It’s Howdy Doody Time!

ROMAN MARS: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

BUFFALO BOB: Say kids, what time is it?

AUDIENCE: It’s Howdy Doody Time!

HOWDY DOODY THEME: It’s Howdy Doody Time. It’s Howdy Doody Time.

ROMAN MARS: If your parents or grandparents grew up in the United States in the 1950s, there’s a decent chance that you have heard them sing this song. And if you’re the right age, you can probably sing it yourself. In fact, if you’re a boomer, it might be stuck in your head right now. In which case, I’m sorry.

HOWDY DOODY THEME: It’s time to start the show, so kids let’s go!

DAVID WEINBERG: For those who don’t know, this nearly atonal chanting is the theme song to one of the very first children’s television programs, The Howdy Doody Show.

ROMAN MARS: That’s reporter and longtime 99PI contributor David Weinberg.

DAVID WEINBERG: The Howdy Doody Show is one of those pieces of 1950s ephemera, like the hula hoop, that has come to symbolize mid-century American childhood. For over a decade, every weeknight at 5:00 PM kids all across the country would sit down in front of their parents’ tiny television and take in the Wild West adventures of Buffalo Bob and his marionette puppet sidekick, Howdy Doody.

BUFFALO BOB: Howdy, what do you think we ought to do?

HOWDY DOODY: Well, I don’t know, Mr. Smith. But I guess everybody likes movies now. Why don’t we show a movie?

ROMAN MARS: At the time, there wasn’t anything quite like it. Imagine a singing cowboy performing a puppet show for your birthday–only five nights a week. And now imagine nearly every other kid in America enjoying the same party at the same time. For a lot of children, it was their first encounter with the concept of a TV star.

DAVID WEINBERG: Which is why Burt Durbrow can remember exactly where he was when he first heard the rumor.

BURT DUBROW: I was out on a playground in fifth or sixth grade–Trinity School in n Rochelle, New York–and some kid said that Buffalo Bob bought a liquor store in New Rochelle. Now that would be like saying Mr. Rogers owned a liquor store. It didn’t make any sense.

DAVID WEINBERG: This happened back around 1960. And at the time, Burt loved all things TV–especially live TV and especially Howdy Doody. So when he heard this rumor that the show’s host Buffalo Bob was selling liquor in New Rochelle, he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

BURT DUBROW: And I literally found the route from the south end to the north end, and I did not tell my parents. And I got on the M bus, and I got off. And those big signs said “Liquors.” 10 years old–I walked into the liquor store. My chin came up to the counter. And I said, “Excuse me. Is Buffalo Bob here?” And there was a man behind the counter who was wearing a check shirt and black horn-rimmed glasses and said, “I’m Buffalo Bob.” Well, that made no sense to me because he didn’t look like Buffalo Bob. He didn’t at that second sound like Buffalo Bob. And he reached down below the counter, and he pulled out a color picture that went right over there in the red frame and signed it to me. And as he was talking, he started to sound like Buffalo Bob.

DAVID WEINBERG: That’s when Burt realized that this was really happening; he was standing in front of his hero–the actual living, breathing Buffalo Bob–selling liquor.

BURT DUBROW: So when I went home, my parents were ready to kill me. “Where were you?” I said, “I was at Buffalo Bob’s liquor store.” Well, they thought I was smoking something. But every day or many days after that, I went. It reached a point that the people that worked for Bob at the liquor store–if they saw me coming through the big glass windows, Bob would run in the back so he didn’t have to see me.

ROMAN MARS: Burt Dubrow was not wrong to be starstruck. It’s hard to overstate just how massive a cultural juggernaut Howdy Doody was. The show was disproportionately important to the history of television. It was the first television program to reach 1,000 episodes–one of the first shows to be broadcast in color–and it pioneered new ways of marketing products to children.

DAVID WEINBERG: All of which, while I was talking to Burt, begged the question…

DAVID WEINBERG (FIELD TAPE): Bob was doing the show on Saturday mornings and then running the liquor store the rest of the week? That’s crazy.

BURT DUBROW: It made sense for him to buy the liquor store. Let’s just say that. It was an investment.

ROMAN MARS: If it seems strange that the star of one of the most successful programs on television needed a side hustle–well–today it would be. But in the early days of the medium, especially when Howdy Doody first started, the world of television was strange. It was a place where no one knew what anything or anyone was worth–not even Buffalo Bob. And honestly, the fact that he ran a liquor store isn’t even the strangest part.

