Howdy Doody was a children's television program (with a decidedly frontier/western theme, although other themes also colored the show) that was broadcast on NBC in the United States from 1947 until 1960. It was a pioneer in children's programming and set the pattern for many similar shows. It was also a pioneer in early color production as NBC used the show in part to sell color television sets in the 1950s.
Howdy Doody himself was a freckle-faced boy marionette, and was originally voiced by Buffalo Bob Smith. The Howdy Doody marionettes were created and built by puppeteers Velma Wayne Dawson and Rufus Rose throughout the show's run. The redheaded Howdy marionette on the original show was operated with 11 strings: two head, one mouth, one eyes, two shoulders, one back, two hands and two knees. Three strings were added when the show returned—two elbows and one nose. This gap-toothed puppet in cowboy boots remains a favorite baby boomer childhood memory and popular culture icon.
The original Howdy Doody marionette now resides at the Detroit Institute of Arts. There were also duplicate Howdy Doody puppets, used expressly for off-the-air purposes (lighting rehearsals, personal appearances, etc.). Double Doody (Howdy) was the Howdy stand-in puppet; now on permanent display at the Smithsonian. Photo Doody (Howdy), is the near-stringless marionette that was used in personal appearances, photos, parades, and the famed NBC test pattern. He was sold by Leland's Sports Auction House in 1997 for more than $113,000 to a private art collector, TJ Fisher Other puppet characters included Heidi Doody (Howdy's sister), Mayor Phineas T. Bluster, Dilly Dally, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, and the curious Flub-a-Dub (a combination of eight animals—a duck's bill, a cat's whiskers, a spaniel's ears, a giraffe's neck, a dachshund's body, a seal's flippers, a pig's tail,and an elephant's memory).
The show's host was Bob Smith (born November 27, 1917 and died July 30, 1998), who was dubbed "Buffalo Bob" early in the show's run. Smith wore cowboy garb, and the name of the puppet "star" was derived from the western U.S. expression "howdy do", a familiar form of the greeting "How Do You Do?" (The straightforward use of that expression was also in the theme song's lyrics.) Smith, who had gotten his start as a singing radio personality in Buffalo, New York, used music frequently in the program. Cast members Lew Anderson and Bobby Nicholson were both experienced jazz musicians.
There also were several human characters, most notably the mute Clarabell the Clown, who communicated by honking horns on his belt and squirting seltzer, and Chief Thunderthud, head of the Ooragnak tribe of Native Americans (kangaroo spelled backward, possibly from Bob Keeshan), who originated the cry "Cowabunga!" Princess Summerfall Winterspring, originally a puppet, was later played by the actress Judy Tyler. The characters inhabited the fictional town of "Doodyville." Several characters were also voiced by comedian and voice actor Dayton Allen, who later went on to become a cast regular on NBC's prime-time Steve Allen Show. The Howdy show's non-televised rehearsals were renowned for including considerable double-entendre dialogue between the cast members (particularly the witty Dayton Allen) and the puppet characters.
Clarabell was first played by Keeshan, who continued in that role until 1952. Keeshan left in a salary dispute and later became Captain Kangaroo at CBS. At the end of the final episode, broadcast on September 24, 1960, Clarabell (then played by jazz musician Lew Anderson) broke his series-long silence to say the final words of the final broadcast: "Goodbye, kids." Lew Anderson followed Bobby Nicholson, who also played Doodyville's J. Cornelius Cobb.
After the death of Buffalo Bob Smith, a fierce legal and custody battle for the original Howdy Doody erupted between the heirs of Bob Smith, the Rufus Rose estates, and a museum that the marionette had been bequeathed to. Howdy was once again in the news, with his face and story making headline broadcast, wire, talk show, and print news around the world. For a while, during the tug-of-war fight, Howdy was held hostage in a bank safety deposit box while his saga played out in the federal courts. The Detroit Institute for Arts, which has one of the largest collections of historically significant puppets in North America, prevailed and now has custody of the original Howdy.
Late in life Bob Smith befriended New York-based voice actor Jack Roth, who was already quite familiar with Smith's gallery of puppet characters. Shortly before his death, Smith passed the mantle to Roth, who has been the voice of Howdy Doody in TV appearances and live venues since 1998.
Beginning in 1954, the NBC test pattern featured a picture of Howdy.
In 1954, Bob Smith suffered a heart attack and was ordered to recover at home. NBC managed to keep the show going with guest hosts, including Gabby Hayes and Ted Brown as "Bison Bill", explaining that Smith was vacationing at "Pioneer Village. While kids generally were satisfied with the explanation, show sponsors insisted that they wanted Smith himself to hawk their products. In response, NBC set up a special studio at Smith's home so that he could appear live "from Pioneer Village" to do commercials. During Smith's absence from the show, Howdy was voiced by the well-known voice actor Allen Swift, the "Man of a Thousand Voices." Swift continued to voice the character for a short time even after Smith's return to the show. For a few years following Smith's death in 1998, Howdy did some final promotional appearances and television interviews, with his voice provided by actor Alan Semok.
