For us Boomers, in the 1950s the biggest part of our weekday was rushing home from school to watch Howdy Doody on TV. That magical world of Doodyville, with all the wonderful stories, the funny old movies, Buffalo Bob, Clarabell, and all the other characters we loved. But most of all, there was Howdy. For us, Doodyville was the perfect place to live, and there wasn’t a problem in the world that Howdy Doody couldn’t fix.
At our young age, we didn’t realize that Howdy Doody was only a television show, that Doodyville was a studio in New York City, and all those lovable characters were puppets, actors, and actresses. We were sheltered from the realities of those conflicts and disagreements that so often arise amongst cast members.
So it came as a big surprise for me when I came upon several references to an event called, “the Christmas Eve Massacre.” That term really didn’t sound very Howdy Doody-like, so I looked deeper. What I found was that this was an event that took place on Christmas Eve of 1952, when four of the show’s key cast members left.
In this post, I’ll tell about that so-called “Christmas Eve Massacre,” and Buffalo Bob’s major health event, either which could have spelled the end of the Howdy Doody Show, just as it was at the height of its popularity
Also, I’ll introduce “the Man of a Thousand Voices,” who almost single-handily rescued the Howdy Doody Show after both the Christmas Eve Massacre and Buffalo Bob’s near-fatal heart attack.
So join with me, as I lift the curtain on those Crises’ in Doodyville.
Updated on November 22, 2022
Howdy Doody, the Most Successful Show on Television
By 1952, the Howdy Doody Show had become the most popular television show in America. And while other shows on NBC began showing a decline in viewers, Howdy Doody was still growing. This made the show a real money maker, both through sponsorships and merchandising. Reaping the most financial benefits from this were NBC and Bob Smith.
Bob Keeshan (Clarabell #1) felt that the cast should get substantial raises for helping to make the show the success it had become. Keeshan was able to recruit Rhoda Mann, Dayton Allen, and Bill LeCornec to his side. However, Judy Tyler, Scott Brinker, and the newly hired Bob Nicholson didn’t join in. In early December of that year, the four presented their demands to Smith and the show’s producer Roger Muir.
Also, as the story goes, while the four were talking to Muir they had hired an agent to help with the negotiations. When NBC heard about the agent they became greatly upset. The network felt that since they already had a contract with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) that they didn’t need to deal with these four cast members individually. In fact, the network saw these four as trying to form another union inside of a union. As for Smith and Muir, they felt that the group was being ungrateful and that they were taking advantage of the show’s success. The group was told to fire their agent, or else. The four refused to comply.
The 1952 Christmas Eve Massacre
On the afternoon of Wednesday, December 24, 1952, Christmas Eve, the cast and crew members of the Howdy Doody Show arrived at their NBC studio to begin rehearsing for that day’s show. According to some accounts they were there fifteen minutes early because they were told there was to be an all-cast meeting before the rehearsal.
What occurred on that afternoon varies on whose telling the story. Even something as simple as who called that meeting has been debated. Some accounts have Roger Muir as the one who called the meeting, while others say it was Bob Smith. And one account doesn’t mention a meeting at all. But the biggest debate of that Christmas Eve is, were the four cast members fired or did they quit?
In Stephen Davis’s book, Say Kids! What Time Is It both Bob Keeshan and Bob Nicholson said that the four were fired and that it took place in front of the whole crew. If so, who did the firing? Keeshan said it was producer Roger Muir who fired him and the others, while Bob Nicholson said it was Bob Smith. But Puppeteer Rhoda Mann has another version of what happened that afternoon.
According to Rhoda Mann’s close friend Jack Roth, Mann always insisted that she, Keeshan, Allen, and LeCornec were not fired, but rather quit. As Mann tells it, she and the others had indeed hired an agent and they did refuse to let him go when NBC told them to. But Mann insists that she and the others had already decided to leave the show if they didn’t get what they wanted. According to Mann, when they arrived at the studio that afternoon they inquired about their raises. When they were told there would be no raises; they packed up and walked out.
With all of these different stories on what took place on that Christmas Eve, there’s one thing for sure, egos were involved. Most versions conclude that those four cast members felt they were irreplaceable to the show. The Howdy Doody Show had a very small ensemble; with cast members playing multiple parts: puppeteers, live characters, and the voices of the puppets. But were they really irreplaceable? History shows, they weren’t.