DAVID WEINBERG: In many ways, the story of Howdy Doody is the story of the weird wild west days of early TV–a story in which programmers, advertisers, artists, and moneymen were inventing everything as they went along, starting with what to put on television in the first place.

ROMAN MARS: After all, the very first TV shows, including Howdy Doody, had no prior TV shows to build on. Instead, they had to steal their programming ideas from other, older mediums, including the greatest medium of all.

STEPHEN DAVIS: It really– Howdy Doody was born on the radio.

DAVID WEINBERG: This is music historian Stephen Davis being interviewed by Terry Gross in 1987. His dad worked on Howdy Doody. And he says that Buffalo Bob Smith got his name from his hometown of Buffalo, New York, and his life and entertainment started early. By the time he was four years old, Bob could recreate any melody he heard by plinking away on a piano with his two tiny fingers. And by the time he was in his 30s, he was a popular radio dj. He hosted his shows sitting at a piano, where he would sing along to records, perform comedy sketches, and read the weather.

ROMAN MARS: And originally his sidekick’s name was not Howdy Doody.

STEPHEN DAVIS: Howdy’s original name was Elmer, and he appeared on a Saturday morning quiz show that Buffalo Bob did in those days on the NBC radio network.

DAVID WEINBERG: On the show, Bob developed the persona of Buffalo Bob. But he also voiced other characters, including Elmer, who back then was a kind of country bumpkin.

STEPHEN DAVIS: And he had this really dumb kind of yokel voice which kept saying, “Howdy doody, boys and girls.” That was what the Elmer voice sounded like–kind of a rube, a cowboy, somebody from the frontier, a rough dude, so to speak.

DAVID WEINBERG: And eventually that became his name: Howdy Doody.

ROMAN MARS: And in a slightly alternate universe, Howdy would have disappeared from cultural memory when Bob’s radio program went off the air. But mass media and Buffalo Bob’s show in particular were about to undergo a huge change thanks to the failure of television.

DAVID WEINBERG: After the first television sets became commercially available in the ’30s, for a long time–well into the ’40s–the medium actually had a hard time catching on. For starters, unlike radio, which had a huge variety of shows, there wasn’t much to watch on these small, grainy, black and white screens.

STEVEN SPARK: So in the early days of television when they didn’t have much programming, basically what they often did was just borrow the popular radio show of the time and move it to TV.

DAVID WEINBERG: This is Steven Stark.

STEVEN SPARK: I wrote a book about television, and I’m a poet. I write poetry now. So yeah, that’s what I do.

DAVID WEINBERG: Did you ever write any poems about Howdy Doody?

STEVEN SPARK: No. Never wrote a poem about Howdy Doody–nor will I ever.

DAVID WEINBERG: Steven says that when televisions first went on the market, few people could afford one.

STEVEN SPARK: In 1948, very few people had televisions–we’re talking fewer than a million people.

ROMAN MARS: And it was not yet a nationwide medium. Most of the early television stations were in New York, and those first broadcast signals didn’t reach all that far. So nearly everyone who did own a TV lived in the New York area.

STEVEN SPARK: So what you tended to get in the early days of television were shows that were very New York. I mean loud–in your face…

MILTON BERLE: Take off your clothes. I want to examine you. Take off your clothes.

STEVEN SPARK: A lot of slapstick–chaotic… And the number one television show in the early days of the medium was Milton Berle’s show, Texaco Star Theater, which was essentially a New York vaudeville show transferred to television.

MILTON BERLE: You want to go on television every week? Yeah? Well, there’s one important thing I must tell you, Danny. You got to have gimmicks–running gags that you got to do every week, like the seltzer bit.

ROMAN MARS: One reason vaudeville worked so well was because of another big hurdle. Video playback didn’t exist yet, meaning television shows in the early days had to go out live.

DAVID WEINBERG: Meanwhile, plenty of shows that worked on the radio–dramas like The Lone Ranger and The Shadow–couldn’t be adapted for live television, even if they could play back recorded video. In the 1940s, no one in the industry was ready to invest those kinds of resources.

ROMAN MARS: As a result, there was so little programming being made for television that for a long while there wasn’t anything on before dinnertime. And I don’t mean that there wasn’t anything on like it was boring. I mean that there was literally nothing on; the TV networks only broadcast after 7:00 PM.

