In my day television was not a 24 x 7 mind numbing box with hundreds of channels it has evolved into. In point of fact, I never watched this show as a kid. We didn’t have the typical television in my home town growing up that the rest of the nation enjoyed. I grew up in a little town that was over 100 miles from the nearest TV transmitter and this was before cable, dish, or Internet.
My grandfather had TV. He had a sixty foot tower in the backyard that he would crank up and aim the antenna at Great Falls. These super high towers were not unknown in my hometown, but they were few and far between. Based on the most stable of all geometries, the triangle, the towers were about one foot on a triangular-side and had a criss-cross lattice of support that looked enticingly like a ladder. Often I would fantasize about climbing to the top for the view. The tower was quite a piece of engineering and you would wind it up with a hand crank that doubled its height. Fuzzy black and white signals would then fill the “television tube” on my grandparent’s DuMont receiver.
Back then TV didn’t start until 4:00 PM. Before that you have this fascinating “test pattern” to tune your set to. Adjust the horizontal, the vertical, the contrast and brightness and prepare for evening TV. That was day-time television in my childhood. Starting in 1947, kids would gather around that test pattern waiting for NBC to come on the air with that special question.
But it started before that. Long before Sesame Street and Scooby Doo there was a local radio show in New York City on WNBC, the brainchild of one Bob Smith. It was called the “Triple B Ranch,” and the three B’s were “Big Brother Bob.” One day his writer suggested they add some comedy and asked Bob if he could do some voices. They tried out several and chose a sort of Mortimer Snerd voice (now you have to go back before the boomers to Edgar Bergen for that reference) and so they created this character called Elmer. This was radio, so all there was was a microphone and a script.
Bob would say something like, “Why there’s Elmer. Hi Elmer.” And, in a funny voice, he’d respond “huh, huh, huh, howdy doody bob, yuk, yuk.” After the show kids from the audience would come up and they were disappointed that they couldn’t see “Howdy Doody.”
So that gave Bob and the producer two ideas. First they changed the character name from “Elmer” to “Howdy Doody” since that was a funnier name. And second, they thought if they could make a puppet of Howdy, maybe NBC would be interested in a television show.
The big eared puppet they created had 48 freckles for each of the states at that time. (Yea, you TV Babies only know 50 states. But the boomers were around when there were only 48.) And thus was born, on December 27, 1947, the “Howdy Doody Show” with Buffalo Bob and a cast of zany characters and puppets. (Image that, the Muppets weren’t the first.) There was Clarabell the Clown, Chief Thunderthud — cowabunga, Princess Summerfallwinterspring, the Mayor, the Flub-A-Dub — loved spaghetti and meat balls, Inspector John J. Fadoozle, and many more.
The original actor that played Clarabell, the mute clown that only honked his horn, was Bob Keeshan, who continued in that role until 1952. Keeshan was fired after a salary dispute and later became Captain Kangaroo at CBS. At the end of the final episode, telecast on September 24, 1960, Clarabell (then played by jazz musician Lew Anderson) broke his series-long silence to say the final words of the final broadcast: "Goodbye, kids."
Those were the days of black and white TV and stay-at-home moms. It was the cocoon that I metamorphosed in … me and about 76 million other boomers. And now we’re all knocking on the door of social security. Now we’ve got color TV, HD TV, 3D TV, not to mention video games and the internet. Ah, it was truly a simpler time back then. Telephones went “ring” instead of playing "ringtones" and they weren’t in your pocket. There were no school shootings and about the worst thing that happened was when you skinned your knee in a bicycle accident. It was the best time to grow up.
I don’t think I was ever in that happy crowd gathered around the test pattern at 4:00 PM (or on Saturday morning at 10:00 AM — but who knows what time that would have been in Montana), but I do belong to that generation. We didn’t get TV at home until around 1960 and the most memorable show from watching at my grandparents was The Andy Griffith Show. But I know my bride was a fan. Back in Massachusetts, she and her friends would expectantly wait for the test pattern to change and for the announcer to ask that proverbial question, “Say Kids, What Time Is It?” As a television audience in the millions shouted out the answer, the theme music would start: “It’s Howdy Doody Time, It’s Howdy Doody Time.” She even named her dog Cowabunga.