A then unknown Canadian actor named William Shatner (who would later play Captain Kirk in Star Trek) appeared occasionally as a fill-in host on the Canadian show as "Ranger Bob." Coincidentally, another future Star Trek actor would join the Canadian Howdy Doody cast. The Canadian show starred James Doohan (the future Scotty in Star Trek) and later Peter Mews as forest ranger Timber Tom who corresponded to Buffalo Bob in the U.S. version. That Robert Goulet played this part is an error that sometimes appears (it is listed among his credits on the official Robert Goulet website in his TV-Ography- #31-1957, and was also mentioned by Buffalo Bob Smith at one of his concerts). However, Goulet may also have been an occasional fill-in host. The Canadian show appeared much more low-budget than the U.S. counterpart and seemed watered-down, with less raucous plots and less villainous villains. Yet some of the stories were evocative nonetheless, almost stepping into high fantasy, often with Dilly Dally as an everyman hero who muddled through and did the right thing.
The American program was prerecorded on color videotape in the final years, one of the earliest programs to use that technology.
The final episode was broadcast on September 24, 1960, entitled "Clarabell's Big Surprise". The episode was mostly a fond look back at all the highlights of the show's past. Meanwhile, in the midst of it all, Clarabell has what he calls "a big surprise." The rest of the cast attempts to find out the surprise throughout the entire show, with only Mayor Phineas T. Bluster succeeding, and promising to keep it a secret. ("But", he says upon leaving, "it won't be very easy to keep something like this a secret for long!!") Finally, in the closing moments, the surprise was disclosed through pantomime to Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody. "You mean...you can talk??" said Bob. "Why, golly...I don't believe it!" Howdy Doody exclaimed. "You can talk?!" Bob asked again. Clarabell nodded. "Well, Clarabell", Bob continued, gently shaking the clown's shoulders, "this is your last chance! If you really can talk, prove it...let's hear you say something!" A drumroll began as Clarabell faced the camera as it came in for an extreme closeup. His lips quivered as the drumroll continued. When it stopped, Clarabell simply said softly, "Goodbye, kids" and the picture faded to black. The recently discovered and restored color videotape of the final broadcast is now available commercially.
Nicholson-Muir Productions acquired from NBC the rights to produce the New Howdy Doody Show, an attempt by Buffalo Bob and most of the old cast to recreate their past fame. It was broadcast from August 1976 to January 1977 in syndication. For this incarnation, which lasted for 130 episodes, the Howdy Doody marionette had actual hair in a contemporary 1970s style. Cast members included Bill LeCornec as fictional producer Nicholson Muir (named for the production company); Nicholson himself as Corny Cobb (now working as a "prop man" rather than a shopkeeper), bandleader Jackie Davis, and Marilyn Patch as Happy Harmony (filling in for the Princess Summerfall Winterspring role). Lew Anderson returned as Clarabell.
A decade later, the show celebrated its 40th anniversary with a two-hour syndicated TV special, It's Howdy Doody Time: A 40-Year Celebration, featuring Smith, Anderson, Nicholson and LeCornec, who reprised his former role of Chief Thunderthud for the special.
The Andy Kaufman television special Andy's Funhouse, which was taped in 1977 but was not broadcast until August 1979, on ABC, featured a special appearance by Howdy Doody in the "Has-been Corner" segment.
During the second season of Happy Days. episode 33, Buffalo Bob and Clarabell have to persuade Richie to destroy a photo of Clarabell without his makeup on.
In an episode of the television show The Nanny, entitled "Lamb chops on the menu" Fran makes the joke "If Lamb Chop had Married Howdy Doody her name would be Lamb Doody"
In the film Up In Smoke, an interplay between Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong makes reference to the character. Chong asks "Hey you wanna get high, man?". Cheech replies, "Does Howdy Doody got wooden balls, man?"
In the first season of South Park, in the "Pink Eye" episode. When Stan comes dressed as Raggedy Andy, Cartman asks: "Who are you supposed to be? Howdy Doody?"
In an episode of Monk (TV Series) entitled "Mr. Monk and the Sleeping Suspect" the characters make a joke that it was more possible that Howdy Doody was to kill someone, than a guy in a coma.
In Toy Story 2, the TV show Woody's Roundup is largely a parody of the show.
The single 'Indian Giver' by the band 1910 Fruitgum Company featured a B side called 'Pow Wow' which when played backwards was revealed to be a song called 'Bring Back Howdy Doody'.
The TV show Howdy Doody wakes up Doc in Back to the Future Part III.
Ernie Kovacs had a clever spoof of Howdy Doody, called Howdy Deedy, with Kovacs himself as Buffalo Bob, or, in this case, Buffalo Miklaos, and the Howdy Doody puppet had thick glasses and a mustache added to its face.
In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the television is showing Howdy Doody when Indiana Jones stumbles upon a nuclear test town.
In Hellboy 2, a young Hellboy watches Howdy Doody on Christmas Eve at the beginning of the film.
In an episode of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" entitled "Robbing the Banks", Will says, "Oh look, A black Howdy Doody" referring to Uncle Phil's assistant.
There is a reference to the TV show Howdy Doody In an episode of Sam and Max: Freelance Police!!! entitled "It`s Dangly Deever Time" by showing Dangly Deever`s Character just like the howdy doody`s Character
In an episode of Full House called The Volunteer DJ had to help out an old man with Alzeimer's disease and he told her she can't watch Howdy Doody when he was referring to his daughter when she was a kid.
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