DAVID WEINBERG: But then in 1947, NBC found something new to put on the air by borrowing a different trick from the vaudevillian playbook: puppets.

ROMAN MARS: Puppets were highly visual, they were live, they were cheap, and–perhaps most importantly–kids love them.

DAVID WEINBERG: The plan was to do a one-hour kids special at the ungodly early hour of 5:00 PM. They called it Puppet Playhouse, and they tapped Bob Smith to host it along with his country yokel sidekick, Howdy Doody.

STEVEN SPARK: And it is important to remember it didn’t have any competition to speak of because it was kind of the first network kids’ show.

DAVID WEINBERG: And just like Milton Berle, it was going to be a vaudeville show made for television.

STEVEN SPARK: Howdy Doody, which premiered around the same time on the same network–NBC–was essentially the Milton Berle show for kids.

DAVID WEINBERG: The show was scheduled to air on December 27th, but they didn’t greenlight it until the week before Christmas. So the producers only had two weeks to put together a live program. Bob Smith said that he didn’t find out he was hosting the show until four days before the broadcast date. And the stakes were very high for Bob Smith’s television debut. He was about to have an unexpectedly huge audience.

ROMAN MARS: The day before Puppet Playhouse went on the air, it started snowing in New York, and it didn’t stop for 24 hours. A record breaking storm dumped mountains of snow on New York City.

CHANCE MITCHELL: So the day after the big snowstorm was the airing of the very first live Puppet Playhouse show.

DAVID WEINBERG: This is Chance Mitchell. He runs the Doodyville Historical Society–basically the Howdy Doody fan club.

CHANCE MITCHELL: Luckily, Bob had already been in the studio for a while. So when everybody was snowed in, they were kind of snowed in, too.

DAVID WEINBERG: Chance says that the snowstorm closed down all the typical entertainment options. There were no shows on Broadway, no music in the clubs–all the movie theaters shuttered. Everyone was stuck at home.

ROMAN MARS: And there were only three TV stations at the time. Two of the stations were showing basketball games that night. The third was debuting Puppet Playhouse.

CHANCE MITCHELL: And so everybody was at home, so everybody tuned into this puppet show that was on the air.

ROMAN MARS: The only problem was there was no puppet.

DAVID WEINBERG: Remember, they’d only had two weeks to adapt material that had been designed for the radio into highly visual entertainment, including designing a physical Howdy Doody because, up until then, he had just been a voice. And the puppeteer didn’t have enough time to finish the puppet before the show went live.

ROMAN MARS: So they improvised. When the moment came for Howdy to make his entrance, Buffalo Bob told the small handful of kids that had made it to the studio that sadly poor old Howdy was too shy to appear in front of the camera. So he was hiding in Bob’s desk drawer.

CHANCE MITCHELL: And he would go over to the desk drawer and say, are you in there, Howdy? And Howdy would say, “Oh-ho, yeah. But I’m too bashful to come out.” Well, he was too bashful for three weeks.

ROMAN MARS: And in spite of the fact that no one could see the start of the show or–who knows–maybe because they couldn’t see him, the kids loved it. NBC decided to give Bob Smith his own children’s TV show five nights a week.

STEVEN SPARK: And mothers would take their kids and plop ’em in front of the television set, Howdy Doody would come on, and they could do something else. So it was the first show in television history really to see TV as a babysitter.

ROMAN MARS: Suddenly a new beautiful gift was given to parents all around the country–a break from their little monsters.

DAVID WEINBERG: Every episode of this new show opened with a question.

BUFFALO BOB: Say kids, what time is it?

AUDIENCE: Howdy Doody Time!

STEVEN SPARK: And there was a live studio audience. They all sat together and they were called the Peanut Gallery. And if you watch any of the old shows, the boys and girls are still very dressed up.

ROMAN MARS: The kids would all be wearing coats and ties and party dresses. And there, less than 10 feet away on the stage, was Bob–along with Howdy, who did eventually come out from that desk drawer.

BUFFALO BOB: Howdy Doody. How did you like hearing that, little fella?

HOWDY DOODY: Well, Mr. Smith, that was… It was just wonderful. It’s so thrilling when the boys and girls sing my song so loud.

