A small group of aged cast and crew members of the 1950s Howdy Doody Show stood in the cold at Rockefeller Center. They had traveled from across the country, back to the place where it all began. They were there for the unveiling of their show’s bronze star on NBC-TV’s Walk-of-Fame. Their star would join with those of other giants of the Golden Age of Television as Sid Caesar and Milton Berle. But the star of the show wasn’t among them. He was locked away in the vault of an undisclosed bank somewhere in Rhode Island, awaiting the outcome of what would be one of the most famous custody battles in the history of the U.S. district court.
In my last two posts, I told of the agreement made between the show’s last puppeteer Rufus Rose and NBC, and also of the understanding between Rose and Buffalo Bob Smith, when Smith borrowed Howdy in 1970, as to the future of the original Howdy Doody marionette.
In this post, the last in my series on the history of the Howdy Doody Show, I’ll cover how that agreement and the understanding would affect the outcome of the Howdy Doody custody fight between one of the country’s most revered puppeteer families and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
As with the two previous posts, my main source is the 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. In addition, I was able to interview Buffalo Bob and Velma Dawson’s friend Burt Dubrow, who shared his personal accounts of what happened at the inspection of the Howdy Doody marionette.
The Custody Battle for Howdy Doody
In February of 1999, the Detroit Institute of Arts Founders Society brought suit in the United States District Court against the Rose estate, its executor Christopher Rose, his two brothers, and Bob Smith’s widow Mildred Smith, the executrix of his estate.
In May of 2000, the attorneys for all parties appeared before Federal Judge Christopher F. Droney of the United States District Court in Hartford Connecticut. Each side believed that their positions were strong enough that it be decided in a Summary Judgment, that’s where the judge settles the case rather than having a jury trial. In addition, the DIA, the Rose and Smith families agreed that Christopher Rose, who had possession of the Howdy Doody in question, would place the marionette in the vault of a Rhode Island bank until the case was settled.
In their filings, the DIA requested several forms of relief, all pertinent to them being declared the rightful owners of the original Howdy Doody marionette. They claimed that under the proposal presented by Rufus Rose to NBC in 1966, the signed agreement between Rose and NBC in 1967, and then fortified by the understanding between Rose and Bob Smith in 1970, that the DIA is indeed the rightful owner of the original Howdy Doody. The defendants argued that the 1967 agreement was ambiguous in it’s requirement that Rose was to deliver Howdy Doody to the DIA, and so being unenforceable.
Attorneys for the DIA presented the NBC agreement which stated that Howdy would, “be turned over to the Detroit Institute of Arts…,” and Howdy would be, “going into the puppet museum.” They also presented Rose’s 1970 letter to Smith saying, “…that Howdy himself eventually be placed in the care of the Detroit Institute of Arts.” They argued that those letters clearly show that sending Howdy Doody to the DIA was a part of the agreement between Rufus and NBC, and is what Rufus Rose wanted.
But then the defense attorneys threw a curve. They presented that the DIA claims that they are entitled to the “original Velma Dawson’s 1948” Howdy Doody. But, they argued, is the Howdy Doody in question, that “original” Howdy Doody?
Will the Real Howdy Doody Please Come Forward
Marionettes are very fragile puppets with their strings and moving parts. And a daily live TV show isn’t the best setting for such delicate works of art. Throughout its run, the Howdy Doody Show had kept Scott Brinker, Rufus and Margo Rose very busy keeping the show’s characters in top working order. To do this they were constantly repairing, restringing, repainting, and in some cases, swapping parts from one marionette to another. It can only be assumed that this happened to Howdy Doody as well.
The Rose’s argued that the DIA only had a claim to the “original” 1948 Velma Dawson Howdy Doody. Their contention was that over the twelve years that Dawson’s puppet was performing, its parts were replaced, remolded, and painted over; and by doing so had removed any trace of the original puppet. So, was the Howdy Doody in the bank vault the one created by Dawson?
To determine this, the court authorized an inspection of the Howdy Doody in question to assess if this marionette is indeed the original made by Velma Dawson in 1948.
On December 14, 1999, a small group gathered to inspect the Howdy Doody marionette. Those attending were members of the councils for the plaintiff and defendants, members of the court, and also two people with strong ties to Howdy.
