Boomer Nostalgia – The Howdy Doody Marionette
The Howdy Doody marionette which starred on one of the first television programs aimed expressly at children, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.
Howdy Doody focused on the adventures of a little marionette boy, and his friend Buffalo Bob, along with several other characters in the cast, from Clarabell the Clown to Cornelius Cobb. He even had sibling marionettes, with Heidi Doody and Handsome Hall, all living in Doodyville. There were even Canadian and Cuban versions of the show, with Ranger Rob and Timber Tim.
During the show's first year, only one Howdy Doody marionette was used, with strings covering his eyes, mouth, and wrists. Starting in the second season, additional puppets were fabricated.
Howdy was an 18" tall freckle faced redheaded boy, with one freckle on each of his cheeks for each state in the union. The first marionette was built by Velma Wayne Dawson, and additional ones were built by her, and Scott Brinker and Rufus Rose during the show's 14 year run on the air.
There are a lot of pop culture references to Howdy Doody – the Mad Magazine Kid is a direct parody of him, while Woody in A Toy Story is a direct homage to Howdy Doody. The Batman villain Scarface is a 'dark mirror' interpretation of Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody.
Over the course of the show, there were 15 puppets built for Howdy, and seven built for Heidi Doody, with most of the other marionette characters having two or three copies each; most of the additional copies had fewer string attachment points, which made the marionette more portable and easier to handle at live shows and presentations.
After the show was canceled, most of the puppets went with the cast members, most notably Bob Smith, Howdy's friend and the voice behind the character. He continued to do some live action theater with Howdy through the 1960s, and the occasional TV special.
In the mid 1970s, there was a brief revival of the show, run by Nicholson-Muir Productions, with the New Howdy Doody Show. The majority of the cast came forward to the new show, and it aired in syndication from the summer of '76 to January of 1977, before low ratings shelved it. The New Howdy Doody show was a bit more self referential, and was a puppet show about making a children's puppet show for television; notable in this incarnation was that many of the marionettes were modified to have hair.
When the New Howdy Doody Show went off the air, most of the cast went their separate ways, and Bob Smith controlled most of the props, making periodic appearances on television with Howdy in "where are they now" segments. This continued until Bob Smith's death in the late '90s.
There was a fairly protracted custody battle for the Howdy Doody intellectual property, including the puppets, running between the museum that Smith had bequeathed the puppet too, his heirs, and those of fellow cast member Rufus Rose; after two years of being kept in a bank safe deposit box, Howdy Doody was finally shipped to the Detroit Institute for the Arts, where he joins several other historically significant puppets.
The most detailed of the secondary puppets (Double Doody, used for lighting rehearsals) is now at the Smithsonian, while Photo Doody (used for the famous NBC test pattern) got sold to a private art collection for $117,000 in '79, and others in the set were also bought by collectors.
Many of the duplicate Howdy Doody Marionette s were made by Alan Semok, and were used by Smith in personal appearances from the mid-90s, on. Most of the photos of Howdy Doody that have been made since the 1990s are from the Semok duplicates.
Semok also made duplicates of Heidi Doody and Mayor Phineas T. Bluster, Dilly Dally and Princess Summerfall Winterspring.
One of the rarest puppets of the Howdy Doody cast is that of Flubadub, a creature made from several parts of different animals; because of disputes between Smith and other cast members, ownership (and the right to make duplicates) was always contested.
There is a strong market for the Howdy Doody marionette and all other Howdy paraphernalia among people in their 60s and 70s, as it represents a large chunk of their television watching as a childhood, and brings back memories of a simpler time.
Indeed, the simpler time for Howdy Doody is one of the reasons the '70s revival failed – the show could be updated to match the more cynical '70s, but doing so battered the charm that made it fun. Children had become too worldly for the freckle faced puppet boy.
The Howdy Doody Marionette is one of the most famous in the world.
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