I turned 70 this year. And so did a 10-year-old freckled little boy named Howdy Doody. For those too young to remember, The Howdy Doody Show debuted in 1947, its star a convivial wooden marionette whose human partner in the show, Buffalo Bob Smith, lived in my hometown of New Rochelle, New York.
Each show had a story line featuring Bob and Howdy. Howdy’s voice was actually Bob Smith’s, which had been prerecorded. Within the show was a cast of characters, some human (such as Chief Thunderthud and Princess SummerFallWinterSpring) along with several wood-be human marionettes like the grumpy Mr. Bluster and the polymorphous creature Flub-a-Dub, who comprised the characteristics of eight different animals.
And there was Clarabell, the voiceless clown who communicated with two horns strapped to a box around his waist, one side labeled YES, the other NO. Clarabell uttered not a sound for 13 years until the final show, when he said, almost under his breath, “Goodbye, kids.”
For trivia aficionados, Clarabell was played by three different actors. The first was Bob Keeshan, who later became Captain Kangaroo.
Howdy Doody was the first daily show to have live music and to be broadcast in color. The iconic program also left the world with at least one cultural reference: the peanut gallery, an area in the studio where the live audience of kids sat. No adults allowed.
The children were welcomed at the top of the broadcast with a robust chant by Buffalo Bob: “What time is it, kids?” The response from the audience was a rousing, “It’s Howdy Doody time!”
In 1948, Howdy ran for president with the slogan: “VOTE FOR A REAL PUPPET.” His platform included two annual Christmases, fewer school days and more pictures in history books. More than 250,000 kids requested “I’M FOR HOWDY” buttons. Clarabell campaigned as his Veep.
Years after the show went off the air, one of my childhood buddies traveled with Buffalo Bob and Howdy as they toured college campuses in the ’70s, reliving the Howdy Doody craze with audiences who grew up with them.
I am greeted each time I walk into my home office by a smile from Howdy Doody. Sitting on my bookshelf is a 60-year-old vintage puppet, a facsimile of the TV star, courtesy of my friend and toy collector Phyllis Baskerville. Her priceless gift to me came with no strings attached. (That’s why it’s a puppet and not a marionette.)
And finally, here’s a really weird connection I have to that TV show. Bob Smith had a side business, a liquor store in New Rochelle, just minutes from my childhood house. It was quite conveniently located for my parents, who enjoyed cocktails before dinner.
When my mother needed to replenish her stash of whiskey, she’d sometimes take me with her to this little store where spirits were sold by a guy who looked an awful lot like the guy who hosted the Howdy Doody Show. Any time I would point that out, my mom denied it was Buffalo Bob. OK, I remember thinking, maybe I am confused, but I’m the only one here who doesn’t drink.