In my post the Agreement, I told how the fire at his Connecticut workshop caused Rufus Rose to be sued by NBC. The reason for the lawsuit was NBC felt that Rose wasn’t properly caring for their property, the puppets from the Howdy Doody Show. Although NBC lost their case, it did set up talks between the network and Rose for the ownership and the final distribution of the show’s puppets. But most of all, this agreement laid out where the original Velma Dawson 1948 Howdy Doody would finally end up.

Ron Current

This post will begin with the understanding made between Rufus Rose and Buffalo Bob when Rose loaned Smith the original Howdy Doody in 1970. From there I’ll tell how Smith’s life changed, as well as the value of the original Howdy. All of this would finally culminate in one of the most published custody battles in the history of the federal courts.    

But it all started with the understanding between two old friends.

“The One and Only Original HOWDY”

In September of 1970, after Bob Smith’s phone call asking to borrow Howdy Doody for his personal appearances, Rufus Rose went to his workshop, packed up the 1948 Velma Dawson Howdy Doody, and shipped him off to Smith in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In a letter written on his business stationery, which he sent separately, Rose wrote,

“Dear Bob. It was good to talk to you yesterday by phone. In accordance with our conversation I am sending to you via parcel post the one and only original HOWDY.”

From the 1970 letter from Rufus Rose to Buffalo Bob Smith
Rufus Rose with Howdy. Photo from New York Times archives.

Having worked on the Howdy Doody Show since 1952, both Rufus and his wife knew all of the show’s puppets very well. They knew Velma Dawson’s original Howdy because they had worked him and repaired him. They had also made molds from his head to make duplicate Howdys. So, there’s little doubt that Rufus knew which Howdy he was sending. In fact, this letter almost seems to be a reassurance to Smith, who most likely wouldn’t know the original from a duplicate, that he was indeed getting the “original” Dawson Howdy Doody. 

Also In his letter, Rufus explained to Smith the agreement he had made with NBC after the workshop fire and lawsuit. Rose explained how that agreement had allowed him to keep possession of Howdy and the rest of the show’s puppets. But most of all, Rufus Rose wanted to remind Bob Smith of the final destination of Howdy. In his letter, Rose goes on to say,

“that Howdy himself eventually be placed in the care of the Detroit Institute of Arts which maintains and displays the foremost national collection of puppets. Therefore I hand HOWDY on to you with this mutual understanding and responsibility.”

From the 1970 letter from Rufus Rose to Buffalo Bob Smith

This letter between Rose and Smith would become extremely important in the future court case.

With this understanding, Smith accepted the loan of the original Howdy Doody.

Only Sentimental Value

Rose and Smith’s correspondence was friendly; just one friend asking another friend to borrow a prop from their old TV show.

It’s hard for us Peanuts to realize that when the Howdy Doody Show was on the air its marionettes, including its star, were mostly seen as props for the show. They needed to be kept in good working order and to have backups in case of damage; because without them, there was no TV show. But they were still props.

As I wrote in Goodbye Kids and The Agreement after the Howdy Doody Show ended the cast went on their separate ways and the puppets were locked away in Rose’s workshop.  Their value at that time was mostly sentimental. But that would soon change.

The Original Three Howdy Doodys

To understand how the original Howdy Doody’s value went from being sentimental to financial, we need to know what’s referred to as the three “original” Howdy Doodys.

Of all the Howdy Doody’s used on the 1950s show, and there were a few, three stand out as being originals. They were: the 1948 Velma Dawson Howdy Doody, which is also known as Howdy Doody #1, Double Doody, which was used as a backup Howdy, and Photo Doody, the stringless puppet used by Smith for public appearances and photo shoots. I go into greater detail on these three puppets in my Howdy Doody’s Mom and More Citizens of Doodyville posts.

What became of Double Doody and Photo Doody changed the value of Howdy #1, and would set the stage for the coming legal battle.

Left to right: Dawson’s original Howdy Doody at the DIA (photo by author), the Rose’s Double Doody at the Smithsonian (photo from the Smithsonian website), and TJ Fisher holding the original Rose Photo Doody she bought at auction (photo from the Doodyville Marionette Registry).

Rufus Rose Passes

After Rufus Rose passed away in 1975 Buffalo Bob Smith continued to retain possession of Howdy Doody #1. This Howdy Doody was only used by Smith on Happy Days, the Howdy Doody 40th Anniversary special, and a few television guest spots. For his other appearances, Smith preferred to use the “Photo Doodys” he had Alan Semok make for him. For the most part, Buffalo Bob kept his old friend in a glass display case at his home.

