It seems a little ironic that the fate of the original Howdy Doody doll is in the news right around the 15th anniversary of Buffalo Bob’s death on July 30, 1998.The two were inextricably linked on Howdy Doody
, a pioneering children’s TV show that ran on NBC from December 1947 through September 1960.
Photo of Buffalo Bob Smith with Howdy Doody and Flub a Dub from the children's television program Howdy Doody. (Wikimedia Commons/NBC Television)
Howdy, of course, was a red-headed marionette created, operated and voiced by Bob Smith who really was from Buffalo, N.Y. A popular radio personality – and singer! – Smith began his career in earnest when he took over a radio slot for its host Jack Paar, who had been drafted into the military. From there, Smith – who wore cowboy gear early on – rose to the number one 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 Howdy Doody, appearing with such unforgettable characters as Clarabelle 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? 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 “Pioneer Village,” which was really his home. He then 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, which aired for a couple of years. Also in the 1970s, Smith toured college campuses with a nostalgia show and hosted local events in Maine, where he had a summer residence. Even later, Smith promoted Howdy Doody memorabilia for QVC on July 3, 1998.
Buffalo Bob eventually retired to North Carolina, where he died in Hendersonville. 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 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."