I’m the same age as Howdy Doody

HOWDY, COLUMN READERS

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.” For trivia aficionados, Clarabell was played by three different actors. The first was Bob Keeshan, who later became Captain Kangaroo.

Howdy Doody was the first daily show to have live music and to be broadcast in color.  The iconic program also left the world with at least one cultural reference: the peanut gallery, an area in the studio where the live audience of kids sat. 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 a 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. Clarabell campaigned as his Veep.

Years after the show went off the air, one of my childhood buddies traveled with Buffalo Bob and Howdy as they toured college campuses in the ’70s, reliving the Howdy Doody craze with audiences who grew up with them.

I am greeted each time I walk into my home office by a smile from Howdy Doody. Sitting on my bookshelf is a 60-year-old vintage puppet, a facsimile of the TV star, courtesy of my friend and toy collector Phyllis Baskerville.  Her priceless gift to me came with no strings attached. (That’s why it’s a puppet and not a marionette.)

And finally, here’s a really weird connection I have to that TV show. Bob Smith had a side business, a liquor store in New Rochelle, just minutes from my childhood house. It was quite conveniently located for my parents, who enjoyed cocktails before dinner. When my mother needed to replenish her stash ofwhiskey, she’d sometimes take me with her to this little store where spirits were sold by a guy who looked an awful lot like the guy who hosted the Howdy Doody Show.  Any time I would point that out, my mom denied it was Buffalo Bob.  Okay, I remember thinking, maybe I am confused, but I’m the only one here who doesn’t drink.

 

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NOT BUMMED OUT! ( for old baseball fans)

Last week I had the honor of presenting to Carl Erskine the Heritage Place Award, given to six senior Hoosiers each year for their lifetime service to the Indianapolis community. For those who don’t recognize the name, Carl is a retired banker from Anderson, Indiana. He also previously pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers team that won their first—and only—World Series in l955.

When I was a grade-schooler in New York, I feigned sleeping at night for six months of the year with a tiny transistor radio hidden under my pillow, praying for a home run by center fielder Duke Snider or another no-hitter by Carl (he had two). If you had told that nine-year-old kid in l955 that his baseball hero would one day become not just a friend, but a golfing partner, he’d have thought you were nuts.

Although it has been 62 years, my memory of October 4, 1955, is clear. Even then I knew the majesty of those hallowed words: Seventh game of the World Series. This would have traditionally been a time for Dodger fans to wring their hands and prepare for the inevitable. Da Bums, as they were called, had faced the Yankees in what seemed like a hundred previous World Series games (four, actually) and lost every time. If the Dodgers hadn’t finally won in 1955, I probably wouldn’t be writing this story now. And giving Carl this award would not have felt quite so special.

I remember our tiny TV with the rabbit-ears antenna. The black and white picture was quite fitting, because that game was clearly a battle between the forces of good and evil. I perched myself on our wooden coffee table, after pushing it right up to the television. Even then, I was not very good at dealing with tension. On several occasions when the Yankees threatened to win (and they always did), I retreated to my room until the peril had passed. I’m embarrassed to say that I still do that during Pacers and Colts games.

I don’t have a distinct memory of each inning, but I recall a great catch by leftfielder Sandy Amoros and I was surprised that Duke Snider bunted in the fifth inning, considering The Duke was the top homerun hitter of the ’50s. Of course, I remember that final out, Yankee catcher Elston Howard flailing at the final Dodger pitch. I sprang from the coffee table and let out a scream. The Wolfsie family embraced in a group hug. Mom and Dad were Dodger fans, too.

The day after the Indianapolis awards dinner, Carl and I played golf. We talked about his son, Jimmy, who was on his way to bowl at the Special Olympics in Terre Haute. Carl also told me a dozen great baseball stories, including some I hadn’t heard before. Then he talked about Betty, his wife of 70 years. “You know, golf is like marriage,” he said. “I’m not always very good at it, but I want to keep doing it for a long time.”

“Still lots of time for both,” I told my 90-year-old boyhood hero. “You’re about to go into extra innings.”

 

 

 

 

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