"What time is it, kids?" The Howdy Doody Show, the most popular children's show in history, didn't start out as a television show; and it went by a different name. In fact, the puppet protagonist it started with wasn't even our familiar, lovable Howdy.
'Buffalo' Bob Smith was host of a Saturday morning children's radio show in 1947 called The Triple B Ranch. It was essentially a kids' quiz show featuring students from surrounding elementary schools. But unlike later shows (such as College Quiz Bowl) the emphasis was not on academics, but on fun. Eventually non-quiz-related characters were introduced to the show, including a simple- minded ranch hand named Elmer, who always gave the salutation, "Howdy doody!" The character became popular, so much so that Elmer was renamed to his own catch-phrase, Howdy Doody; children wrote letters to him and visited the studio trying to catch a glimpse of the lovable goof.
Bob Smith convinced NBC Television that if kids liked listening to Howdy on the radio, they'd clamor over being able to see and hear him on screen; and on Saturday, December 27th, 1947, a new show - Puppet Playhouse - debuted at 5 p.m., the first show of the day ('round-the-clock television not having debuted yet). Kids grew to love Howdy Doody, his pal Buffalo Bob, and their hometown of Doodyville, which included all sorts of wacky characters such as Clarabelle the Clown (who never spoke but communicated through horn honks, one horn for yes, the other for no), Oil Well Willie, and Chief Thunderthud (who originated the phrase "Kowa-bunga!"). Before long, demand prompted the show to appear five days a week at thirty minutes per show at 5:30 in the afternoon - allowing kids plenty of time to get their homework done and then get in a half-hour of Doody time before sitting down to supper at 6:00.
All was not perfect in Doodyville, however. In 1949, Frank Paris, who had created Howdy and most of the other puppets on the show, saw how much money was to be made from his characters, and demanded merchandising rights. NBC refused, and Paris packed up his puppets and went off to do other things. The show carried on, however, and the 'new look' Howdy soon emerged ('The New Look!' The Old Voice!' shouted NBC's publicity campaign), with barely a bump in the schedule to show for Paris's departure. Later that year, in fact, Puppet Playhouse changed its title to The Howdy Doody Show, cementing the little cowpoke's popularity and reputation in the minds of its audience.
Bob Smith had a heart attack in 1954, no doubt owing to the show's rough schedule; during his convalescence, kids were told that Buffalo Bob was simply vacationing. The show went through two different Clarabells, finally settling on Lew Anderson in the role of the mischievous, seltzer-loving clown.
Beginning in 1955, Howdy started having serious competition: The Micky Mouse Club