The Howdy Doody Show was one of the first and easily the most popular children's television show in the 1950s and a reflection of the wonder, technical fascination, and business realities associated with early television. While Howdy and his friends entertained American children, they also sold television sets to American parents and demonstrated the potential of the new medium to advertisers.
The idea for Howdy Doody began on the NBC New York radio affiliate WEAF in 1947 with a program called The Triple B Ranch. The three Bs stood for Big Brother Bob Smith, who developed the country bumpkin voice of a ranch hand and greeted the radio audience with, "Oh, ho, ho, howdy doody." Martin Stone, Smith's agent, suggested putting Howdy on television and presented the idea to NBC televi-sion programming head Warren Wade. With Stone and Roger Muir as producers, Smith launched Puppet Playhouse on 17 December 1947. Within a week the name of the program was changed to The Howdy Doody Show.
Children loved the Doodyville inhabitants, because they were a skillfully created, diverse collection of American icons. The original Howdy marionette was designed by Frank Paris and in keeping with Smith's voice was a country bumpkin; however, in a dispute over licensing rights Paris left the show with the puppet. The new Howdy, who premiered in March 1948 was an all-American boy with red hair, forty-eight freckles (one for each state in the Union), and a permanent smile. Howdy's face symbolized the youthful energy of the new medium and appeared on the NBC color test pattern beginning in 1954.
Smith treated the marionettes as if they were real, and as a result, so did the children of America. Among the many unusual marionettes on the show was Phineas T. Bluster, Doodyville's entrepreneurial mayor. Howdy's grumpy nemesis, Bluster had eyebrows that shot straight up when he was surprised. Bluster's naive, high-school-aged accomplice, was Dilly Dally, who wiggled his ears when he was frustrated. Flub-a-dub was a whimsical character who was a combination of eight animals. In Howdy and Me, Smith notes, "Howdy, Mr. Bluster, Dilly, and the Flub-a-Dub gave the impression that they could cut their strings, saunter off the stage, and do as they pleased."
Although the live characters, particularly the native Americans Chief Thunderthud and Princess Summerfall Winterspring, were by modern standards stereotypical and often clownish, each had a rich heritage interwoven into the stories. These were prepared by Eddie Kean, who wrote the scripts and the songs until 1954, and Willie Gilbert and Jack Weinstock, who wrote scripts and song lyrics thereafter. For example, Smith (born in Buffalo, New York) was transformed into Buffalo Bob when he took his place in the story as the great white leader of the Sigafoose tribe. Chief Thunderthud (played by Bill LeCornec) of the mythical Ooragnak tribe ("Kangaroo" spelled backward) introduced the word "Kawabonga," an expression of surprise and frustration, into the English language. One of the few female characters in the cast was the beloved Princess Summerfall Winterspring of the Tinka Tonka tribe, who was first introduced as a puppet, then transformed into a real, live princess, played by Judy Tyler.
The Howdy Doody Show also reflected America's fascination with technology. Part of the fun and fantasy of Doodyville were crazy machines such as the Electromindomizer that read minds and the Honkadoodle that translated Mother Goose's honks into English. Television's technical innovations were also incorporated into the show. On 23 June 1949 split-screen capabilities were used to join Howdy in Chicago with Buffalo Bob in New York, one of the first instances of a cross-country connection. Howdy also ushered in NBC's daily color programming in 1955.
The Howdy Doody Show was immediately successful and was NBC's first daily show to be extended to five days a week. In 1952 NBC launched a network radio program featuring Howdy, and in 1954 Howdy Doody became an international television hit with a Cuban and a Canadian show, using duplicate puppets and local talent, including Robert Goulet as Canadian host, Timber Tom.
As amazing as it may now seem, there were published concerns over violent content in Howdy Doody, but though the action in Doodyville generally involved slapstick, parents generally supported the show. Much of the mayhem was perpetrated by a lovable, mischievous clown named Clarabell Hornblow. Clarabell was played by Bob Keeshan who later become Captain Kangaroo. His pratfalls were generally accidents, and the most lethal weapon on the show was his seltzer bottle. Moreover, educational material was consciously incorporated both into the songs and the stories; for example young viewers received a lesson in government when Howdy ran for President of the kids of America in 1948. The educational features of the program made the Doodyville characters attractive personal promoters both for the show and for the sale of television sets.
And even before the advent of the Nielsen ratings, Howdy Doody demonstrated its ability to draw an audience both for NBC and for possible advertisers. In 1948, children's shows were often provided as a public service either by the networks or the stations. When Howdy ran for President of all the kids, Muir suggested that they offer free campaign buttons. They received 60,000 requests, representing one-third of the American homes with television sets. Within a week their advertising time was sold out to major advertisers, such as Colgate Palmolive Peat Company. Although the producers were careful about what they advertised, they were very aggressive about marketing products they selected, incorporating product messages into songs and skits.
The producers also recognized the potential for merchandising. In 1949 the first Howdy Doody comic book was published by Dell and the first Howdy Doody record was released, selling 30,000 copies in its first week. There were also Howdy Doody wind-up toys, a humming lariat, a beanie, and T-shirts, among other licensed products.
Although extremely popular, the demise of The Howdy Doody Show demonstrated the financial realities of the new medium. In 1956 the early evening time slot became more attractive to older consumers, and the show was moved to Saturday morning. Although it continued to receive high ratings, the expense was eventually its downfall, and it was taken off the air on 24 September 1960, after 2,343 programs.
The most famous moment in the history of The Howdy Doody Show came during the closing seconds of the final show when Clarabell, who did not speak but communicated through pantomime and honking his horns, surprised the audience by saying, "Good-bye, kids." The reality continues to be that the rich, live-action performances that filled early children's programming are too costly for modern, commercial television. The show was briefly brought back to television as The New Howdy Doody Show in August 1976, but was canceled in January 1977, after only 130 episodes.
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