The Life & Times of Howdy Doody – Part 2
It wasn’t all smiles and squirting seltzer bottles. There were plenty of show biz squabbles behind the scenes of The Howdy Doody Show. And the first (and most important) took place barely six months into the show’s 13-year run! We’ll also tell you how a puppet was killed by a mouse.
As the first year of The Howdy Doody Show wore on, the man pulling the strings, puppeteer Frank Paris, grew to feel he was being cheated out his fair share of the royalties being generated by the bumper crop of Howdy Doody merchandise that had begun to appear. Thinking he had real leverage, Paris took his puppet and stormed out of the NBC studios in the spring of 1948, only hours before that day’s live telecast was to take place.
The show’s writers quickly created a crazy scenario where the kids were told that Howdy had left suddenly on a whirlwind tour of the U.S. to campaign for President of the Children of the United States (1948 was an election year). During each thrice-weekly show, he would phone in a report from the road (Buffalo Bob had always provided Howdy’s voice). So the kids could still hear, if not see, their favorite TV star.
(Frank Paris' original Howdy puppet)
After a few days, Howdy dropped the big bombshell. He revealed that he had decided to get some plastic surgery (and really, what TV star hasn’t?). In reality, puppeteer Velma Dawson was being paid $2,000 to create a new Howdy puppet. After a huge publicity build-up, her design was unveiled on June 8, 1948. Dawson’s Howdy is the face we all remember – the face that graced NBC’s test pattern (remember those?) for years.
By the end of June 1948, public demand for Howdy Doody was so great that NBC was broadcasting Howdy Doody Time, Monday through Friday from 5:30 to 6:00 pm.
For 8 years, it remained there until June, 1956 when huge ratings from ABC’s first season of The Mickey Mouse Club forced NBC to move the show to Saturday mornings. There, it ran from 10:00 to 10:30 am until it went off the air with an hour-long final episode on Saturday, September 24, 1960.
Along the way, Howdy Doody became the first show to be regularly broadcast in color. In those days, NBC was owned by RCA Victor. That company was manufacturing television sets and really wanted to stimulate sales of their new and expensive color sets. Just as Milton Berle had sold a lot of black & white TV’s back in the day, Howdy and the gang are given credit for helping the nation convert to color TV as we moved toward the 60’s.
When it comes to colorful, nothing was more colorful in network television than the amazingly large cast of Puppet-Americans and other creatures who populated Doodyville. We’ll take a look at them next time.