source for these posts was 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.
So, join me now as I begin with the chain of events that would end up being the foundation for the material facts in the Howdy Doody court fight.
The Three Original Howdy Doodys
In the thirteen year run of the original Howdy Doody Show, there were many puppeteers and puppet makers that worked on the show. Some of them were credited and some were not. Besides Frank Paris, who left the show soon after it first aired, it’s agreed that Scott Brinker, puppeteer Rhoda Mann Winkler, and later Rufus and Margaret “Margo” Rose were the ones that helped to create, maintain and control Howdy and the shows other non-human characters.
As I wrote in my second post in this series; after Paris left with his “Ugly Howdy,” NBC hired California puppeteer Velma Dawson to create what we boomers know as Howdy Doody; and although Dawson is known as Howdy’s Mom, she never worked on the TV show as one of its puppeteers. Dawson’s Howdy Doody is known as: the original Howdy Doody, Dawson’s Howdy Doody, or Howdy Doody One.
With the growing popularity of the Howdy Doody Show, NBC began adding more days to its broadcast. This caused major concerns for the wellbeing of its star; the live daily schedule was taking its toll on the marionette. That’s when NBC had their prop maker, Scott Brinker; construct a back-up Howdy from Dawson’s original design. This Howdy would act as a stand-in when the main Howdy was being repaired. He was known as “Double Doody.”
Soon, the public was clamoring to see Buffalo Bob, Clarabell and Howdy in person. It became obvious that Howdy, with all his strings and being fragile, was not made for personal appearances. So the show’s executive producer, Roger Muir, ordered a string less Howdy Doody made. This Howdy could be posed and fit perfectly on Buffalo Bob’s lap. This Howdy was perfect for personal appearances and publicity photos. He became what they called “Photo Doody.”
These three puppets are considered to be the 1950s show’s original Howdy Doody’s.
The Connecticut Workshop
NBC was fortunate in having been able to hire Rufus and Margo. This husband and wife team was already nationally known puppeteers by the time they joined the show in 1956. The Roses created many of the well-known puppets that appeared daily with Howdy. They also copied Dawson’s design for the two marionettes that were used on the Canadian Howdy Doody Show, which ran from 1954 till 1959. But the biggest job for the Roses was keeping the marionettes in top working order, and looking good.
Most of the repairs took place at the Rose’s workshop in Waterford Connecticut. In addition, the Rose’s also used the workshop to store marionettes and puppets not being used on the show. For this storage, NBC paid Rufus $75.00 per week. The Rose’s continued to use their Connecticut workshop up until the show ended.
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 live broadcasts, was over.
The question now was who would retain the marionettes used on the show? The show’s producer Roger Muir and Rufus Rose came to an understanding; the Roses would continue to store the puppets until a formal agreement could be made with NBC.
Not much was said after that, until after a fire took place at the Rose’s workshop on April 23, 1961. In the fire some of the puppets were seriously damaged, but thankfully the Howdy Doodys escaped without serious harm. According to Rose’s son Christopher, the fire was caused by an old tube radio which his father had left on. The next day when going through the devastation they discovered that a storage drum that held the original Howdy had survived the fire, protecting the marionette. Although this is a wonderful story, it brings up a question. The Roses were national and international known and respected professional puppeteers, so why would they store one of the most iconic puppets in a barrel? Storing him in one of the trunks, yes; but in a barrel? Something about that story that Christopher told just doesn’t seem right. True or not, when this drum was auctioned by Leland’s in 2002, it sold for $143.75.
NBC vs. Rufus Rose
The workshop fire caused NBC, and its insurance carrier, to sue Rufus Rose for not adequately protecting NBC’s property. Rufus then counter sued NBC. In 1965, the lawsuit finally concluded, in Rose’s favor, that he indeed properly cared for the puppets.
After the lawsuit, on June 3, 1966, Rose wrote a letter to NBC General Manager William J. Schmitt, where he asked to be compensated for the maintenance and the storage of the Howdy Doody Show’s marionettes and puppets. Rose calculated that since the show ended in 1960, using the $75 per week he’d been paid during the show, that NBC owed him $11,062.50. Also in that letter Rose proposed,
“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 first unsolicited letter from Rose to NBC clearly shows that it was Rufus’s own idea to give the original Howdy Doody to the Detroit Institute of Arts.
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 DIA. But what’s really interesting about this story is that no one, not NBC, or Rufus Rose, had notified the DIA that they’d be getting Howdy Doody.
Now with clear ownership of the shows characters, Rose took possession of all the show’s marionettes and puppets, including Howdy Doody, Double Doody, and the Canadian Howdys; While Muir retained the Photo Doody, which he personally owned.
The only known use of any of the puppets by Rose was when he was a member of the Connecticut legislature. Rufus would sometimes bring in the marionettes, most likely Howdy Doody as well, to entertain his fellow legislators. However, for the most part Howdy Doody and his other friends from Doodyville remained locked away in their trunks at the Rose’s workshop; that was until 1970, when Howdy would again join his old friend Buffalo Bob in entertaining both old and new fans.
In the next post in this series I’ll tell of the 1970 agreement between Rufus Rose and Bob Smith.
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