I bet you didn’t know Howdy Doody was from Maine, did you? Well, that’s almost true; actually, Buffalo Bob Smith retired to Maine when he was still in his 40s after the hugely popular Howdy Doody television show went off the air in 1960. I interviewed the very affable Buffalo Bob in 1986, and the resulting story was played in newspapers all over the country.
By ARTHUR FREDERICK
GRAND LAKE STREAM, Maine (UPI) — Hey, kids! What time is it?
For Buffalo Bob Smith, Howdy Doody`s real-life buddy during the pioneer days of television, it may finally be time for retirement.
The old Howdy Doody show, the first children`s show on network television, went off the air in 1960, after more than a decade of entertaining millions of fledgling baby-boomers glued to their flickering black-and-white screens.
When that happened, Smith and his family moved to their log cottage on Maine`s remote Big Lake. Smith, who began in radio in Buffalo, N.Y., at age 15, bought three radio stations in northern Maine, and the family also purchased a winter home in Florida.
“I never really retired,” said Smith, who was only 43 when Howdy Doody left the air.
Now the 68-year-old Smith has sold the radio stations and is winding down. He spends most summer days fishing in Maine and much of the winter playing golf in Florida.
But the white-haired Buffalo Bob hasn`t forgotten the freckled, cowboy-booted marionette that made him one of the most famous television entertainers of the 1950s.
Howdy`s memory is still bright for Buffalo Bob, who keeps an original Howdy puppet in a glass case on top of a filing cabinet at his Florida home. Another original Howdy shares space at the Smithsonian in Washington with two other well-known puppets, Charlie McCarthy and Kermit the Frog.
“Next year is my 40th anniversary with Howdy, and we’re planning a 90-minute special,” Smith said. “We’re going to have a Peanut Gallery full of people who would have been kids back then, people like Johnny Bench and Barbra Streisand.”
Smith thinks the Howdy Doody shows still stack up well against modern children’s programming, which is often little more than animated cartoons.
“Howdy was a show that was not educational per se, although we did try to educate with songs that had themes like ‘Be kind to animals’ or ‘Cross the street with your eyes, not just your feet,’” Smith said. “Howdy was mostly slapstick and fantasy because kids like slapstick and being in on the joke.”
There was plenty of slapstick humor, and Buffalo Bob was often the butt of the joke. When Clarabelle the Clown uncorked his seltzer bottle or someone threw a pie, it was usually aimed at Buffalo Bob’s smiling face, much to the delight of the kids in the studio Peanut Gallery.
Television production costs have skyrocketed so much, Smith said, that it would be next to impossible to duplicate the Howdy show now.
‘You just couldn`t afford to do Howdy today because it appeals to such a limited audience,’ Smith said. “Unless you have Ford or General Motors making big grants for something like Sesame Street, you just aren`t going to get much more than cartoons, something you can put together for $200,000 and which will get played maybe 200 times.”
Television was a new medium in 1947 when Howdy Doody first went on the air, but it made Smith one of the best known celebrities of his day.
Children and adults swarmed around him wherever he went, and Smith loved the attention, especially from the children.
“The kids would seek me out, “he said. “I’d go to a picnic or something, and I’d end up with kids all around me. Kids always know whether you like them or not.”
Smith says he still does 15 or 20 Howdy shows a year at such places as shopping centers, and they are always well-attended by people Smith calls “the alumni,” those who were Peanut Gallery-sized during the Howdy years.
The children of the alumni, who probably have never seen the original show, get right into the swing of things, Smith said.
“The kids know about Howdy through their parents’ talking about the show. Clarabelle and I do appearances at malls 15 or 20 times a year. The parents of the kids who used to watch the show often come along, and we`ll have three generations there sometimes. We have great shows.”
The original Clarabelle was Bob Keeshan, now better known as Captain Kangaroo. But the Clarabelle that Buffalo Bob takes on his shopping mall shows is Lew Anderson, now 65, who joined the Howdy Doody show in 1954.
Most of the original live black-and-white shows were never recorded and are lost to history. Others exist only on scratchy kinescopes–16-mm. films taken from a small black-and-white picture tube. Tape was so expensive in the 1950s that the same tape was used many times, so that even many of the taped Howdy shows no longer exist.
“Too bad,” said Smith. “They would be worth a fortune today.”
For Smith, the Howdy years were the best of times. Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody may not have a television show anymore, but Howdy lives on.
“Why should I leave all that in the past?” Smith said.