Howdy Doody at 75: Celebrating the Legacy of Television’s First Hit Series

Howdy Doody

Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob Smith from the 'Howdy Doody Show', circa 1950s. Photo: Everett Collection/Canadian Press

“Say kids, what time is it?”

It has been 75 years since that phrase first prompted a chorus of children, seated in Studio 3A in New York’s Rockefeller Plaza, to sing out, “It’s Howdy Doody time!”

Television’s first hit series premiered at 5:30 p.m. ET on December 27, 1947. The medium was so new that all that preceded Howdy Doody that afternoon was a test pattern.

Also, it turns out there was a giant snowstorm that day, and everybody who had a TV set — about 15,000 homes along NBC’s 10-station, Eastern seaboard network — watched what was eventually known as The Howdy Doody Show. It came with a circus/cowboy theme, a host in “Buffalo” Bob Smith, a clown named Clarabell (at first played by Bob Keeshan, who went on to a higher-paying job as Captain Kangaroo), a “peanut gallery” made up of 40 children and zero expectations.

The trade magazine Variety raved, not so much about Smith and the puppets, but about the babysitting effect: “The program can be almost guaranteed to pin down the squirmiest of the brood.” Howdy Doody quickly became television’s first Monday to Friday series.

The series was rushed on the air so fast, however, that the main puppet star did not make the first few broadcasts. (Even commercials didn’t make it on the show for three months.) Smith was both host and the voice of Howdy Doody — a character with a friendly “Howdy Do!” greeting that made kids giggle on radio. When Smith took his act to television, puppets and marionettes such as Chicago’s Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Paul Winchell’s Jerry Mahoney competed with wrestlers and roller derby queens as TV’s first stars.

Trouble was, there was no actual Howdy Doody radio puppet. Puppeteer Frank Paris quickly set about making one for television, but it wasn’t carved in time for the first few shows. Smith had to tell kids that Howdy was too shy to come out of a drawer.

When he finally did come out, he was hideous. Perry’s puppet, nicknamed “Ugly Howdy,” looked like something out of a John Carpenter movie. The marionette was pulled and re-modeled by a pair of Disney artists and later rendered by famed puppet maker Velma Dawson.

Howdy’s temporary disappearance was masked by a phenomenally successful promotional gimmick. In 1948, the year Truman defeated Dewey (despite headlines to the contrary) for the American presidency, Howdy ran for “President of all the Kids in America.”


Howdy Doody
Howdy Doody, 1947-1960. Photo: Everett Collection/Canadian Press


Young viewers were told Howdy was away campaigning. When he finally emerged, his new, friendly face – with 48 freckles representing each state in America at the time – was explained as plastic surgery to enhance his election chances!

The series had a Simpsons-esque array of supporting characters, most of them puppets. Phineas T. Bluster was the mayor of Doodyville who had a family full of Bluster brothers. Dilly Dally was Howdy’s whiny pal. An odd-looking puppet named Flub-a-Dub was a combination of eight different animals.

Human characters included Princess Summerfall Winterspring. She was played by Judy Tyler, a first crush for many a TV tot before she left the show to co-star with Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock. Sadly, Tyler died in a car accident before the film even opened.

As the first wave of western stars such as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy galloped onto television, the series leaned harder into its cowboy themes. This included a not very bright “Indian” character named Chief Thunderthud (played by Bill Le Cornec). That he said “Kowabonga!” a lot did not make the character any more politically correct.

One Canadian who began watching soon after the series began was Fr. John Croal, a Toronto-based Catholic priest who watched a lot of TV growing up in Fort Erie, Ont. — right across the border from Buffalo, N.Y.

One of the first New York state stations, Buffalo’s WBEN-TV began broadcasting in 1948. The signal crossed the border, so even though Canada’s first TV station did not emerge until 1952, the Croal’s bought their first set in ’48.

“It had a four- or five-inch screen,” says Croal, who recalls you could rent a large, plastic magnifying glass that made the black and white images larger.

Croal was hooked by his first test pattern. When Howdy Doody came on at 5:30 p.m., he was captivated by the puppets but also by the host. “Bob Smith was like a big brother — you trusted him,” says Croal. “He never talked down to the kids.”

One early frustration for Canadians, says Croal, was the commercials. “You couldn’t get anything in Canada.” That included candy bars such Mars, Milky Way and Snickers. “You had to go to Buffalo to get them,” he says. “Even Blue Bonnet margarine. They were all Howdy Doody advertisers.”

The chocolate bars were still easier to get than tickets to the Peanut Gallery. The live studio production was such a hot ticket that pregnant mothers began writing in and requesting tickets in advance. A few future celebs sat in the bleachers, including John Ritter (of Three’s Company fame) and Sigourney Weaver, who had an “in” at NBC — her father, Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, was an early “Peacock” network programming executive.

Howdy Doody’s popularity took a hit in 1955 when The Mickey Mouse Club premiered. “I was 12 years old then so I was ready to shift from Howdy Doody,” says Croal. “The Mickey Mouse Club was just the next level up from puppet shows. Disney just knew how to do it.”

The one advantage Howdy had over the mouse: it was live. That meant anything could happen.

“The one famous example,” recalls Croal, “was when the kid whispered to Bob Smith that he had to pee during the show; on camera. Smith pointed in the direction of the washrooms. It was a Halloween show at the time and there was a pumpkin on the floor and the kid went over and peed in the pumpkin.”

Unfazed, Smith segued with a song.

In November of 1954, a Canadian version of Howdy Doody was produced out of CBC in Toronto and ran five seasons. There was no Buffalo Bob; instead, the Canadian show was set in the Canadian north with forest ranger “Timber Tom” (played by Peter Mews) as host.

Some reports suggest James Doohan — the B.C.-born actor who later played Scotty on Star Trek — preceded Mews. Doohan denied it when I spoke with him a few years before he died in 2005, saying he was offered but turned down the part.

There are other reports that Doohan’s future Starfleet commander, William Shatner, briefly beamed aboard the Canadian Howdy Doody as a Ranger Bob.

“You know, I have a trick memory and things I don’t like to remember I’ve forgotten,” Shatner told me a few years ago. The Montreal native did live and work as an actor in Toronto in the mid-’50s before moving to the States. “I have no recollection of that whatsoever, but I keep hearing that I was [on the series] so I probably was trying to pay the rent at some point in Toronto and I was on Howdy Doody. It’s very possible.”

There was a Clarabell on the Canadian Howdy Doody played by UK-born actor Alfie Scopp, who died in 2021 at 101. He was later part of the Toronto ensemble of voice actors heard to this day on the 1964 Rankin-Bass TV holiday favourite, “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

Another member of that voice troupe, Larry Mann, played Capt’n Scuttlebutt. He also appeared on a Canadian puppet series of the ‘50s, Uncle Chichimus.

And consider this: if it wasn’t for the Canadian Howdy Doody, would there be a Doctor Who? Doody Canada executive producer Sydney Newman’s next stop was England, where he became Head of BBC Drama and created the time-traveling doctor series.

By September of 1960, NBC programmers decided it was cheaper to rerun cartoons than keep making Howdy Doody. The final, hour-long episode concluded with a closeup of Clarabell, played the last five years by Lew Anderson, who croaked out his first and only words over the 13-year run of the series: “Goodbye kids.”

Some kids, like John Croal, who can still sing every word to the Howdy Doody for President song, never forgot.


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