Pioneering ‘Howdy Doody’ celebrated in Fourth of July TV marathon

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In this 1955 photo, “Buffalo Bob” Smith and his stringed pal Howdy Doody say hello to Heidi Doody, the newest puppet on “The Howdy Doody Show.” | FILE PHOTO

NEW YORK — A former NBC star and offbeat candidate for president soon will be saluted on COZI TV.

No, not Donald Trump. It’s Howdy Doody, the redheaded, freckle-faced marionette born at the dawn of television. He will star in a Fourth of July marathon.

The lineup, which begins at 8 a.m., will include nine episodes of the pioneering “The Howdy Doody Show,” including its poignant series finale, which aired on Sept. 24, 1960. No episodes from the 13-year run of this beloved children’s show have been broadcast since that day, more than a half-century ago.

The six-hour marathon will be bookended by a brand-new half-hour “Howdy Doody for President” special, which looks back on Howdy’s two runs for the White House — in 1948 (see the video below) and 1952 — on a platform that included double sodas for a dime, two Christmas holidays annually and only one school day per year.

“The Howdy Doody Show” | COURTESY COZI TV

“The Howdy Doody Show” | COURTESY COZI TV

The special brings out of retirement Howdy himself, still remarkably boyish as he weighs in on the current presidential race.

“Howdy’s position has not changed,” said Burt Dubrow, perhaps the world’s leading Doody disciple and a partner with COZI TV consulting creative director Alan Goodman in this effort to get Howdy back on the air. It’s been a two-year process that entailed not only a search for episode prints but also, before that step, tracking down who owns the series rights (turns out, conveniently, that COZI TV parent NBC still does).

“When we realized that we could do something around the time of the national conventions and that we had these election episodes,” said Goodman, “we knew Howdy could represent a much different point of view from what we’re hearing in the campaign today.”

If the marathon is a success, Goodman added, the network, which specializes in repeats of classic shows, has more “Howdy Doody” episodes, retrofitted with fresh wraparounds, ready to air at a later date.

“Hopefully, this will get noticed,” he said, “and people will want more.”

A formative influence on nearly every baby boomer’s childhood, “The Howdy Doody Show” premiered in 1947 as the first nationally televised children’s show and the first NBC show to air five days a week (which it did until moving to Saturdays in 1956). It was also among the first series to be color-cast (starting in 1955).

Set in fictional Doodyville, where stringed puppets cavorted with flesh-and-blood characters, the show’s human host was “Buffalo Bob” Smith, who furnished Howdy’s voice while presiding over the comic hijinks and a studio audience of kids dubbed the Peanut Gallery.

“Say, kids! What time is it?” Buffalo Bob would call out at the top of each show, to which the kids would scream in response, “It’s ‘Howdy Doody’ time!”

Among its supporting cast was, famously, Bob Keeshan, who was the first of three actors to play Clarabell, the silent, seltzer-spraying clown, and who left in the mid-1950s to launch his own groundbreaking kids show, “Captain Kangaroo.”

While “The Howdy Doody Show” would log 2,543 episodes, NBC knew it had a hit right away. In 1948, the network decided to offer Howdy for President campaign buttons to kids.

“But there were no ratings. No one had any idea who was watching,” noted Goodman. “An NBC executive went out on a limb and said, ‘Let’s order 10,000 buttons. Maybe that won’t be too many.’ They got 250,000 requests! That was the first indication that a viable kid’s audience was out there.”

Along with Goodman, the legions of “Howdy Doody” fans back then included Dubrow, who has never cut his ties with that marionette.

Now a veteran TV producer, Dubrow in the 1970s was road manager for “Buffalo Bob” on his eagerly received college tour appearances.

Dubrow’s extensive collection of Howdy treasures includes an original Howdy Doody puppet, which hosts the special and the new wraparounds, cuing the audience to the inevitable screwups and other curiosities embedded in each show.

Dubrow can also be spotted as a 10-year-old member of the Peanut Gallery in one of the episodes to be re-aired.

Laughing during this revelation during a recent phone interview, Dubrow is heard to give Clarabell’s horn an emphatic honk. This uber-fan owns Clarabell’s utility box equipped with Yes and No horns, as well as Clarabell’s wig.

On a Saturday morning in 1960, he must have been as startled by Clarabell as any kid when “Howdy Doody” ended with the mute clown peering into the camera and, chin trembling, choking out his first-ever words: “Goodbye, kids.”

Sadly, “Howdy Doody” time was over. Until now.

Associated Press

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