Bob Smith is a 70-year-old millionaire with a strange habit. The onetime businessman and long-retired radio and television host likes to walk up to strangers and say, “Hey! What time is it?” When the unwary folks consult a wristwatch, Smith grins and says, “Come on, you know what time it is. It’s always Howdy Doody time!”
And so it is for Smith and millions of baby boomers who will always remember him as Buffalo Bob, the host of The Howdy Doody Show, one of the most popular children’s programs in television history. This week Smith and Howdy Doody, the freckled, plaid-shirted puppet hero of Doodyville, U.S.A., will commemorate the show’s first telecast when It’s Howdy Doody Time: A 40-Year Celebration airs in syndication across the country.
Among the old cast members making appearances will be Nick Nicholson, the show’s second Clarabell (of three), who’s now an arranger for a Boca Raton orchestra, and his successor, Lew Anderson, a New York musician. Bob Keeshan, the original Clarabell Hornblow, now appears as Captain Kangaroo on public television and Bill (Chief Thunderthud) LeCornec is a part-time actor and puppeteer in Miami. Judy Tyler, who played the popular Princess Summer fall Winterspring, and Alene Dalton, the show’s Story Princess, both have died.
Smith, who broke into broadcasting in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., has prospered as the owner of radio stations and in the liquor and real estate businesses since retiring from show business in 1960. He now divides his time between homes in Florida and Maine with his childhood sweetheart and wife of 47 years, Mildred Metz. They have three sons, ages 33 to 45, and three grandchildren. The idea for Howdy was born in 1947, inspired by a Smith-hosted children’s radio show in which one of the performers repeated the line: “Well, howdy doody!” At his home in Maine, Smith talked about his 13 years of TV with the Dood, who debuted over NBC at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 27, 1947.
When the cameras rolled for the first show, we’d had no rehearsal whatsoever. We talked with NBC on a Tuesday, and they wanted the show on the air on Saturday. We didn’t even have a puppet. I said, “You know, kids, we have a little fella named Howdy Doody, and Howdy wanted to be with me tonight and, well, he just got too bashful, and he is in my desk drawer right here.” Howdy was too bashful for three weeks. It took that long because we just couldn’t make a puppet that fast.
Three weeks later on the show, after puppeteer Frank Paris had built a puppet, I said, “Now, Howdy, come on, the kids want to see you.” I opened the drawer and out came Howdy Doody, and that was how the whole thing started. Unfortunately, the first Howdy was very, very crude. He was ugly. Just terrible. I can’t tell you how bad he was. Thank God he didn’t frighten the kids.
In 1948, an election year, Eddie Kean, our writer, got a great idea. Howdy was running for President of all the kids in the United States. We wrote into the show that Howdy was campaigning out in Portland, Ore. We told the kids that Mr. X, his running mate, was very, very handsome, and Mr. X was getting votes from all the girls so maybe Howdy should have a face-lift. We said, “Don’t worry, kids. It isn’t going to hurt. It’s not even as bad as having a tooth pulled. It is just going to make Howdy more handsome. You’ve got to admit Howdy doesn’t look too good.”
So we stalled. I made a recording of Howdy’s voice and sent it over to [former Disney artist] Velma Dawson, a puppet maker. She came back in a couple of days with drawings of a puppet. The minute we saw the sketch, we said, “My gosh, that’s it.” We had to wait another three weeks for Velma to make Howdy. The sponsors wanted Howdy to do commercials, so we took another puppet and bandaged it, and we did the commercials with his face taped up. We said he was going to look wonderful, and we just had to put up with this until the bandages came off.
Finally the beautiful Howdy arrived at Rockefeller Center. When we saw the face, we just loved it. We bandaged it all up, went on the air, then we took off the bandages and had the unveiling of Howdy as we know him today. Howdy is made of wood, and he is 27 inches tall. The Howdy we have now is the same one we had in the spring of ’48. Later we made other Howdys, but it’s like trying to paint two Mona Lisas the same. You just can’t do it. Any kid could tell which is the real Howdy. The one that came closest we used in long shots. We called him Double Doody, and he’s in the Smithsonian Institution now.
