For us Boomers the 1950’s was our age of innocents, and the biggest part of our weekday was rushing home to watch Howdy on TV. That magical world of Doodyville: with all the wonderful stories, the funny old movies, Buffalo Bob, Clarabell, 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, the third section in my Citizens of Doodyville, I tell about that “Christmas Eve Massacre” and how it changed the very makeup of the show. I’ll then introduce “the Man of a Thousand Voices,” who truly rescued Howdy Doody after that Christmas Eve event, and then again later.
So join with me, as I lift the curtain, a little, on the Crisis in Doodyville.
(Updated on August 23, 2020)
The 1952 Christmas Eve Massacre
By 1952 the Howdy Doody Show was the most popular television show on the air, and a real money maker, both through sponsorships and merchandising, for Bob Smith and NBC. Bob Keeshan felt that the cast should get substantial raises for helping to make the show what it was. 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 the four presented their demands to Smith and producer Roger Muir.
After the Christmas Eve show, Smith called a meeting in the studio. There he informed everyone that there would be no raises. There are two versions on what happened next; one story says that Smith gave Keeshan and his group their pink slips, and the other has Smith telling them that if they didn’t like what he said, they could leave; the second story assumes that Smith knew he wouldn’t have to pay unemployment if they quit. Whichever story is correct really doesn’t matter; four extremely important cast members were gone. The small ensemble on Howdy Doody played multiple parts on the show: puppeteers, live characters, but most of all, the character’s voices.
But the show didn’t hesitate one bit. Eddie Kean had already started writing storylines around the missing characters. Solving the puppeteer problem, the producers hired marionettists Lee Carney, Rufus and Margo Rose to replace Mann and Allen. For Clarabell, they replaced Keeshan with Bob Nicholson. But the show still had a major, major issue; finding someone to do all the character voices done by Dayton Allen and Bill LeCornec. To solve that, they turned to “the Man of a Thousand Voices.”
Allen Swift: The Man of a Thousand Voices
Born in New York City in 1924 as Ira Stadlen, Allen Swift took his stage name from his two satirist idols: Fred Allen and Jonathan Swift. He began his professional career doing stand-up comedy. He also appeared 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 the Christmas Eve event, producer Roger Muir quickly started looking for a voice actor to replace Allen and LeCornec. Muir had heard of Allen Swift, and that he had a wide range of character voices; so he called him for an audition. What Muir didn’t know was how crucial Swift would be to the Howdy Doody Show.
According to Swift’s own account in Stephen Davis’s book, Say Kids! What Time is it, that when he arrived for the audition he was handed pictures of all the puppets on the show and told, “Put voices on them.” Bob Smith and Roger Muir had given up trying to find a voice actor that could duplicate what Allen and LeCornec had created. They figured Swift would just create new voices for the puppets.
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. Smith and Muir had no idea that Swift’s specialty was mimicking.
Swift took home recordings of Allen and LeCornec doing their characters; and was able to match all but one. LeCornec’s Dilly Dally was so unique that Swift couldn’t get it right, and that was one of the reasons the producers rehired LeCornec.
As part of the cast, Swift would also work the marionettes alongside Carney and the Roses. In addition, with Nicholson now playing Clarabell, the role of Corny Cobb fell to Swift. He would remain Corny Cobb until Nicholson returned to that role a few years later. But the biggest impact that Swift would have on the Howdy Doody Show came when Buffalo Bob suffered his heart attack.
Smith’s almost fatal heart attacked forced him to stay home to recover. The cast and producers were in a panic; Buffalo Bob was the very cement that held the show together. However, Buffalo Bob being off the show wasn’t the main issue; they had worked around him before when he went on vacation. The biggest, and I mean the biggest problem was that Smith was the only one who did Howdy Doody’s voice.
Buffalo Bob always boasted that he was the only one who could ever do Howdy. Smith was so insistent that Swift never tried to do Howdy’s voice. Now the show was again in trouble. You could get away with doing Howdy Doody without Buffalo Bob; but you can’t do Howdy Doody without Howdy Doody sounding like Howdy Doody. We kids wouldn’t put up with it!
Without telling the producers, Swift practiced doing Howdy’s voice all weekend. 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 in the room with him. Feeling he had it right, he arrived at the studio Monday, as he walked into the room with all the cast and producers he 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!
Even after Smith returned, Swift continued doing Howdy until he left the show in 1956. After that other voice actors would also do Howdy. And although this might have been a shock for Smith, he no longer had to pre-record Howdy’s lines, which ended up being easier for him.
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.
My next post will be on the Peanut Gallery, Doodyville’s most important citizens. Then I’ll present some of the little known spin-offs that came from the show.
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“Allen Swift.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, Mar. 2020, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allen_Swift.
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