This look back at Howdy Doody was originally posted in 2007 on The Elder’s Tribune under the name Dem in Utah, a pseudonym I’ve used in my posts to that site. Since this is another crammed week of classes, doctor appointments, etc., in addition to a long day of poll working on Super Tuesday, I’ve decided to post it here on Wintersong for the first time. You DO remember Howdy Doody, right?
Buffalo Bob: “Say kids, what time is it?”
40 (or more) kids in the peanut gallery: “It’s Howdy Doody time!”
If you’re a baby boomer and had access to a television back in the late ’40s and the ’50s, I’ll bet you know the rest of the words to this familiar introduction. Altogether now, to the tune of Ta-ra-ra, Boom-de-ay:
“It’s Howdy Doody time. It’s Howdy Doody time. Bob Smith and Howdy too, say Howdy Do to you. Let’s give a rousing cheer, ’cause Howdy Doody’s here. It’s time to start the show. So kids let’s go!”
As I was watching TV and thinking about a subject to reminisce about this week in a blog post, strangely enough there was suddenly a promo (for a movie?) or a commercial (not sure which) featuring marionettes. Immediately I thought of Howdy Doody, and voila! There was my answer.
As the first network series for kids, it was broadcast as Puppet Playhouse on the NBC network beginning December 27, 1947, airing daily half-hour shows Monday through Friday. In those days of the television industry’s infancy, NBC had only six stations. Statistics show that only about 20,000 homes had TV sets in their living rooms.
I think it was about 1950 that my father surprised us all and brought one home for our living room. It was a beauty! A big box with a proportionately small screen, with wires attaching to an antenna attached to the roof. (If a storm brewed, we had to remember to unplug the set, because that antenna was a real magnet. I remember one television from my childhood literally burning up during a thunderstorm.)
Reception was poor in the rural area we lived in, the closest station being 60 miles away in Jacksonville, but sometimes reception could be crystal clear when Daddy went outside and turned the pole the antenna was attached to in a different direction. Sometimes we could watch a whole show before the wind would pick up and turn everything around.
Every afternoon after school, as often as I could after finishing my chores, I watched the Howdy Doody Show as it would later be known. I remember the beloved Buffalo Bob in his western outfit with fringe across the shirt front. The setting was a town called Doodyville, a place that was as real to me as Grandma’s house in the next county.
Howdy, who sported freckles across his cheeks, also wore western clothes and had a neckerchief tied around his neck. Presumably it was red-checkered but I couldn’t be sure since the show was black and white until 1955, long after I’d outgrown the show.
My favorite character, after Howdy, was Clarabell. Somehow I identified with this clown who had no voice (Freudian overtones?), but had fun anyway by communicating with the horns on the belt he wore over his clownsuit, and spraying everyone with seltzer spray. Bob Keeshan, whom you may know better as Captain Kangaroo, played Clarabell for awhile, but I’m sure you already knew that.
How many characters can you remember? These easily come to my mind: Princess Summerfall Winterspring. Phineas T. Bluster (the mayor of Doodyville). Cornelius Cobb. Dilly Dally. Chief Thunderbud (who originated the “kow-a-bun-ga” cry you still hear small kids say today).
The last show was aired September 24, 1960 and will always be remembered as “Clarabell’s Big Surprise.” The show was mostly capsulations of momentous moments during the show’s 12-year run, but sometime during the show Mayor Pnineas T. Bluster figured out the big surprise but promised Clarabell to keep it secret.
In the final moments, though, when Phineas reminded Clarabell it would be pretty hard to keep something like this secret for very long, tension mounted as Clarabell disclosed, through pantomime, his big secret: He could really talk!
Howdy said, “Why, golly, I don’t believe it.” Buffalo Bob asked him to prove it by saying something. As the show was near the end, Buffalo Bob took Clarabell by the shoulders, gently shaking them, giving him one last chance to reveal his secret.
“Well, Clarabell“, Bob said, “this is your last chance! If you really can talk, prove it…let’s hear you say something!” “Show us, show us you can talk.”
As a big drumroll rolled to an end, the camera honed in on Clarabell’s face. Lips quivering, he looked into the camera, and spoke softly.
And the picture faded into black.
Postscript: If, perchance, I’ve tweaked the nostalgia bone in you, this YouTube video update ought to help you remember. You’ll see Clarabelle, Howdy, Buffalo Bob, and the peanut gallery as they sing the show’s opening theme: