Airing from 1947 until 1960, Howdy Doody is widely regarded as a trailblazer of children’s TV. Fronted by Buffalo Bob Smith and his titular puppet, the Wild West-themed show paved the way for everything from Captain Kangaroo to Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Here’s a look at how the NBC hit made it to air and what happened when it was eventually taken off it.
The much-loved character of Howdy Doody was conceived by Bob Smith, a popular WNBC radio announcer. The freckle-faced young boy was initially just a voice until NBC executives, impressed by Smith’s guest appearance on Puppet Playhouse in 1947, asked puppeteer Frank Paris to bring him to life. The design of the puppet was inspired by a drawing of the presenter’s sister, Esther.
The brainchild of E. Roger Muir, Howdy Doody the show first hit screens two days after Christmas in 1947. Host Smith was given the nickname of Buffalo Bob in a nod to both his New York state hometown and the iconic frontier hero. He and Howdy Doody, named after the “howdy do” expression, also dressed in cowboy attire to fit the show’s Western town setting, Doodyville.
Howdy Doody was such an instant success that by the following Christmas toy-makers had become inundated with requests for official merchandise. However, the demand caused a rift between character creator Smith and puppet creator Paris over the financial rewards. In one particularly heated incident, the latter stormed off the Howdy Doody set with his puppet just hours before its live airing.
Producers were forced to concoct a last-minute excuse for Howdy Doody’s absence on more than one occasion. They eventually got around the problem by hiring another puppeteer, Velma Wayne Dawson, to create a much more aesthetically-pleasing puppet. Smith had previously described Paris’ creation, which had 48 freckles to represent each state at the time, as “the ugliest puppet imaginable.”
Of course, Howdy Doody wasn’t the only puppet featured on the show. There was his adopted sister Heidi, his childhood friend Dilly Dally and his arch-rival Phineas T. Bluster, private eye Inspector John J. Fadoozle and Native American Chief Featherman. Other regular puppets included Princess SummerFallWinterSpring, Sandra the Witch, Capt. Windy Scuttlebut and animal hybrid Flub-a-Dub.
Smith was also joined by lots of human characters, too. Bob Keeshan, who went on to conceive the legendary Captain Kangaroo, first caught attention as horn-honking, seltzer-squirting, entirely mute Clarabell the Clown. Dayton Allen played explorer Sir Archibald, while Bill Le Cornec appeared as the leader of the American Indian tribe known as Ooragnak, Chief Thunderthud.
Smith had started his career as a singer back home and now made sure that music was a big part of the show. Two veteran jazz musicians – Robert ‘Nick’ Nicholson and Lew Anderson – were cast regulars. And around 40 kids got to sit in what was called the Peanut Gallery and sing the show’s theme tune at the start of every episode.
The show also became an international success, with Mexico, Cuba and Canada all filming their own versions using duplicate puppets and local actors. The latter’s spin-off featured two future Star Trek icons as forest rangers, with James Doohan, better known as Scotty, playing Timber Tom and William Shatner – the mighty Captain Kirk – playing Ranger Bob. A feature named Whatsis Box is also credited by some as the inspiration for long-running sci-fi show Doctor Who.
The original US version also proved to be surprisingly innovative. In 1949 it became one of the first shows to use a cross-country connection when Buffalo Bob in New York joined Howdy in Chicago. And in 1955 it helped to pave the way for the NBC network’s color programming.
In September 1954 Smith was forced to take a break from the show after he survived a heart attack. Various guest hosts including New York DJ Ted Brown, appearing as Bison Bill, and actor Gabby Hayes stepped in for Smith, who was advised to recover at home. The young audience was told that Buffalo Bob was enjoying a holiday at Pioneer Village to explain his absence.
But in an attempt to appease sponsors, NBC quickly built a small studio at Smith’s home so he could still help to sell various products. The set was designed to represent the Pioneer Village that Smith was “vacationing” at. Allen Swift voiced the Howdy Doody character during this period and continued to do so even when the host eventually returned fully a year later.
After 13 years on air, Howdy Doody bid farewell to its viewers for good in September 1960, reportedly due to budget constraints. In the memorable hour-long finale, a huge secret was revealed – Clarabell was actually able to speak. In the final seconds of the show, the previously mute clown shed a tear and simply said, “Goodbye, kids.”
But that wasn’t entirely the end of Howdy Doody. The show rode the nostalgia wave of the 1970s when the characters of Buffalo Bob and Clarabell appeared on an episode of the 1950s-set sit-com Happy Days. In 1976 The New Howdy Doody Show was launched in syndication after Nicholson Muir-Productions bought the rights from NBC.
Alongside many of the original cast members, the reboot also featured several new faces. These included Marilyn Patch as teacher Happy Harmony and Jackie Davis as the resident band leader. Sadly, the show struggled to repeat the success of its predecessor and was taken off air after just six months.
The majority of the Howdy Doody gang did return for one final farewell in 1987 in a two-hour 40th anniversary special. And in July 1998 Smith appeared on QVC to promote a line of official Howdy Doody merchandise. Sadly, later that month he passed away from cancer in a North Carolina hospital, aged 80.
Dayton Allen, who voiced Flub-a-Dub and Phineas T. Bluster and played Pierre the Chef and Ugly Sam, went on to great things following Howdy Doody’s cancelation. He provided the voices for several Terrytoons characters including Deputy Dawg and Luno and also hosted NBC variety show Why Not? He passed away in North Carolina in 2004 aged 85.
But the most successful Howdy Doody graduate was the man who played Clarabell the Clown. Indeed, Bob Keeshan went on to star in and create the longest-running kids show broadcast nationally, Captain Kangaroo. The veteran entertainer, who played the titular character from 1955 until 1984, passed away in 2004.
As for Howdy Doody himself, the freckle-faced marionette could be found at the center of a major custody battle following Smith’s death. The Detroit Institute of Arts was eventually given ownership of the original puppet ahead of Smith’s heirs. It was displayed at the museum in 2010 and then again in 2015.
Up until his death, Smith had kept the Howdy Doody puppet on display in his home. He even said goodnight to his lifetime companion each time he made his way to bed. He once reportedly said, “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?”