Almost six decades after Howdy Doody went off the air, here’s the truth behind the successful kids show

Kids programming seems to be everywhere these days, there’s no doubt about it. Gone are the Saturday morning cartoon blocks, now we have dozens of channels dedicated entirely to children’s TV shows. These series benefit from always having an audience, because kids never stop wanting something fun and lighthearted to watch. Even when their final episodes have aired, these shows still have an audience through reruns, allowing them to live on for years.


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Of course, some of these programs manage to stay on the air no matter how long they’ve been going now. Just look at Sesame Street. The educational show is almost at its 50 year anniversary and is still going strong. None of these series would have been possible without the ones that came before them, though. It’s the pioneers of the genre who are responsible for their success, which is why we’re so grateful for shows like Howdy Doody.

The series that enchanted young viewers back in the ‘40s and ‘50s was one of the first of its kind, and it proved there was a place on TV for kids’ programming. Children loved the marionette star and his human companion so much that the show remained on the air for 13 years, and to this day it hasn’t been forgotten. However, while it may have been the delight of young audiences six decades ago, things weren’t always quite so happy backstage. Some truths about the show have recently come to light, and they’re not all so kid friendly.

Start in life

While Howdy Doody may have been the star of the show, he was nothing without his human sidekick. That’s not just because they featured on the series together. Howdy Doody was actually first created by Bob Smith in the ‘40s, back when the TV star was a radio announcer on WNBC. Initially, the puppet started out life as just a voice, but that was enough to gain the attention of NBC executives. When Smith featured on an episode of Puppet Playhouse in 1947, the executives were convinced that the idea of Howdy Doody would attract young viewers. They commissioned Frank Paris to create the puppet, and thus Howdy Doody was born.

Their big break

With a character, a human presenter and now a physical puppet, the show had everything it needed to broadcast to viewers at home. E. Roger Muir was responsible for the creation and production of the show, which saw Smith and his puppet use humor to their advantage as they brought a smile to children’s faces across America. While on the series, Smith used the nickname Buffalo Bob, because of his New York roots. The name tied in with the Western setting of the show, which saw the characters dressed up in cowboy outfits for every episode. Howdy Doody’s name was conceived because of the popular saying used in the western states of the nation.

Stars of the show

Howdy Doody wasn’t alone on the show. He was just one of many other marionettes that regularly featured throughout the 13-year run. Other famous puppets on the series include Heidi Doody, who becomes Howdy’s adopted sister, Flub-a-Dub, an amalgamation of eight different animals, and the titular character’s arch-rival, Phineas T. Bluster. There were plenty of other marionettes alongside these characters, including Princess SummerFallWinterSpring, Dilly Dally and Sandra the Witch, as well as a handful of animal puppets.

Human companions

It wasn’t just the marionettes that starred on the show. Alongside Buffalo Bob were a small cast of human actors who portrayed different roles. The most notable of these was Bob Keeshan, who played the mute clown Clarabell, and Dayton Allen, who had multiple roles on the show. He featured as Sir Archibald, Ugly Sam and Pierre the Chef, among others. Some characters initially appeared as humans, before later being replaced by marionettes. Judy Tyler originally played the character of Princess SummerFallWinterSpring, prior to passing away in 1957.

Getting a facelift

While Frank Paris might have been the chief puppeteer for the show, things didn’t stay that way the whole time. The show eventually hired a new puppeteer in the form of Velma Wayne Dawson, who gave Howdy Doody a bit of a makeover. Smith had previously been displeased with the appearance of his puppet companion, so the show was willing to provide the character with a facelift. They hid the change behind a storyline about plastic surgery, which resolved any problems with continuity. There was more to the story, though.

Taking revenge

Velma wasn’t just brought in as a spare pair of hands, but rather to deal with the absent nature of Frank Paris. Within a year of airing, Howdy Doody was a hugely popular show, and many stores approached the network about creating merchandise. This led to a dispute between Smith and Paris, with the latter feeling cheated out of the financial rewards. In a fit of anger, he left the studios one day with Howdy in tow, leaving the show without its main character hours before going on air.

Living his dream

While there may have been tension between Smith and Paris, the former didn’t let it influence his time on the show. If anything, he was in his element. Not only was his character idea a success, but he was also able to his biggest passion to the series. Before he was Buffalo Bob, Smith had been a singer, so he made sure that music was always a prominent part of the show. This included the casting of two jazz musicians and a chorus of kids to sing the theme tune.

Breaking boundaries

Howdy Doody was performing well, Bob Smith was loving life, and all was going well. Even the network was thrilled and did all they could to make the show as innovative as possible. It wasn’t enough to just entertain the audiences, they wanted to push boundaries and establish themselves as one of the greatest shows around. They managed this when the show successfully broadcasted an episode with it’s two leading characters in different parts of the country. Smith was in New York, while his puppet was in Chicago.

