"Howdy Doody" evidently helped establish children's TV in the industry's infancy. No show has so dominated children's television like "Howdy Doody". When Howdy began there was no morning TV. Programing began with Hody as the kids came home from school. Although its target audience was about 3 - 9 in age, parents also watched the show (at least sometimes). Its contributions to commercial TV can't be underestimated. The show also illustrates contemporary children's clothing because of the Peanut Gallery. Mothers often dressed the children up in dresses and suits. Many of the Peanuts were well dressed for their visit to the Peanut Gallery at NBC's Rockefeller Center studios. A pioneer of children's TV, Bob "Captain Kangarroo" Keeshan, got his start on "Howdy", playing the original Clarabelle. Howdy Doody was on the air from December 27, 1947, until September 24, 1960, a total of 2,343 shows! Howdy began as a three days a week show, then five days a week, until production costs forced NBC to reduce Howdy to a Saturday mornings only show about 1956 until its conclusion. When the "Mickey Mouse Club" debuted in 1955, it took
a huge share of "Howdy's audience. "MMC" began at 5pm Eastern time, "Howdy" at 5:30pm. "MMC's" cartoons, and features such as "Spin and Marty" were new and appealing, and by '55, "Howdy" was showing its age. Kids who started with "MMC", or just "the Mouse" as
NBC dubbed the show, didn't change channels to watch "Howdy".
The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was first a pioneer in radio, then in television. NBC was owned by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which in the late
1920s began funding research and development in television. World War II interrupted
progress in this field, and it appeared that TV might even be shelved altogether.
The earliest receivers were small and prohibitively expensive. Viewership was very limited. Most established radio and film stars expressed no interest in the fledgling medium. By 1946 TV broadcasts had begun. There were few stations and receivers, and transmissions began in the early evening, lasting only a few hours. The programs
consisted of old films, news, wrestling matches, and panel discussions. Boxing matches and baseball games attracted the largest TV audiences.
NBC was an innovator in early TV; its parent company had helped develop television, had deep pockets, and studios to accomodate TV broadcasts. In late 1947 one of its TV executives asked Bob Smith, a popular daytime radio star, if he'd like to host a children's
TV show, "Puppet Playhouse". "Buffalo Bob" Smith was from Buffalo, NY. Musically
gifted, he was a successful radio show host in his native city. NBC hired him away in 1946 to host the morning show on their flagship New York City station.The show was inspired by the puppet shows of Edgar Bergen and Paul Winchell. For TV purposes, however, a marionette show seemed a better idea than a puppet act. "Howdy Doody" debuted in 1947, early in television history. The program's original title was "Puppet Playhouse" and Bob Smith became Buffalo Bob. "Puppet Playhouse" was first broadcast on December 27, 1947, the day after a snowstorm had dumped 25 inches of snow on New York City, where NBC was based. The city was effectively paralyzed, and "Buffalo Bob" and "Puppet Playhouse" had a captive audience of both children and their parents who liked what they saw. NBC quickly realized the show's potential, and new storylines were scripted. The show's young studio audience became known as the "Peanut Gallery". They were treated to skits, slapstick humor, and stories enacted by a growing cast of marionettes and live performers.
The early cast included Bob Keeshan, who played Clarabelle Hornblow, better known as just Clarabelle, a mute, bald-pated clown who communicated by blowing horns. Armed with a bottle of water and sprayer, Clarabelle delighted in soaking Buffalo Bob and others
in slapstick fun. Why was he mute? Most circus clowns have been mute, traditionally. Keeshan also had little experience as a performer at the time. Another explanation: NBC didn't want to pay union fees for a talking performer. Bob Keeshan didn't enjoy his days as Clarabelle, and in late 1952 was fired in a salary dispute. Keeshan went on to play the beloved "Captain
Kangaroo" on CBS from 1955 to 1984, a role which he relished. Some of the most memorable live performers, in addition to Buffalo Bob and Clarabelle, included the lovely Native-American Princess SummerFallWinterSpring, played by Judy Tyler; J. Cornelius Cobb, a general store owner played by the versatile Nick Nicholson who performed many other
parts on the show; and Chief Thunderthud of the Ooragnak (that's Kangaroo spelled backward!) tribe. Bill Lecornec played the chief, in addition to many other roles on the show. He also was the show's announcer. The chief is best remembered for his line, "Kowabunga!", a shout of joy adopted by surfers and others. The chief,in full headdress, was often
drenched by Clarabelle's spray bottle, which usually caused him to chase the clown around and around and out of the studio to the delight of the kids.
"Howdy Doody" was the image of a red-haired, smiling, freckle-faced 10 years old boy. He wore a gingham shirt, kerchief, gloves, jeans, and cowboy boots. Howdy was a central or supporting character in the little stories the show put on.
Some have called the
program a soap opera for children. The storylines were sometimes stretched over several weeks, and took place in "Doodyville". This town was presided over by a scheming mayor, Phineas T. Bluster, a marionette, who seemed determined to foil any good intentions or plans
of Howdy and his friend, Buffalo Bob. Bluster was sometimes assisted by his dim-witted but good-natured nephew, "Dilly Dally".
The kids in the Peanut Gallery were a rather well dressed group. Depending on the season, many of the older boys wore long trousers suits or sports coats and long trousers with neck ties or bow ties, or even a string tie. Other boys would wear a pullover sweater
and long trousers. The younger boys might wear Eton suits with short trousers and knee socks and a bow tie, or if the weather warm a short sleeved shirt and short trousers with crew socks. In colder weather even the younger boys wore a sports coat and long trousers.
Others might wear just a short or long sleeved shirt with long trousers. Shoes were mostly leather lace lace-ups, with some saddle oxfords, as well. It was also common to see Cub Scouts and sometimes a few younger Boy Scouts in uniform on the show. The girls
wore dresses or sweaters, blouses, and skirts, and Brownie troops in uniform might be in the Peanut Gallery.
When the "Mickey Mouse Club" debuted in 1955, it took a huge share of "Howdy's audience. "MMC" began at 5pm Eastern time, "Howdy" at 5:30pm. "MMC's" cartoons, and features such as "Spin and Marty" were new and appealing, and by '55, "Howdy" was showing its age. Kids who started with "MMC", or just "the Mouse" as NBC dubbed the show, didn't change channels to watch "Howdy".
Few television programs have so impacted American kids as "Howdy Doody". Virtually every kid in America whose family had a TV watched Howdy. That was not only because it was not only a wonderful program, but it was one of the few programs for kids when it began.
In September 1960 after 2,343 shows, production costs
forced NBC to cancel "Howdy". The hour long farewell
was the first and only time that Clarabelle, now
played by Lew Anderson, spoke on the show, at the very
end to say tearfully, "Good-bye kids!".
A few weeks ago I found some VHS copies of the original Howdy Doody Show. I hadn't seen a complete show since I was about 6 - 7. One of the volumes includes the hour long series finale in which the mute clown, Clarabelle, at last speaks to say, "Goodbye, kids!" Growing interested in the show's background, I read "Buffalo Bob" Smith's, Howdy and Me: Buffalo Bob's Own Story", and Say Kids! What Time Is It?, by Stephen Davis, whose dad once directed the show.
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