HOWDY DOODY TIME
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
At the age of 10 years old, or so, I became aware of something wondrous in the air, a new invention of huge dimension. Hints of it were everywhere. I recall the sight of blue white light, flickering in store windows at night, with crowds of people gathered round it, like moths around a candle, to behold the miracle of Television. I can see that dreamlike vision now, as clearly I saw it then, from the back seat of my parent’s slowly moving car, in 1947.
Somehow, I must have known TV was coming, for I had been practicing for its arrival, all my life, by staring at the warm mysterious glow that emanated from the small round window in the middle of the radio, as it cast suspicious shadows in the darkest corners of my room at night. In the very center of the dial was a tiny image of the world, a perfectly detailed golden globe. I don’t know why I felt compelled to stare into that little light, almost fearing if I blinked my eyes, or glanced away, I’d miss hearing a portion of the show, or worse still, allow my imagination to run wild, and spy something I’d rather not believe I saw, lurking in the lonely darkness of my bedroom. This was one of the dubious joys of being an only child.
Eventually, when I was 11, we got our first TV. I think it was an “Admiral”. It was housed in an admirably large cabinet, clad in the then popular veneer, known as blonde mahogany. It stood diagonally in the corner of what we called, “the den”. In contrast to the massive cabinetry, the screen, itself, was small, and clearly round in shape with the top and bottom clipped off, as if, it were a circle, aspiring to emulate a square.
Each day, I’d get home from school around 3:30, and after checking the mail to see if any long awaited premiums had arrived, I’d park myself in front of the TV. At 4:00 an image, called the Test Pattern would appear. I’d study that in rapt attention, converging circles, parallel lines, words and numbers, woven together in complex patterns, and in the center, the image of an Indian. This static vision never bored me. I didn’t mind the fact that nothing happened, because I realized it was a Miracle, and I was basking in its light! The picture flickered slightly, every now and then, until 4:30, when the first program began, a puppet show called “Willie-Do-It”. The main character was “Gee Whizzer”. Googling it, just now, I discovered that the puppeteers were called the “Johnson Marionettes”. Willie? Whizzer? Johnson? Is there a reoccurring theme here? And here I thought that Howdy “Doody” was naughty.
In those first days of TV, everything we saw was live, and broadcast only from Detroit. Although, I didn’t realize it at the time, someone was possibly pulling Willie’s strings, right down the street from me. Willie-Do-It was the highlight of my day. His colorless adventures might have induced a coma in many, but not in me. After Willie, came half an hour of silent cartoons, always accompanied by insanely inane music, a rinky-tink piano. It was the same recording, played, over and over, every day. The cartoons changed, but the music remained exactly the same. Each tune was so predictable you could use it to tell the time of day.
The programming that followed was all downhill from there: horse racing, wrestling, five minutes of news, roller derby, more wrestling, NO movies, and then wrestling again. The commentator cracked peanut shells into the mike to punctuate the action. No matter what the program was, like a cobra, charmed by a melody I hated, I was hopelessly compelled to watch it!
Then one day, Willie didn’t Do It! I came home from school like any other day, not knowing that a cable had been laid, connecting Detroit to New York City, and Willie-Do-It was GONE, done-in by Howdy Doody.
I don’t know why I hated Howdy. It must have been a chemical reaction. My intuition told me that something about him, and Buffalo Bob too, was really creepy. The whole show was like a long ad-libbed rehearsal for a crushingly unfunny Keystone Kops comedy, with nauseatingly normal looking children, screaming their heads off in the Peanut Gallery, urging Buffalo Bob to turn around, as Clarabelle the horny clown, who later became Captain Kangaroo, came sneaking up behind him, while Buffalo Bob pretended that he couldn’t hear the hysterical kid’s frantic warning.
Howdy too, was audaciously offensive; he had a kind of non-kosher chutzpah about him. How dare he proclaim himself to be the “President of All the Girls and Boys in America”? I sure as Hell didn’t vote for him, or even notice an election.
The show did have a few good points. One was the hilarity of Howdy’s name. Every Kid knew what DOODY was: BM, bowel movement, s**t, or poo-poo. And all the adults, acting like they didn’t notice! Hey! It was like our dirty little secret; us kids knew something that the grown ups didn’t. On top of that, he lived in Doodyville! That made it funnier still. Strange too, was the fact that there was a second Howdy Doody show, coming from Canada that we in Detroit could see. On that show, mean old Mr. Bluster, Phineas T., was actually a good guy, and Howdy had a twin brother, whose name was “Double Doody”. Double Doody! Now that was really funny, funny!
Which brings us to one of the highlights of my young life: Howdy had a unique stringing, one string on the back of his hand and another on his wrist. This accounted for that sort of limp wrist action (Not that there’s anything wrong with that) that was all part of the, somewhat, mesmerizing way he moved. One day, when he was waving goodbye and chirping, “Goodbye, Goodbye, Boys and Girls”, in his abrasively cloying voice, which was purportedly prerecorded by Buffalo Bob himself, his Hand became disconnected from his Wrist. This was obviously a situation of which the puppeteer was NOT aware. So, while the stump of his right arm continued waving madly in the air, his severed hand repeatedly bounced from the stage floor, up and out of sight beyond the top of the screen, and back again, and again, and again, each time, resounding with a “CLUNK” as it hit the floor. I was laughing too loud to be able to hear what sound my body made, as I also hit the floor, convulsing with hysterics as I rolled around with glee.
Ironically, years later, Howdy Doody himself came to visit me. Noel Barrett, my best buddy, post Bucky, and traveling companion of my “adult” daze, brought him up to meet me. If you ever watch the Antique Road Show, you will recognize Noel.
This was one of the Better Howdys, superior to the one that was the subject of a law suit involving the Detroit Museum.
Noel was proud as Punch, and beaming like a Christmas tree to be able to auction Howdy Doody.
This Grand Occasion turned out to be a long overdue reconciliation. By the time it came to an end, Howdy, who clearly wanted to hang around, seemed like an old familiar friend. Incidentally, he’s much better looking in person than he appeared to be on black and white TV.
And in the end, it was easy to see that Father Time has been more kind to Howdy Doody than he has been to me.