Buffalo Bob Falls on Hard Times

Throughout his life Bob Smith had been successful: he became a television legend, owned a liquor store in Wykagyl, New York, and three radio stations in the State of Maine (see my posts Goodbye Kids and Its Howdy Doody Time Again). On top of that, he’d made a few bucks with his appearances as Buffalo Bob on his nostalgia tours. But sadly, later in his life, he fell on hard times: he was diagnosed with lung cancer and lost over $700,000 in an investment fraud. 

Howdy and Buffalo Bob in happier times. Photo from Find-A-Grave website.

In 1992, Smith asked his attorney to send letters to Rufus’s widow Margo, NBC and the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) requesting he be released from the requirement of sending Howdy Doody #1 to the museum. In 1980, Margo Rose had donated Double Doody, the second of the three original Howdy Doodys, to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Smith hoped that this had increased the value of Howdy #1, and by selling Howdy it would help to solve his financial issues.

NBC responded, denying the release of Howdy Doody to Smith. In addition, the DIA also declined to allow Smith the right to sell Howdy. And Christopher Rose, Rufus and Margo’s youngest son, writing on his mother’s behalf, also denied Smith the right to sell Howdy. In his response, Chris reminded Smith of his father’s intent, and also of the agreement with NBC that the original Howdy Doody would go to the DIA.

On July 24, 1995, Smith responded to all the letters by agreeing to transfer Howdy Doody to Detroit when he no longer wished to keep his old friend. And for the time being Smith dropped the matter. But that would change when Howdy Doody #1 became even more valuable.

Bob Smith and Christopher Rose Agree to Sell the Original Howdy

On September 13, 1997, Margaret “Margo” Rose, the second half of one of the greatest Puppeteer couples in America, passed away at the age of 94.

Margo Rose. Photo from the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame website.

In April of 1998, in settling his mother’s estate, Christopher Rose traveled to Bob Smith’s home in Henderson County North Carolina. His purpose was to retrieve the original Howdy Doody from the aged star. But it was during that visit that something very interesting took place concerning the future of that most famous marionette. It was then that he and Smith decided to sell Howdy.

What could have brought about Rose’s change of mind concerning his father’s intent and the agreement with NBC?  Was the letter he wrote to Smith in 1992, just to tell of his mother’s support for her husband’s agreement that Howdy would go to the DIA? Or was it something else that changed his mind?

A month after Margo had passed away, Roger Muir, the executive producer of the Howdy Doody Shows, had auctioned his Photo Doody, the third of the three original Howdy Doodys. The sale was conducted by Leland’s Auction House. The highest bidder for the original Photo Doody was the author, documentarian and social critic TJ Fisher. She paid $113,000 for Photo Doody. Both Rose and Smith must have known this, and they could only imagine what the original Dawson Howdy Doody would sell for.

On April 19, 1998, Rose and Smith came to an agreement. In this agreement, Chris Rose would handle all the arrangements for the auctioning of Dawson’s Howdy Doody, and after it sold they agreed to split the profits. There was an interesting caveat to this agreement; that if Howdy hadn’t been sold by June of 1999, Rose would then return him to Smith, under the terms of the 1970 understanding that Smith had with his father. However, in May of 1998, Chris and Smith amended their original agreement, stating that both he and Smith own fifty percent interest in Howdy #1.

On June 19, 1998, Chris Rose entered into a consignment agreement with Leland’s Auction House for the sale of the “original Howdy Doody and other puppets from The Howdy Doody Show.”  In this agreement, Rose made a statement that would become extremely important in the coming court battle.  In his agreement with Leland’s, Rose “certified” that the Howdy Doody that Smith had given him, and the one being sold, was indeed, “{the} original Howdy Doody puppet that was used on over 2300 Howdy Doody TV Shows.” This established that Rose knew that he was selling the original 1948 Dawson Howdy Doody.

But sadly, Bob Smith wouldn’t be a part of this selling, or the legal battle, over his old buddy.  On July 30, 1998, “Buffalo Bob” Smith, the man every little boy idolized, and every little girl wanted to marry, lost his battle with cancer, he was only 80 years old.

To stop Christopher Rose from auctioning Howdy Doody, the Detroit Institute of Arts Founders Society quickly filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court in Connecticut. 

The Battle For Howdy Doody

My next post will tell the two year court battle over who was the rightful owner of the Original Howdy Doody.


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