by Larry Brody
NOTE FROM LB: Another heartwarming tale, both personal and otherwise, from Turning Points in Television, the little history book that could’ve but didn’t. Enjoy!
Chicago. A blustery December day in 1948.
One year to the month after a People-and-Puppet Show that was renamed The Howdy Doody Show after its first week on the air, a four year old boy sat on the floor of his living room, looked up at the tiny (but oh, it seemed sooo big screen of his family’s TV set), and watched Clarabell the Clown sneak up on Bob Smith (who hadn’t yet become the legendary “Buffalo Bob”), and get ready to blast him–and anything or anyone else within range–with seltzer water.
Also watching the action, but from his vantage point on the puppet stage that was part of the set, was the marionette star of the show, Howdy Doody himself. Howdy’s mouth opened. He was about to shout a warning. But Clarabell put his finger to his lips and shook his head as though pleading, his entire demeanor wordlessly saying, “No, please, let me do it, just this once…”
It was Big Decision Time for Howdy, but he never had to commit. Because from the “Peanut Gallery” of kids from toddlers through pre-teens who comprised a live audience that was also part of the show, shouts went up. “Look out!” “Duck!” “Oh no!” and Bob Smith whirled and saw what was about to happen and did look out and duck–just in time for the spray to shoot out over his head and almost hit Howdy!
The Peanut Gallery went wild, and on the floor of that Chicago living room the four-year-old looked up at the ceiling and prayed. “Please, God, don’t make me get older than four. Because when I’m older I won’t like Howdy Doody anymore. And I love him so much I don’t ever want to lose him!”
That’s how much this seminal television children’s show meant to that four year old boy.
That’s how much it meant to me.
But although The Howdy Doody Show had a huge effect on its viewers, it had an even bigger effect on television, an effect that’s still reverberating through the medium–and our culture as a whole.
The Howdy Doody Show was one of those legendary rarities, an instant success. Starting as a one-hour show on Saturday mornings, it soon became a half-hour show on every weekday afternoon from 5:30 to 6:00 Eastern Time. This made it the first television show ever “stripped,” as this kind of programming is called in TV Land, by NBC, and it couldn’t have found a better time slot.
Children had the perfect activity to engage in while waiting for dinner. What could be better for any kid than watching–no, hanging out with, because that’s what it felt like–a bunch of crazy folks like Howdy, Mr. Bluster, Dillydally, Flub-a-Dub, Princess Summerfallwinterspring, and the rest of what became known as the “Doodyville Gang?”
And moms had the perfect babysitter so they could get that dinner made. What could be better for any dedicated homemaker (we’re talking late ‘Forties and ‘Fifties here, don’t forget, when being a housewife was an honored profession, with no mockery or irony along for the ride) than to bear down on your pot roast knowing your child was safe, sound, and delighted–and quiet!–in the living room while you worked?
An argument might even be made that Howdy, who was created and voiced and owned by Buffalo Bob, was the lynchpin in a Sociological Turning Point: The much-mocked and even more abused grand tradition of parking your kids in front of the TV set so you can get a few moments respite from the responsibilities of parenthood.
Other offshoots of the popularity of the show are easier to pinpoint. The Howdy Doody Show proved that television commercials worked, with the sales of its best-known sponsor, Bosco (a chocolate syrup to be added to the kids’ milk) skyrocketing. Especially direct, personal commercials, integrated into the show and featuring its puppet star.
The FCC later banned this practice on children’s shows, acknowledging that four-year-olds like Little Chicago Brode were defenseless prey. However, The Howdy Doody Show also proved that prey or not, we, the youthful Baby Boomers, had more than our share of marketing muscle. Looking back at my beloved show I see it as the beginning of what became a regular Baby Boomer practice –the manipulation of our loving parents into buying whatever we wanted.
The Kid Clout of the time was so obvious that in the early days of Mad, before it became and magazine and was still a comic book, the group the masthead called “the usual gang of idiots” ran a parody called Howdy DoIt, featuring a commercial where the camera moved in ultra close on Howdy’s freckled, All-American face as he exhorted his viewers to scream and shout and hold their breaths and make their parents “BUY!!!”
Modern merchandising, the morphing of TV shows into products, began with the Doodyville Gang as well. There were Howdy Doody coloring books and Howdy Doody dolls and clocks and drinking glasses and mugs. My personal favorites were the inexpensive little marionettes based on the puppet characters.
My collection today, inconveniently stored at the bottom of a pile of boxes in a shed on my property, consists of Howdy, Clarabell, Dilly Dally, Flub-a-Dub, and Princess Summerfallwinterspring. Are these pristine-in-the-box-collectors’-specials?
Hell no. They’re used. Played with. Faded. And beautiful nevertheless.
Oh, and if anybody has one, I still long for an affordable version of Mr. Bluster!