The Very First Televised Howdy Doody Show Didn’t Have Doody
When the cameras turned on to air the first televised version of Bob Smith’s new show, it was December 27, 1947. It was to be the first children’s show in an otherwise barren landscape of entertainment, but there was a small hiccup.
The star of the show, Mr. Doody, was nowhere to be seen. There was a perfectly good explanation for this. The prop department hadn’t built him yet, mostly because nobody had asked them to do so.
Despite this, Smith was such an entertainer [read: audiences and the network were so desperate for entertainment] than folks stayed tuned to the 20,000 television sets in New York at the time. The show was a big change from the normal test pattern aired for most of the day.
For a time, however, it was the peak of family entertainment, but it was almost not called The Howdy Doody Show.
The First Show
For the NBC studio, they had more problems than a missing puppet on December 27th. Right after Christmas in 1947, a blizzard had nailed the northeastern states. Several feet of snow had pinned people to their homes.
Most businesses in New York closed until the storm passed. Travel in the city was almost impossible. In fact, the human host of the show, Bob Smith, was almost a no show himself.
He made it, though, and the show went on the air, but Bob Smith, AKA “Buffalo Bob,” had to stall. They had no plan for the show except to entertain children. There was no Howdy Doody, true, but there was also no script. Bob was enough of an entertainer that he could hold an audience’s attention, in this case, with a little help from above.
What started as a headache, the blanket of snow outside, turned into a mixed blessing. With nowhere to go and no way to get there if they wanted, people with TVs had nothing better to do than watch those TV sets. There was nothing else on TV, but this new children’s show.
The Howdy Doody Show was officially the one-eyed snowman in the land of the blinding snow.
Smith had a background in entertainment, having worked for WNBC, NBC’s radio outlet, for years before the show. Audiences or at least NBC loved him.
Bob Smith was every bit the convincing salesman as he was the entertainer. Whether or not the plan was to have Smith voice Howdy Doody in the long is debatable. Nonetheless, when the cameras and mics came on, he improvised.
Smith took his time to build up suspense, telling the audience that he had a friend who was afraid to come out. Using his own voice, he made a convincing argument that Howdy was hiding in the drawer of a desk on stage. Despite his best efforts, Bob was unable to get Doody to come out.
Audiences were gripped to find out more about this mystery “friend.”
In truth, Doody wasn’t necessarily supposed to be the star. He was a character Smith had created during his time as a radio announcer on WNBC, but only as a voice. There was no image of Doody to go with the voice, and the voice was one of many Smith had created.
As far as the televised show went, NBC had branded it NBC’s Puppet Playhouse in the beginning, opening it wide for many puppets. When Smith improvised that first show, he put a steering wheel in the direction of the show.
Doody would be the focal point; a week later they changed the name to The Howdy Doody Show, and Mr. Doody showed up on set.
Producers quickly employed a puppeteer named Frank Paris to create the puppet for Howdy Doody, but Doody wouldn’t be alone on the show. There were other marionettes and character, human or otherwise, and Buffalo Bob treated them all like they were real.
Children ate it up.
Of course they did. What else were they going to watch? This would be the format for television until the recent content explosion afforded by cheaper effects and endless content producers.
There was a time when audiences watched whatever the network deemed entertainment. There’s a good reason the many attempted revivals of Doody didn’t last with modern audiences.
Doody served his time in entertainment history, though, thanks to a blizzard and a fast-talking host.