The show started as a circus. That is where we got the idea for the Peanut Gallery, a place for the kids to sit with their friends and watch the show. Howdy was supposed to have inherited this land, and we built the circus, and I was his lion tamer and manager. I sort of took care of things for Howdy. After a while we thought the circus motif had sort of pooped out, so we moved to Doodyville, U.S.A.
I must confess that no one ever called Howdy a puppet. We would never say, “Put the spotlight on the puppet.” It was always, “Put it on Howdy.” The man operating the microphones always kept the boom on Howdy’s face even though I had already made a recording of his voice. That’s how live we thought Howdy was.
Forty Peanut Gallery tickets were issued a day, and each sponsor got 10. I got four, and each cast member got two or four a week. The station relations department got all the rest. So actually, hardly anyone who wrote in for a ticket ever got one.
On the show I tried to be the best friend the kids ever had. Kids know right away whether or not you like them. One day I was doing a Tootsie Rolls commercial, and this little kid kept interrupting with “Buffalo Bob! Buffalo Bob!” I couldn’t stop because it was all live back then. Finally, I turned around and said, “Yes, sonny, what is it?” He said, “I can’t eat Tootsie Rolls ’cause I am allergic to chocolate!” I went on with the show and thought, “Well, there goes our client.” I was tempted to smack kids like that.
One day I was doing a commercial for Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. Every time the camera would be on me with this box of cereal, the little kid behind me would say “hello” and wave his hand right in front of my face. When the commercial was over, I was so angry at this kid that I took the box and swung it around to the left—I just wanted to hit him in the face a little, to remind him not to do that anymore. As I did, he ducked, and the sweetest little girl got the box right in her face and got a bloody nose. The camera jiggled up and down because the cameraman was shaking, he laughed so hard. It looked like we had an earthquake in the studio.
None of the kids in the Peanut Gallery ever got sick on the air, but we had a couple in the top row who had, er, accidents because of nervousness and excitement, and it dribbled down to the bottom rows. I noticed that some of the kids started moving away, and some of them were sitting three feet from each other.
No one knows how hard we worked all those years. Live TV is the most difficult thing to do in the world. You’re on the spot all the time. I worked so hard I gave myself a heart attack. I was doing an hour on NBC Radio—The Bob Smith Show—every morning. Then a half-hour network TV show, then Howdy Doody in the afternoon. Labor Day morning in 1954 I woke up at 5 a.m. with the worst, most crushing pains you could imagine. I felt like trucks were running over my chest.
After I got out of the hospital, NBC built a set in my basement in New Rochelle, which they called Pioneer Village. The show was still from Manhattan, from Doodyville, and I was supposed to be on a secret mission in Pioneer Village. One day Clarabell would come out and do the show with me, and one day Oil Well Willie, Trapper John and Zippy the chimp would come in to visit me in Pioneer Village. I would do all the commercials from there. And the Peanut Gallery kids talked to me because on the Super Talkascope—sort of like a television set you could talk into—you could speak to anyone anywhere in the world. I don’t think they knew I was in my own house. For about eight months we did a network show from my basement. Somehow I can’t see that happening in network TV today.
When Howdy first went on the air, my kids were delighted because they were the heroes [of their neighborhood]. Chris, our youngest, was born two months after my heart attack. My mother, in Buffalo, had never seen Chris. So Lew Anderson, who played Trapper John as well as Clarabell, walked into the studio with Chris so that my mother could see him on television.
As long as I am living, I want Howdy with me. I don’t know how much he’s worth. What are your children worth? I keep him in a Plexiglas case up on top of my filing cabinet in Florida. As soon as people walk into my den, boom! That is the first thing you see—Howdy looking at you with a big smile.
Once in a while, before I turn out the light in the den, I say, “Good night, Howdy.” If I don’t have laryngitis, sometimes he says something back to me.