“Hey Kids, What Time Is It?” - Echoes From “The Peanut Gallery”
During the early 1950s, I hurried home after school each weekday afternoon to complete my homework and chores in time to watch “The Howdy Doody Show.” The opening theme song contained these memorable words: “It’s Howdy Doody Time, It’s Howdy Doody Time, Bob Smith and Howdy Do, Say Howdy Do to you.”
NBC affiliate WBTV television in Charlotte beamed Buffalo Bob’s popular television extravaganza into Johnson City television sets at about 5:30, aiming primarily at youngsters between the ages of 2 and 11.
I routinely found my way into the living room of our next-door neighbors, the Gaines Johnson family, to watch the antics of Mr. Doody and his colorful cast of zany Doodyville characters on their small fuzzy black and white TV screen. The program would later become the first network program to be broadcast in color. The show’s lineup included the voiceless Clarabell (Hornblower) the Clown, Chief (Kowabonga) Thunderthud, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, (Sea) Captain Scuttlebutt, the amalgamated Flub-a-Dub, Mayor Phineas T. Bluster and Dilly Dally (a carpenter).
Clarabell pantomimed his way through the show, honked his belt horn and squirted people in the face with a seltzer bottle. We kids loved it. Bob Keeshan, the show’s first Clarabell, later became TV’s “Captain Kangaroo.” Judy Tyler, a pretty brunette, portrayed the beloved Princess of the Tinka Tonka tribe, the role initially introduced as a puppet and later transformed into a real person. Smith prerecorded Howdy’s voice on 16-inch acetate discs. A station attendant manually stopped and started them on a turntable as conversation flip-flopped between the pair.
The guests’ viewing area, known as the Peanut Gallery, began with just 12 youngsters but soon expanded to almost 100. The few available tickets were in constant demand. Buffalo Bob Smith introduced the 11-stringed wooden Howdy Doody marionette, first on radio in 1947 and then on television in “Puppet Playhouse.” It was subsequently renamed “The Howdy Doody Show." The freckled faced all-American mannequin was not seen until the third episode because his fabrication was not yet finished. Only his shy sounding voice could be heard emitting from a partially opened drawer.
Legal hassling brought a change in the puppet’s overall appearance, depicting him with red hair and 48 freckles (one for each state then). American Magazine endorsed the dangling dapper for President, proclaiming him “President of All the Kids in the U.S.” Howdy and Buffalo participated in such notable events as lighting New York’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and leading the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. The show’s bosses launched a massive marketing campaign that consisted of such items as drink glasses, comic books, T-shirts, lunchboxes, beanie caps and wind-up toys.
After a 13-year run, escalating production costs eroded the program’s profitability causing the show that began in 1947 to be cancelled in 1960 after 2543 episodes. The most heartrending moment on the air came just seconds before the final broadcast when the once-speechless Clarabell surprised his grieving viewing audience by saying in a choked up and almost inaudible voice, "Good-bye, kids."
Efforts to launch “The New Howdy Doody Show” proved futile. With the once-noisy Peanut Gallery now deathly silent, the little freckle-faced former personality was officially laid to rest at DC’s Smithsonian Institute.