New career coming for Howdy Doody: Puppet with 10 million young TV fans going into comics
By Virginia Irwin, A Staff Correspondent of the Post-Dispatch
In the tricycle, knee-pants and pigtail league of television fans, the hero of the hour is a loveable, freckle-faced puppet named Howdy Doody. A phenomenon in the business, Howdy has popped up, like a toadstool after a spring rain, from comparative obscurity to head man of the most popular TV show for children on the coaxial cable.
Running for the title of Television Pal and President of the Kids of the United States, he won some 10,000,000 young-fry fans for his program with a campaign for double-size banana splits and two Christmases in every year.
Today, with his pals Mr.Bluster, Clarabell, Dilly Dally and Flub-A-Dub, Howdy has such a fanatical following that, when televised program of the United Nations meetings ran overlong and cut into Howdy Doody’s regular time on the screen, phone calls from kids jammed the switchboards of television stations all over the nation. The kids simply raised juvenile Cain over being deprived of as little as a few minutes of Howdy Doody’s doings.
Starting in the Sunday comics
Now Howdy Doody is going into the comics. Seen five days a week, Monday through Friday, on KSD-TV at 4:30 pm, Howdy will make his funny paper debut in the Sunday comic section of the Post-Dispatch this Sunday when he takes off with all his pals in an air-o-doodle, a wonderful contraption that is part plane, part ship, part car and part train, for a floating island in a mythical sea on a search for the relatives of Flub-A-Dub, the funny little animal who has the face of a duck, ears like a cocker spaniel, a body like a dachshund, a neck like a giraffe, flippers like a seal and always wears a silly flower pot right on the top of his flat head.
The history of Howdy Doody
Howdy Doody’s history really begins back in Buffalo, NY, in the early 1940s.
It was in that year that Bob Smith, a personable young man who supplies Howdy’s television voice and character, was presiding over a chatter-and-record show on a local radio station and introduced a drawling, oafish voice (his own in higher register) as belonging to a character called “Elmer.” The small-fry listeners on the Smith show took an immediate liking to Elmer, and when Bob was called to New York to do a program called “Triple B Ranch,” Elmer came with him.
Elmer always addressed his young listeners with “Howdy Doody, kids,” and soon, Elmer came to be Howdy Doody. Before long, the kids were writing in demanding to “see Howdy Doody” and the Howdy Doody television show was the natural result.
The show made its debut as a weekly half-hour program over the NBC television network a little less than three years ago, and within a very short time jumped to its present schedule of five half-hours a week. Today, the Howdy Doody Show is presented over 50 live and kinescope stations, and has passed more than 500 performances.
“We’ve got the ‘South Pacific’ of kid shows,” 33-year-old Bob Smith, grandson of the late Rev. G. Kuehn of Taunton, Ill., laughed as Howdy Doody and Phineas T. Bluster went through their lines (a particularly difficult scene because Mr. Bluster had been drinking some water from a strange bottle that made him talk all backwards). “We can accommodate a small live audience of children on the show, but the tickets are already given out “way past next January.”
Besides accumulating a TV audience of an estimated 10,000,000 youngsters which make him the envy of any TV performer, Howdy Doody has been responsible for an entire new industry. Manufacturers are today busy turning out Howdy Doody hand puppets, Howdy Doody sweaters, hankies, scarves, jeans, shirts and even Howdy Doody wallpaper and cookies.
A specialized team, including artists from Disney
To keep the Howdy Doody comic strip on the same high plane of children’s entertainment as the show itself, a highly specialized team of artist-writers was chosen to execute the Sunday funny. The team is made up of Milt Neil and Chad, two former Walt Disney animators and accomplished art and story men in other mediums.
Milt Neil, a product of Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, was chosen at 21 from among some 20,000 contestants for a job in the Walt Disney studios.
“I wasn’t the best artist in the lot,” he says modestly, “but the job called for a combination actor-artist, an artist who could act on paper.”
In Hollywood, Neil worked for Disney for 10 years, as animator on such films as “Snow White.” “Dumbo,” “Three Caballeros,” “Pinocchio,” and “Bambi.” Then the war came and he was put to work directing educational films for the Army.
The war over, he went into business for himself as a toy designer and his first contact with the Howdy Doody Show was when he was called upon to design Flub-a-Dub. A natural- born engineer, he had soon developed Mr. Bluster and Dilly Dally, and shortly a new creation of his will appear, a maiden called Summer – Fall – Winter- Spring.
The other half of the specialized team is Chad (whose last name, Grothkopf, he says is too difficult to bother with), who was one of the pioneers to experiment with animated cartoons for television.
Born in Ironton, Ohio, he worked his way through the Chicago Art Institute with his heart set on becoming a “serious painter,” but rather than starve to death with his ideals, he succumbed to the lure of a job as assistant art editor for the eastern division of Paramount Pictures. During the war, he was head of the Army’s division of visual training aids, and after the war, blossomed into one of the nation’s leading commercial artists and illustrators of children’s books.
The new newspaper comic strip
Both Neil and Chad get pretty juvenile when they talk of the new comic, Howdy Doody.
“We take off from Kickabucket Ranch for this island in some ocean,” Chad explains. “We’re in this thing that is part train, part car, part plane and part boat and that even has an autogyro attachment and we’re headed for this island that has every animal you could think of, even dinosaurs, and things begin to happen.
“You see, we’re not hampered with having to stick to something that will hold up under adult reasoning. We can go any place and do anything because children have such wonderful imaginations and they’ll be able to follow us.”
Of course, Howdy Doody is the central figure of the crew of the air-o-doodle that sets off for the “floating island,” but Phineas T. Bluster, the old fellow who gets funnier the angrier he gets, promptly gets Howdy and all his pals in a pack of trouble and Dilly Dally and Clarabell. the silent clown, the Flub-A-Dub, wind up in some pretty hair-raising sit- nations.
“Howdy Doody and his pals will be able to go all over the world, because they can find animals on this island that will show them the way,” Neil explains like any child who will be reading the Howdy Doody strip. “The animals on this island are like the ones in the ark, they come from all climes, and some of them want to go north and some want to go south, and it’s no telling the spots Howdy Doody will hit before we get through with his travels.”
For the kids
All family men, Bob Smith, the originator of Howdy Doody, and Neil and Chad, who will draw the comic, admit that their own children are their severest critics.
“Occasionally,” says Smith, “a situation sneaks into the program that’s too adult for a kid’s mind and one of my offspring will say, ‘Look, Dad, I don’t get it.’ That’s when I know I’d better sit down and talk to Howdy Doody and let him tell me what kids between 3 and 10 want to hear and see.”
Meanwhile, television’s star puppet, Howdy Doody, continues his own simple way, telling the kids about brushing their teeth, and not crossing streets except at intersections, and all the nice things that parents have been trying to put into palatable pills for years.
As one critic put it, when television stations reported the avalanche of calls from kids protesting that United Nations was cutting Howdy Doody off the air: “Maybe Howdy can teach them in his own homely way the secret of living that will make a United Nations pay.”