Overseeing the inspection was the renowned maker and restorer of puppets, Alan Semok. Semok also had a history with the original Howdy Doody. It was Semok who Buffalo Bob hired to repair and restore Howdy when he was in Smith’s possession. And in addition, Semok had made three “photo Doodys” and duplicate Howdy’s for Smith.
Also in attendance was the most pivotal person who could rightly validate if the marionette in question was indeed the “original” Howdy Doody, and that was Velma Dawson, Howdy’s Mom herself.
Made by Scott Brinker
Puppeteers will tell you that the most valuable part of a marionette is its head. And it would be Howdy Doody’s head that determined the outcome of the lawsuit.
The attorneys for the Roses argued that if the head on the Howdy Doody in question isn’t the one created by Velma Dawson in 1948, then it’s not the original Howdy Doody. And if it’s not the original, then the DIA has no claim to him.
Accounts of the inspection tell how Semok had, with great care, opened a small trap door on the back of Howdy Doody’s head. What was found inside the head caught everyone by surprise. Written inside was, “Made by Scott Brinker.” Although this may seem rather conclusive that this wasn’t Dawson’s original, there is an explanation.
Burt Dubrow, a long-time friend of Buffalo Bob, shed light on this mystery. As I wrote in Howdy’s Back On TV; Howdy’s head was damaged just before Smith and Howdy were to leave for their appearance on Hollywood Squares. The panic-stricken Smith called Dubrow for help. It just happened that the Howdy Doody Show’s old prop and puppet maker Scott Brinker was living nearby. Brinker made the repairs in time for Hollywood Squares, but he also left something inside Howdy’s head other than just repairing it.
Brinker later confessed to Dubrow what he had written inside, and according to Dubrow, Brinker reasoned that he wanted to be known as the last person who repaired the original Howdy Doody.
A Mother Always Knows Her Son
Velma Dawson was in New York City for the unveiling of Howdy Doody’s star on the NBC Walk-of-Fame, when she was called to make the short trip from the city to help identify her Howdy Doody. From accounts, it was unlikely she was there when Semok found Brinker’s note, but it’s also likely she knew about it. However, this would have had little effect, because of the way her inspection was conducted.
For Dawson, she was to identify her creation from among multiple Howdy Doody heads, which were laid out before her. As I’ve written, there were many duplicate Howdy Doodys made; those made by the Rose’s, which included Double Doody and the two Canadian Howdys, as well as those made by Alan Semok for Buffalo Bob. All of them had been molded from Dawson’s original. So it was now up to Dawson to identify which one was hers.
The 87-year-old puppet master had extremely poor eyesight at the time. The only way she could make her determination was by feeling. However, from all the years of the normal maintenance of painting and repairing, as well as the fifty years since she’d last seen him, Dawson was unsure which one was hers at the time of the inspection.
When Dawson got back to her hotel room she called Burt Dubrow, who was also in New York for the unveiling. Dawson told Dubrow that she wasn’t sure which one of the Howdy heads was hers. According to Dubrow, he reminded Dawson that her Howdy had a very unique feature from the others. Inside Dawson’s, Howdy’s mouth was a raised area just on the inside.
Now confident on which Howdy was her original, Dawson sent an affidavit to the court certifying that the Howdy Doody in the lawsuit was indeed hers, and the one NBC had paid her $300 for in 1948.
Judge Droney’s Decision
On January 23, 2001, after a contentious two-year court battle, U.S. District Judge Christopher Droney presented his 40-page decision. In his decision, Judge Droney addressed the two critical points in the case: was the 1967 agreement between NBC and Rufus Rose binding, and was the Howdy Doody being held in the Rhode Island bank the one created by Velma Dawson in 1948.
Droney wrote in his opinion, that the 1967 agreement between Rufus Rose and NBC was indisputably “a clear contractual agreement.” As for the intent as to where the original Howdy Doody marionette was to end up, Droney cited Rufus Rose’s first letter to NBC General Manager William J. Schmitt of June 3, 1966, the 1967 NBC agreement, and Rose’s 1970 letter to Bob Smith. All showed “undisputed evidence of the intent” that Rufus Rose wanted the original Howdy Doody to go to the Detroit Institute of Arts.
