What time is it?" A 27-inch toothy-grinned puppet burst
into the fledgling television community and locked America's eyes and ears to
Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob Smith soon captured, and then
held the number-one spot on NBC-TV during the late '40s and '50s. There were no
ratings nor polls to determine program popularity. But in 1948, when Howdy Doody
ran for president of all the kids in America, NBC received write -in requests
for 250,000 campaign buttons. This was more than 10 times the number of
television sets in the U.S. at the time. Howdy seemed to be the most
recognizable personality in America.
By the time the show neared the end of its run in 1960, some
2,500 episodes had been broadcast. "The Howdy Doody Show" outlasted
even the “Mickey Mouse Show”, and spawned other children's programming that
went on to be highly rated.
Howdy and his creator, Bob Smith, delighted audiences of
every age with their homespun manner and hokey jokes . As new characters were
introduced, and even as old ones changed or left, they bonded with their
audience through 13 years of unending silliness.
Smith was born in Buffalo, which gave him the nickname that
became his calling card. He was considered a child prodigy on the piano. This
skill stayed with him and gave him an edge throughout his career.
"The piano always made me a little more special than
the average entertainer. It has helped me no end."
His first radio exposure at the age of 11 eventually led to
his own radio show by the time he was 19. It was a homey, friendly,
unpretentious and strictly local show encouraging audience participation. His
style caught the attention of NBC radio, which asked him to New York to do an
early morning radio show in 1946. Within six months, The Bob Smith Show was the
hottest spot in the nation.
"This was total entertainment," says Smith.
"I did everything myself, including the commercials. And I learned from
some of the most radio-wise people in the business that personality is
By 1947, Bob was host of an early morning radio show for
children called the BBB Ranch (Big Brother Bob). His writer said they needed
more comedy—did Bob do any voices? So, a character named Elmer was created, who
would guffaw at the end of the show, "Well, howdy doody!" This was
fine for the listening audience, but kids who sat in the studio audience were
disappointed they couldn't see a Howdy Doody. Smith said he recognized the
vacuum existing in children's programming at the time and suggested the theme
for a new TV show introducing a puppet named Howdy Doody. NBC agreed . On
Saturday, December 27, 1947, "The Howdy Doody Show" (first called the
Puppet Playhouse) went on the air.
An article in Variety said, "NBC has the answer to the
perfect babysitter, Bob Smith." He didn't even have a puppet for the first
three shows. Smith told the kids that Howdy was shy and wouldn't come out of
the drawer. There was no script for the
show--Smith ad-libbed. The first shows had eight boys and girls sitting on
folding chairs in the studio—the precursor to The Peanut Gallery. Mr. Smith (as
he was then called) sat at a desk. These were the only props for the show. And
an as yet unveiled puppet.
"When Howdy Doody was unwrapped, here stood someone
special," Smith recalls. Forty-eight freckles, one for each state (two
more added after), blue jeans, boots and bandanna. "I wasn't a ventriloquist.
The kids would get confused when they heard Howdy's voice but saw my lips move.
So, we began pre-recording Howdy."
Since the shows were all shot live, and film was expensive,
no tapings were kept for re-runs today.
It wasn't long before "The Howdy Doody Show" aired
in the number-one prime time spot as the first television show of the evening.
Back then, there wasn't much programming at all and nothing was on during the
day except a test pattern. At 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, NBC came alive
with Howdy Doody. In 1948, the show won the Peabody Award for Outstanding
Children's Program and was named the most popular daily show on television.
Smith remembers those days vividly.
"We learned a lot those first years, learned by doing.
Under primitive conditions. Radio was still the recognized broadcast
Eddie Kean, whom Bob had known during his radio days, came
on board as the show's first writer. He was the originator of Buffalo Bob's
"While we worried over what to have the kids call
me," recalls Smith, "Eddie came up with the following story. My
grandfather, he had discovered, was Buffalo Tom, the Great White Leader of the
Singafoose Indians. I was his next of kin, and became leader when Granddad
passed on. We did a show which officially crowned me Buffalo Bob." And
Buffalo Bob he has remained.
Over time, the theme of the show changed from a western to a
circus. New characters were introduced and became permanent members of the
"We made up characters from people I'd known in Buffalo,"
he says. "Even some of the names. You couldn't get away with that today,
but we were in new territory back then." The children's audience became
known as The Peanut Gallery and tickets were hard to get. Pregnant women would
write in to try and obtain tickets for their as-yet unborn children. Even
Herbert Hoover's grandson had trouble getting a ticket until Smith made him a
brief member of the cast. Other adult characters were added gradually, some of
them by accident. When Bobby Keeshan (later to become Captain Kangaroo)
unintentionally was caught in the camera's eye while working on the set,
Buffalo Bob decided to make him into a permanent member of the cast as a circus
He did his homework at Ringling Bros. and Clarabell was soon
introduced to America. Clarabell communicated using a "yes" horn and
a "no" horn, and pulled
slapstick pranks on everyone. When Keeshan left the show a few years
later, Bob Nicholson took over as Clarabell. Lew Anderson (the lyricist who
wrote jingles such as, "Wouldn't you really rather have a Buick ?" )
later became the third Clarabell. And, when the revival kick went into gear,
Anderson toured with Buffalo Bob in shopping mall appearances around the
He filmed "The Howdy Doody Show" from his basement
They tried for a brief time in 1954 to film "The Howdy
Doody Show" from the new NBC studios in Burbank, but Smith couldn't wait
to get back home to New York. In 1955, the show went to color from black and
white. There still were no daytime shows, but now Howdy's face in full color smiled
out from the test pattern all day long.
Smith credits the show's basic philosophy for its
"We never ever tried to con kids," he says.
"We never sold a product that would hurt a child. We avoided violence in
our stories and commercials. We aimed for approval." He still believes,
"You can't kid a kid."
Although the sets became more elaborate over the years,
Smith feels the puppets and humor stayed the same. Personalities held true and
continued to tickle the audiences.
For the next 10 years, Buffalo Bob and Mil were small-business
owners. They operated radio stations in Maine and lived half the year in
Florida. The idea of resurrecting Howdy never occurred to them.
But a generation of adults had grown up on Howdy Doody's
slapstick silliness and they wanted to return to those innocent times. In 1970, a phone call from a university
student began a new career for Buffalo Bob. The student asked if Bob would appear
at a special "question and answer" show at the school, saying
"We want to relive our happy carefree childhood days."
And Buffalo Bob couldn't refuse. Since he did not have films
from the original shows, he took along a kinescope from the 10th anniversary
show in 1957. Everyone who had ever been part of Doodyville was in it. This
debut mushroomed into several hundred appearances at colleges and universities
across the nation over the next several years.
In the mid '70s, shopping mall appearances became the rage.
Buffalo Bob and Clarabell would do shows in local malls for kids and adults,
sometimes seven days a week . Recently, these appearances have given way to
autograph sessions with sports celebrities. As Buffalo Bob says, "Photo
Doody (Howdy's portable look alike) and I can work as much as we want to."
But for most of the time, Bob and Mil Smith relax in their
lovely home in the mountains of western North Carolina.
"We absolutely love it here. One son and grandkids are
close by and I can play golf year-round."
Smith doesn't have to think very long when asked what has
been his favorite time in his life.
"I couldn't single out any one time. I have had a
wonderful life. Enjoyed every minute of it."
And so have we, Buff.