The show didn’t hesitate one bit. Whether the producers and Bob Smith knew the four were going to quit or were prepared for their firing, they were ready to broadcast that night LIVE. Smith had already been preparing a storyline around the missing characters with head writer Eddie Kean. Puppeteer Rufus Rose, who had already been helping out, was ready to step in to operate Howdy, which Mann had done. Since Smith did Howdy’s voice, that wasn’t a problem. Also, Judy Tyler and Bob “Nick” Nicholson were still there, and so were their characters, Princess Summerfall Winterspring and J. Cornelius “Corny” Cobb. In addition, western star Gabby Hayes, whose own show came on right before Howdy Doody, appeared on the show. But this would only be a temporary fix for the live daily show; for although Buffalo Bob, Corny Cobb, the Princess, and Gabby Hays could carry on for a few weeks; they knew that the show’s fans would be clamoring for their other friends soon.
Roger Muir and Bob Smith quickly began putting together the new cast. Solving the puppeteering problem was the easiest. They made Rufus Rose puppet master, as well as hired his wife Margo, and added puppeteer Lee Carney to work the strings. But the operating of the marionettes was the least of the producer’s problems. There was the issue of two of the show’s most popular characters, and also the voicing of the puppets that had to be solved.
As I stated earlier, the cast of the Howdy Doody Show was small, and if any one of its key actors had left it would have hurt the show. But losing Keeshan, Allen, and LeCornec all at once, was a disaster. Allen and LeCornec were the live characters of Oil Well Willie, Sir Archibald, Ugly Sam, and the popular Chief Thunderthud, and Bob Keeshan was Clarabell the Clown. And besides the live characters, Allen and LeCornec also provided the voices for many of the characters, especially Mr. Bluster, Dilly Dally, and Flub-a-Dub.
The first character to be recast was the pivotal Clarabell. Of all the live characters, the producers felt Clarabell would be the least of a problem. As they saw it, the actor’s face was hidden under the clown makeup, and that Clarabell didn’t talk. Also, Keeshan had been replaced once before (see PART 3: THE CITIZENS OF DOODYVILLE). And the person they felt who could take over the part was already a member of the cast. So, a reluctant Bob Nicholson was drafted as the next Clarabell. As for the other live characters played by Allen and LeCornec, those would have to wait.
Remaining was the show’s major, major issue, finding someone, or someone’s, who could do all the character’s voices; to solve that problem they turned to a voice actor who was known as “the Man of a Thousand Voices.”
Allen Swift: The Man of a Thousand Voices
Producer Roger Muir had to quickly find a voice actor to replace Allen and LeCornec. Muir had heard of Allen Swift, a voice actor who already had a large number of character voices that Muir hoped could be adapted to fit those on Howdy Doody. But what Muir didn’t know about Swift’s talent would turn out to be crucial to the Howdy Doody Show’s very existence. Muir called Swift to come in for an audition.
According to Swift, when he arrived for the audition he was handed pictures of all the puppet characters on the show and told, “Put voices on them.” Bob Smith and Roger Muir didn’t expect Swift to duplicate what Allen and LeCornec had created. They figured Swift would just adapt one of the voices he already had, or create new ones.
At that time Swift had never seen an episode of the Howdy Doody Show and had no idea that the characters already had voices. When he learned what Allen and LeCornec had done, he knew that he could make the characters sound the same. That one talent of Swift’s that Muir didn’t know about was his ability to mimic.
Taking home recordings of Allen and LeCornec doing their characters, Swift was able to match all of them but one. LeCornec’s Dilly Dally was so unique that Swift just couldn’t get it right. Because of this, the producers rehired Bill LeCornec. With LeCornec back on the show, they not only got the voice of Dilly Dally but Chief Thunderthud was back too.
Besides doing the puppet voices, Swift worked the marionettes alongside the Roses and Carney. Swift would also play Corny Cobb while Bob Nicholson was Clarabell. He remained Corny Cobb until Nicholson returned to that role a few years later when Lew Anderson took over as Clarabell.
Allen Swift would make yet another major impact on the Howdy Doody Show after Buffalo Bob’s heart attack.
