Question: You'll see by my question that I'm no youngster, but you'll also see I've been wondering about this for a long, long time. I grew up watching Howdy Doody and my sister always claimed the beloved puppet I grew up with was not the original. So settle this for me after so many years. Has she been correct all along? Thank you. — Ira S., Sturgis, S.D.
Televisionary: That she has, Ira. The original Howdy Doody puppet, first seen when Bob "Buffalo Bob" Smith went from radio to creating a kids' TV show called Puppet Playhouse in December 1947, was a country character based on Elmer, a holdover from Smith's radio show who greeted listeners with the phrase "howdy doody." After a week, the show's name was changed to Howdy Doody and when Frank Paris, creator of the original Howdy marionette, couldn't come to terms with NBC over ownership of the show and filed suit, Smith and show producer Roger Muir commissioned two former Disney artists to develop the new puppet. Thus was born the familiar, all-American Howdy, who sported 48 freckles (one for each state) and a never-flagging smile.
Not that Howdy had an easy time of it during his 1947-60 run. Take the time his head blew up, for instance. Seriously. "I did a show on the steps of the White House for 'I Am an American Day.' On the flight back to New York, Howdy was stored in an unpressurized part of the plane," Smith told TV Guide in 1957. "When we landed we discovered his head had split open. We had to rush to patch him up in time for our next show."
Why not simply make a new head? It wasn't quite that easy. "We've tried to cast a mold of Howdy and build a new puppet from the mold, but they never match," he said. "I guess it's the same as no two people ever looking exactly alike.... We've rebuilt it and rebuilt it, but we've never been able to duplicate it."
Because Howdy was irreplaceable, he was kept in a locked room at NBC. "We once considered trying to insure him, but we never did," Smith said. "We figure if anything happens to Howdy, what good is the insurance?"
Luckily for Smith and the producers, filling the roles of other characters presented a little more flexibility. Take Clarabelle the clown, initially played by Bob Keeshan, before he went on to become the beloved Captain Kangaroo. Keeshan worked as an assistant who brought props onto the set during the show, but Smith decided he needed a more creative image. "He wore a business suit and it didn't look right," Smith said. "The costume department consisted of three clown outfits, and one fit Bob. He'd never read a line in his life, so we gave him a Harpo Marx-type horn. Thus was born Clarabell." Thus, too, was born a character who, without a trademark voice, could be hidden under clown makeup and played by Lew Anderson after Keeshan moved on.
Demonstrating even more flexibility, the Tinka Tonka tribe's much-loved Princess Summerfall Winterspring first appeared as a puppet, but became a real woman portrayed by former chorus girl Judy Tyler, then Linda Marsh after Tyler moved on.
There was, however, only one Buffalo Bob (named for his birthplace of Buffalo, N.Y.). Kids loved Smith as much as they loved Howdy, so much so that in 1970, when Smith was contacted by some University of Pennsylvania students about showing an old Howdy Doody film and decided to take the stage himself to introduce it, he proved so popular with his now-grown-up fans that he went on a college tour and was greeted by nostalgic crowds the whole way.
"You don't have to be a senior citizen to look back to the good old days," Smith said of his popularity among college students looking to be distracted from the problems of the draft and the Vietnam conflict. "To these kids, that's what I represent: the days when they had no problems, no uncertainties. At every campus it's the same. They want to talk about the old show and sing the songs. It gives them a chance to relive their carefree days."
Or, as a psychology major at Harvard put it: "Now I really know what regression is all about. And I'm for it."