Buffalo Bob Smith with Howdy Doody and Flub a Dub from the children's television program "Howdy Doody." (Wikimedia Commons / NBC Television)
Buffalo Bob Smith and Howdy Doody: the two were inextricably linked thanks to pioneering children's television show Howdy Doody, which ran on NBC from December 1947 through September 1960. It seems a little ironic that the fate of the original Howdy Doody doll should be making news right around the 15th anniversary of Buffalo Bob's death on July 30, 1998.
Howdy, of course, was a red-headed marionette created, operated and voiced by Bob Smith from Buffalo, N.Y. A popular radio personality – and singer! – Smith began his career in earnest when he took over a radio slot for host Jack Paar, who had been drafted into the military. From there Smith – who wore cowboy gear early on – rose to the No. 1 slot in the mornings and caught the attention of NBC in New York.
As both the character and television program grew in popularity, demand for Howdy Doody-related merchandise began to surface.
Smith initially juggled morning radio appearances with producing and hosting the televised Howdy Doody, appearing with such unforgettable characters as Clarabell the Clown (played first by Bob Keeshan aka Captain Kangaroo, and later by Lew Anderson) and Mayor of Doodyville Phineas T. Bluster, not to mention the Peanut Gallery, the live audience of children (boys in jackets and ties!) singing "It's Howdy Doody Time!"
(A bit of trivia here: How many freckles did Howdy have? The answer: 48 – one for each state of the union at that time.)
After suffering a heart attack in 1954, Buffalo Bob took a break, though he pitched commercials from his home, "Pioneer Village." He continued hosting the show until 1960, but that wasn't his last involvement with the legendary doll. He and the show's producer, Roger Muir, produced The New Howdy Doody Show in 1976. Also in the 1970s, Smith toured college campuses with a nostalgia show and hosted local events in Maine, where he had a summer residence.
Buffalo Bob eventually retired to North Carolina. On July 3, 1998, Smith appeared on QVC to promote Howdy Doody memorabilia. He died later that month, July 30, 1998, in Hendersonville, N.C. After Smith's death, Howdy waited out a custody battle in a bank vault until he landed in the Detroit Institute for Arts, which owns a large collection of historic puppets.
Which brings us to the current irony. There has been some recent speculation – denied by city officials – that the doll, worth at least $1 million, might be sold to help save the Motor City from bankruptcy.
In yet another bit of irony, Shari Lewis, another television host and puppeteer (remember Lamb Chop?) whose show took up where Howdy left off, died three days after Buffalo Bob.
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."