Struck by illness

Unfortunately, while everything on the show may have been going great for Smith, his health took a turn for the worst in 1954. The TV star suffered a heart attack, something which he thankfully survived. This left him in serious need of bed rest, which wasn’t great for the series. Other hosts had to step in to fill his shoes, while viewers were led to believe that their beloved presenter was on vacation at Pioneer Village. Children watching had no reason to suspect this was anything but the truth.

Creating an illusion

Buffalo Bob could only be away from the show for so long before questions started to getting asked. Sponsors weren’t happy that one of the stars was away for so long, so the show found a way to appease everyone. They established a set at Smith’s home that was made to look like Pioneer Village so the star could continue to deceive the audience into thinking he was on vacation. It was a whole year until Smith returned to the show properly, but his return was welcomed with open arms.

Howdy’s impact

One of the greatest things about Howdy Doody is the impact it’s had on TV, not just in America but around the world. Countries like Mexico and Cuba created their own take on the series, with some of them even attracting big names to the role. William Shatner and James Doohan, who later became famous for Star Trek, were both cast in the Canadian version as Ranger Bob and Timber Tom respectively. One of their puppets – Mr. X – is also believed to be the inspiration for sci-fi show Doctor Who.

After the show

Shatner and Doohan weren’t the only ones who went on to great things after their time on Howdy Doody. Some of the stars on the American version also managed success in their later career, including Dayton Allen. The comedy star, who was responsible for many of the human characters on Howdy Doody, continued to express his eccentric personality as a voice actor for the Terrytoons series of animations. His catchphrase “Why not?” on the variety show The Steve Allen Show also became a phenomenon in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Going on to greater things

While Dayton Allen may have done well out of Howdy Doody, it was Bob Keeshan who had the strongest career after leaving the show. After performing as Clarabell the Clown for five years, he went on to have his own kid’s TV series – Captain Kangaroo. He starred as the titular character for almost 30 years, racking up 768 episodes in total. The character later appeared on other shows, including the comedy series Murphy Brown and Muppets Tonight, before leaving the industry at the turn of the century.

Inspiring generations

The success these stars had outside of Howdy Doody is a sign of how significant the impact was that this children’s show had. If it weren’t for Howdy Doody’s influence, Captain Kangaroo would never have been conceived, nor would many of the other great shows that have kept kids entertained for decades. The series established a formula that has been replicated by plenty of other children’s programming in the years that followed. However, while Howdy Doody may have been a huge inspiration, it couldn’t stick around forever.

Saying goodbye

13 years after it debuted, Howdy Doody bid farewell to its devoted fanbase. Although the show was popular, it supposedly struggled with budget restrictions and could no longer afford to stay on the air. The end of the series was emotional for all, and the cast knew they had to make their final show together incredibly memorable. So, in the last episode on September 24, 1960, Clarabell the Clown spoke for the first time in 13 years. His parting words, “Goodbye, kids,” left a nation of children devastated.

Nostalgia

When a show’s as big as Howdy Doody, though, it never truly goes away for good. Nostalgia for the ‘50s was strong in the 1970s, which saw the series referenced in an episode of the sitcom Happy Days. Bob Smith starred in the show, as did Clarabell the Clown, and the nation was reminded of how much it missed the series. The reappearance on Happy Days actually prompted Nicholson-Muir Productions to revive the program as The New Howdy Doody Show, with several of the original cast members.

The magic’s gone

Bob Smith wasn’t about to give up on his fame until he absolutely had to. However, the revival didn’t have quite the same appeal as the original. Even with additional characters, including Happy Harmony played by Marilyn Patch and Jackie Davis as the leader of the band, the series couldn’t reclaim its former glory. After 130 episodes, the revival was taken off the air, and Howdy Doody was finally at its end. There was no place for the show on TV anymore… or was there?

One last hurrah

Desperate to restore some credibility to the series, the cast of the show reunited one final time in 1987 for a television special. The two-hour episode marked 40 years since the show had first debuted, and reminded audiences of why Howdy Doody had been such a beloved series of its time. Not one to let his series go, Bob Smith continued to promote his show with a new batch of merchandise in 1998. The release of these products came shortly before his death from cancer.

Best friends forever

Despite only being a puppet, Smith had always had a close connection with Howdy Doody. He viewed the marionette as his child, and never failed to say goodnight to him before going to bed. The pair shared a life together for almost 50 years, and it was from Smith’s mind that Howdy Doody was first devised. It’s unsurprising that the TV star wasn’t able to part with his creation, especially after the level of fame the puppet brought him. Unfortunately, his relationship with the marionette has caused some controversy.

A new home

Following Smith’s passing, Howdy Doody has been the subject of a custody battle. As a symbol of a historic time in TV, there’s a lot of people who want the puppet, but not everyone can get their hands on him. The marionette eventually ended up in the possession of the Detroit Institute of Arts who won ownership of the character over Smith’s own heirs. Duplicates of the puppet who were occasionally used in place of Howdy have also found their way into museums, with one now residing at the Smithsonian.

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