Hey, oldsters. Did you know?
I didn’t realize until recently that Dec. 27, 2021, marked the 74th anniversary of the first airing of the Howdy Doody Show. Some things spark a trickle of memories like an automated paint by numbers picture that slowly produces in your mind a complete picture. Others at the mere mention of a word produce the whole picture. So, it was when I saw the announcement of Howdy’s birthday.
Howdy Doody was a marionette version of I Love Lucy. It became a phenomenon. It would take quite a threat from my mother to get me away from the show in our Flatbush basement once it came on. It was like being transported to another world, one more my size and certainly a lot more fun than the real one. Howdy’s friends were my friends: Clarabell with the horn and seltzer bottle (‘don’t think you can get to the top by starting a little below the bottom? Ask Bob Keeshan who did a stint as Clarabelle. He then became Captain Kangeroo, an American fixture for 29 years, paving the way for Mr. Rodgers), Princess Summer-Fall-Winter-Spring (“don’t think you can have a crush on someone with strings? Wrong!), Mr. Bluster to whom I could be snarky about his grumpiness in ways I couldn’t with my mom and her’s),…… If one had a crystal ball one could see on the horizon the coming of Sesame Street and the Muppets. There were others, like Rootie Kazootie (really, Rootie Kazootie) but they were also rans. Howdy was king of afternoon kid shows, drawing with the kids lots of moms who found it a decent excuse for not doing anything in the house for a little while.
The show has produced a wrinkle in the ole beano. We’d been given two tickets to see the show with mine being in the “Peanut Gallery.” It was like winning the lottery. I swear I remember the awful car ride to someplace called Queens. Yet research tells me that the show was done in Manhattan. Could it be both are right? While I don’t think in the late ‘40’s the technology was there to do something in one place and transmit it to another. Who’s right? My 78 years old brain or Wikipedia? Good question. ‘have to dive deeper on that one.
To say a ticket for the Peanut Gallery was a hot ticket puts it in the category of trying to get excellent seats for the opening of My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, Phantom of the Opera, or Camelot. How I got it is a testimony to the adage that it isn’t what you know but who you know. My parents were dear friends with a publicity agent to the stars. His list of clients included this little marionette of mine. He called one day with this teaser: “How would you like to go see the Howdy Doody Show?” Uncle Dave was not a teaser. He was serious. I think that was my first episode of a-fib.
Then came that fateful ride to wherever. Fateful because for many years I was a victim of car sickness or better said, the victim was our trusty Buick. I remember wherever we were headed it was hot as blazes. Cars and air conditioning were two things that hadn’t been matched up yet. However, heat and humidity were well matched to motion sickness. What we had was a no-draft (remember them?). Seeing my color change and continue to change like the liquid in a test tube during a chemical experiment, she yanked open the no-draft. This done during the time that automobiles and seat belts had not been matched. One hand on the wheel she reached across me hoping I would retch on her arm, undid the latch on this window-ette, and pulled. Once open, she opened it as wide as it went. Electricity and windows? Not yet either. Now I had a steady stream of hot, humid air blowing directly on my face once I slid over a little towards the driver’s seat. While it worked until we got there, alas ‘tis not the end of the story.
We arrived, parked, and were met by a woman who looked and sounded like Nurse Ratchet. She ushered us inside and she summarily yanked my hand from my mother’s, said “Come with me” while someone else took my mom to the parent’s holding pen. In moments I was plopped into a seat. The Peanut Gallery in real life sort of looked like the bleaches. There was a wooden, low wall, behind which were rows of bleacher benches. It was almost showtime. The heat in the studio from the lights made the heat I just left in the car seem like I’d gone from Alaska to Africa. Chaos reigned—running, shouting, moving cameras, Clarabelle in half-clown mode, Buffalo Bob with no semblance of that flashing smile we all saw on TV.
In minutes Clarabelle was all clown, Howdy, who had been disconcertingly handing from a hook, came to life, and Buffalo Bob was beaming. Then came the count down for the network. At zero the Big Buffalo turned to us little peanuts and issued an explosive, “Hey Kids, what time is it?!?” The camera panned across the gallery at hopped up little kids screaming, “It’s Howdy Doody time!” Then, on national television I threw up.
Like that claw in the recreation part game that you lowered to grab a prize, an arm reached into the gallery, grabbed me by my shirt, and lifted me out of my part of the bench. I was hurriedly deposited in the hall where my mother waited.
It was no longer Howdy Doody time.
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