As to the question, is the Howdy Doody in the bank the “original” Dawson 1948 marionette? Droney stated in his opinion, “Although there may be a question as to whether this Howdy Doody puppet was exactly the same in 1960, after the wear and tear of over 2,000 shows, there is no question that the puppet, now in the Rhode Island bank and subject to this case, is the same that existed at the end of the [Howdy Doody] show.” As to the authenticity of the Howdy Doody in the Bank as being Dawson’s, Droney cited Rufus Rose’s letter to Buffalo Bob, where he stated that he was sending Smith the “one and only original HOWDY.” Droney went on to write that the “chain of custody” of the puppet in question hadn’t been broken, from the shows end in 1960 to Rufus Rose, then to Bob Smith in 1970, and finally to Christopher Rose in 1998. Where all parties: Rufus Rose, Bob Smith, and Christopher Rose, recognized it as being the original Dawson Howdy Doody.
Judge Droney’s summation:
“The DIA has shown that it is the owner of the Howdy Doody puppet as a matter of law. It was a third-party beneficiary of the contract between Rufus Rose and NBC from 1967. The clear intent of Rufus Rose and NBC, as expressed in that contract, was that the puppet be placed in the museum.”Judge Christopher F. Droney, United States District Court of Connecticut.
Next Stop, Detroit
When the court’s decision was announced it was immediately celebrated by all those who loved Howdy Doody. Howdy’s Mom, Velma Dawson, commented when she heard, “I’ve got goose pimples” and “Howdy belongs to the people. He should be in the DIA.” Eddie Kean, the Howdy Doody Shows original head writer, echoed Dawson’s sentiments saying, “Howdy ought to be in a public place. Not auctioned off to some rich man.” Larry Baranski, the DIA’s puppet curator at the time, stating the feelings of the museum said, “We’re still reeling,” and Doodyville Historical Society founder Jeff Judson remarked, “a victory for those fans who believed that Howdy Doody belonged in a ‘home’ where he would be appreciated for his contributions to American culture, the puppetry arts, and television history, and could be viewed by the public.”
The two-year legal battle came at a cost to the DIA. Before the court battle, the original Dawson Howdy Doody was appraised at around $50,000. The original Photo Doody had sold at auction for $113,000, and one of the Rose’s Canadian Howdy’s went for $35,166.42. According to the Detroit Institute of Arts, their legal fees were over $300,000. But, for this old “Peanut,” it was well worth it.
Today, Howdy is among good company at the DIA. He resides with other historic puppets such as Kermit the Frog and a Medieval Punch and Judy. December 27, 2022, will mark an important milestone for our old friend; it will be his 75th Birthday. Let’s hope the DIA does something really special!
Getting off the bus our group entered the Detroit Institute of Arts through its rear John R Street entrance. My wife and I were on a community day trip to the DIA sponsored by our local Recreation Department.
After our allotted time to explore the museum we began gathering in the DIA’s rear lobby. We still had a little time before our bus was to leave, so I approached a small group that look to be about our age. I asked them if they knew that Howdy Doody was here at the DIA. With a surprised look, they said no. So I asked, would you like to see him? Oh yes, they answered.
Leading them from the lobby, and down a long hallway, we soon came to a large display case. There, inside, next to an old TV set, was our Howdy Doody, greeting us with his ageless smile.
We stood there for a few minutes, just gazing, as he helped us to reconnect to our childhood. For us standing there, in those brief moments, it was Howdy Doody time again. Kowabonga!
With this post, I’ve completed my incredible journey on the history of my boyhood friend Howdy Doody. And I thought it would be fitting to end this series as I started, with a personal experience of visiting Howdy at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
As I’ve said, this project was originally going to be only one, maybe two posts. However, it blossomed into twelve, and took me on a nearly two-year adventure of discovery. In that time: I’ve visited the grave of Howdy’s Mom, helped to remember Eddie Kean, and I made a host of new friends at the Doodyville Historical Society. Of those, I’d like to thank Jeff Judson, Jack Roth, Tom Johnson, and Chance Mitchell. But I’d especially liked to thank Burt Dubrow. It was Burt’s personal experiences, which gave my stories a deeper insight, not found in my other sources. This was especially true with Velma Dawson’s inspection of Howdy Doody during the court battle. All of these friends helped me immensely, to get the story right.
I hope that this journey of discovery has helped you to appreciate the work of all those that helped to create one of the most iconic shows of early television, a show whose influence extended years after it went off the air in 1960.
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