We Almost Lost Buffalo Bob
Just two years after the “Christmas Eve Massacre” another major crisis struck Doodyville. On September 6, 1954, at five o’clock in the morning, Buffalo Bob suffered a near-fatal heart attack. Smith would end up spending nine weeks in the hospital, where his condition was touch and go. Smith was extremely fortunate to be alive, and although he didn’t suffer any serious long-term effects from the attack, his doctors did insist that he stay home to recover.
Not having Buffalo Bob on the show wasn’t that unusual. Eddie Kean had written storylines around him when Smith was on vacation. But this time it was different; it was sudden, and no one knew how long Smith would be gone. Kean again worked his storytelling magic. The story had Buffalo Bob rushing off on a top-secret mission to “Pioneer Village.” But while Buffalo Bob was away at Pioneer Village, they needed to find a host in Doodyville.
At first, Bob Nicholson suspended his playing Clarabell to host the show as Corny Cobb. Also, Gabby Hayes and NBC staff announcer Ed Herlihy would take turns as hosts. But they needed to find someone to be the regular emcee until Smith could return. To do this NBC brought in Ted Brown, one of their radio DJ’s. Brown would emcee the Howdy Doody Show as the character Bison Bill until Smith returned in September of 1955, a year after his heart attack. I tell more about Ted Brown in my PART 3: THE CITIZENS OF DOODYVILLE.
While we kids accepted the story of why Buffalo Bob was away and why Bison Bill was on the show, the sponsors didn’t. They still wanted Buffalo Bob to hawk their wares, and it didn’t matter how sick Smith was. Since money talks, NBC built a Pioneer Village set at Smith’s home. So “live from Pioneer Village” Buffalo Bob could still pitch the sponsor’s products.
Bob Smith’s heart attack, and the uncertainty of his return, brought to light another major issue for the show, Howdy Doody’s voice. Smith was the one who created the voice of Howdy Doody, and he believed he was the only one who could do him. For the show, or when he was away, Smith would prerecord Howdy’s lines, which were then played back as the puppeteer moved Howdy’s mouth. But Smith’s sudden heart attack left him unable to do the recordings. So once again, our story turns to “the Man of a Thousand Voices.”
Allen Swift Saves Howdy Doody, Again
Of all the character voices that Allen Swift was doing on the show, he stayed away from trying to do Howdy Doody’s. The reason he hadn’t tried was that Bob Smith was so insistent that only he could do Howdy’s voice. But Smith’s heart attack had put the show in jeopardy. They desperately needed someone to do the voice of Howdy Doody, and Swift was ready to step up.
Swift approached producer Roger Muir, telling him that he was sure he could do Howdy Doody. Muir told him to work on it over the weekend, and they’d see what he’d come up with on Monday. Throughout the weekend Swift practiced until he finally felt he had it right. But he needed to try it out on someone.
In Davis’s book, Swift tells how he visited a friend whose child was blind. There he talked to the child in Howdy’s voice, and the child believed that Howdy was right there in the room with him. Now confident that he had it right, he arrived at the studio on Monday. As he walked into the room, with all the cast and producers, Swift said in Howdy’s voice, “Ho, ho, well howdy, boys and girls! Howdy, Buffalo Bob!” You could hear a pin drop. It was Howdy! The show was saved! Swift would continue to do Howdy even after Bob Smith returned, and would continue to do him and the other characters until leaving the show in 1956.
Allen Swift was born Ira Stadlen in New York City in 1924. He took his stage name from his two satirist idols: Fred Allen and Jonathan Swift. Swift began his professional career doing stand-up comedy. He would also appear on early television with two legendary artists, Eddie Canter and Bob Hope. But what Swift became famous for was his voice work, doing character ad-libbing to the old silent Max Fleischer Out of the Inkwell cartoons.
After leaving Howdy Doody, Swift would do the voices for the cartoons: Underdog and Tom and Jerry. He also appeared as the live character Captain Alan Swift on the Popeye Show from 1956 until 1960, and later Captain Allen on another children’s TV show on WPIX in New York.
The man, whose voices had rescued the Howdy Doody Show (twice) passed away on April 18, 2010, at his Manhattan, New York home at the age of 86; his thousand voices now silent.
As for Howdy’s voice, after Swift other voice actors would also do the voice of Howdy Doody. And although it may have been a shock for Bob Smith that he wasn’t the only one who could do Howdy, he no longer had to prerecord Howdy’s lines, which ended up being easier for him.
In my next post I’ll tell the history of the Peanut Gallery and the spinoff Howdy Doody Shows
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