Commentary by Dick Wolfsie
I turned 70 this year. And so did a 10-year-old freckled little boy named Howdy Doody. For those too young to remember, “The Howdy Doody Show” debuted in 1947, its star a convivial wooden marionette whose human partner in the show, Buffalo Bob Smith, lived in my hometown of New Rochelle, New York.
Each show had a story line featuring Bob and Howdy. Howdy’s voice was actually Bob Smith’s, which had been prerecorded. Within the show was a cast of characters, some human (like Chief Thunderthud and Princess SummerFallWinterSpring), along with several wood-be human marionettes, like the grumpy Mr. Bluster and the polymorphous creature Flub-a-Dub, who comprised the characteristics of eight different animals.
And there was Clarabell, the voiceless clown who communicated with two horns strapped to a box around his waist, one side labeled YES, the other NO. Clarabell uttered not a sound for 13 years until the final show, when he said, almost under his breath, “Goodbye, kids.”
The iconic program left us with at least one cultural reference: the peanut gallery, the studio area for the live audience. No adults allowed. The children were welcomed at the top of the broadcast with a robust chant by Buffalo Bob. “What time is it, kids?” The response from the audience was equally rousing: “It’s Howdy Doody time!”
In 1948, Howdy ran for president with the slogan: VOTE FOR A REAL PUPPET. His platform included two annual Christmases, fewer school days and more pictures in history books. More than 250,000 kids requested I’M FOR HOWDY buttons. He lost to Harry Truman.
In my home office sits Howdy Doody, a decades-old facsimile puppet, courtesy of my friend and toy collector Phyllis Baskerville. Her priceless gift to me had no strings attached (that’s why it’s a puppet and not a marionette).
Bob Smith had a side business, a liquor store near my house, conveniently located for my parents who enjoyed nightly cocktails. I’d sometimes go with mom to that shop where the owner looked an awful lot like Buffalo Bob. When I pointed that out, my mom denied it. OK, I remember thinking, maybe I am confused, but I’m the only one here who doesn’t drink.