Howdy Doody was an American children's television program (with circus and Western frontier themes) that was created and produced by E. Roger Muir and telecast on the NBC network in the United States from December 27, 1947, until September 24, 1960. It was a pioneer in children's television programming and set the pattern for many similar shows. One of the first television series produced at NBC in Rockefeller Center, in Studio 3A, it was also a pioneer in early color production as NBC (at the time owned by TV maker RCA) used the show in part to sell color television sets in the 1950s.
Bob Smith created Howdy Doody during his days as a radio announcer on WNBC. At that time, Howdy Doody was only a voice Smith performed on the radio. When Smith made an appearance on NBC's television program Puppet Playhouse on December 27, 1947, the reception for the character was great enough to begin a demand for a visual character for television. Frank Paris, a puppeteer whose puppets appeared on the program, was asked to create a Howdy Doody puppet.
Bob Smith, the show's host, was dubbed "Buffalo Bob" early in the show's run (a reference both to the historical American frontier character Buffalo Bill and Smith's hometown of Buffalo, N.Y.). At first the set was supposed to be a circus tent, but soon was changed to a western town. Smith wore cowboy garb, as did the puppet. The name of the puppet "star" was derived from the American expression "howdy doody"/"howdy do," a commonplace corruption of the phrase "How do you do?" used in the western United States. (The straightforward use of that expression was also in the theme song's lyrics.) Smith, who had gotten his start as a singing radio personality in Buffalo, frequently used music in the program. Cast members Lew Anderson and Robert "Nick" Nicholson both were experienced jazz musicians.
As both the character and television program grew in popularity, demand for Howdy Doody-related merchandise began to surface. By 1948, toymakers and department stores had been approached with requests for Howdy Doody dolls and similar items. Macy's department store contacted Frank Paris, the creator of the puppet, to ask about rights for a Howdy Doody doll. However, while Paris had created the puppet, Bob Smith owned the rights to the character. An argument ensued between the two men, Paris claiming he felt he was being cheated out of any financial benefits. After one such disagreement, Paris took the puppet and angrily left the NBC studios about four hours before the show was to air live. It was not the first time this happened, leaving the live program with no "star".
With Paris's past disappearances, impromptu excuses regarding the whereabouts of Howdy Doody had been hastily concocted. This time, an elaborate explanation was offered -- that Howdy was busy with the elections on the campaign trail. NBC hurriedly constructed a map of the United States, which allowed viewers, with the help of Smith, to learn where Howdy was on the road. The explanation continued that while on the campaign trail, Howdy decided to improve his appearance with some plastic surgery. This made it possible for the network to hire Velma Wayne Dawson to create a more handsome and appealing visual character than Paris' original, which had been called "the ugliest puppet imaginable" by Bob Smith. Since Paris did not provide the voice of the character, Howdy's voice would stay the same after his appearance changed. The puppet which is remembered as the "original" Howdy Doody replaced Paris's original.
Howdy Doody himself was a freckle-faced boy marionette with 48 freckles, one for each state of the union at the time of his creation (up until January 3, 1959, when Alaska became the 49th state), and originally was voiced by Buffalo Bob Smith. The Howdy Doody show's various marionettes were created and built by puppeteers Dawson, Scott Brinker (the show's prop man), and Rufus Rose throughout the show's run. The redheaded Howdy marionette on the original show was operated with 11 strings: two heads, one mouth, one eye, two shoulders, one back, two hands and two knees. Three strings were added when the show returned -- two elbows and one nose. The original marionette now resides at the Detroit Institute of Arts. There were duplicate Howdy Doody puppets, designed to be used expressly for off-the-air purposes (lighting rehearsals, personal appearances, etc.), although surviving kinescope recordings clearly show that these duplicate puppets were indeed used on the air occasionally. "Double Doody", the Howdy stand-in puppet, now is in the collection of the Division of Culture and the Arts at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Photo Doody is the near-stringless marionette that was used in personal appearances, photos, parades, and the famed NBC test pattern. He was sold by Leland's Sports Auction House in 1997 for more than $113,000 to a private art collector, TJ Fisher.
The 5 episode Old Time Radio Show is available here.