DAVID WEINBERG: Now I just want to pause right here and say that if you have any familiarity with Howdy Doody, you probably have an image in your mind of what this puppet looks like. But the Howdy that is currently prancing around in your brain is not the Howdy Doody that first appeared on the show.

ROMAN MARS: The original Howdy Doody was a different puppet–one that a lot of people thought was hideously ugly.

CHANCE MITCHELL: And allegedly it was too scary for the kids. I don’t really believe that to be the case, but that’s the story that Bob and people around Bob would say about the puppet. They eventually ended up calling him “Ugly Doody.”

DAVID WEINBERG: He kind of looked like Beaker from the Muppets, in my opinion.

ROMAN MARS: But it didn’t matter. In spite of him being ugly or–who knows–perhaps because he was so ugly, the kids loved Howdy even more than when he was stuck in the drawer.

DAVID WEINBERG: Though it’s possible they would’ve loved a mop with googly eyes. This was after all the first time that kids watched television. But it’s also the case that Howdy was just nice.

CHANCE MITCHELL: He’s always a positive, outgoing, happy 10-year-old. He was 10 in 1947. And 75 years later, he’s still 10. Everything that Howdy does is for the good of the whole community of Doodyville–not just for himself.

ROMAN MARS: Howdy was operated by a woman named Rhoda Man. She stood on a platform above the set, holding Howdy’s strings. She was an especially gifted puppeteer who excelled at making Howdy move as much as possible like a real human.

DAVID WEINBERG: And Bob and Howdy would have all sorts of adventures together, usually designed to teach the kids a valuable lesson.

HOWDY DOODY: And it’s actually a magic word–“friendship.” I hope all the kids know what “friendship” really is, Mr. Smith.

ROMAN MARS: Although since his previous voice acting had been for the radio, Bob Smith never learned to throw his voice. So anytime Howdy talked, Bob had to be off screen.

BUFFALO BOB: Well, I think they do. Matter of fact, I could go over and find out about it. Do you all have a lot of friends, I hope?


BUFFALO BOB: You do? Well now, what do you think are some of the best ways that you could possibly make a friend?

DAVID WEINBERG: There was also a rotating cast of other characters, including live actors, like a mute clown named Clarabel who kept blasting everyone in the face with a horn and a seltzer bottle just like Milton Berle’s old act.

BUFFALO BOB: Clarbel would you bring that rope there?

DAVID WEINBERG: Which apparently caused the same maniacal laughter in kids that it did in adults. This being a 1950s show about cowboys, there were also some Native American characters that traded on racist stereotypes. They were played by white actors, including an Indian princess and an Indian chief named Thunderthud, who is mainly remembered for coining the term “cowabunga.”

CHIEF THUNDERTHUD: Oh, cowabunga! Doggone! I should have guessed that!

ROMAN MARS: But mainly there were puppets–wonderful, inventive, gloriously cost saving puppets–including the Flub–a–Dub, a creature that was eight animals in one, and Phineas T. Bluster, the villainous mayor of Doodyville.

DAVID WEINBERG: Here’s Burt Dubrow again–our 10-year-old Howdy Doody superfan. He says Mayor Bluster often had some scheme he was cooking up.

BURT DUBROW: There was an Easter egg episode where Mr. Bluster bought all the Easter eggs in Doodyville–all of them–so that they would have then buy them from him. And he would overcharge them just to piss off everybody and upset the kids. You get the point I’m making here?



ROMAN MARS: The executives at NBC knew they had a quality television show on their hands, but the problem was there was no easy way of knowing just how many kids were actually watching it. Nielsen television ratings didn’t exist yet, making it hard to sell the program to sponsors–not without data. And without sponsors, there was no profit.

DAVID WEINBERG: So in 1948, the suits at NBC and the writers at Howdy Doody devised a scheme worthy of Phineas T. Bluster himself.

CHANCE MITCHELL: Eddie Kean–the absolute genius script writer and songwriter for the show–came up with the idea that Howdy decided he would run for president of all the kids in the United States.

DAVID WEINBERG: Howdy told the kids watching at home that if they mailed in a postcard with a write-in vote for Howdy to the NBC office, he would send them their very own Howdy Doody campaign button.

BUFFALO BOB: Now, kids, I want you to all make sure of this. Now, this is the last chance that you have to vote–just the end of this week. And all the votes must be in.

ROMAN MARS: The more postcards that came in asking for buttons, the more kids must be watching the show. And that in turn would help NBC sell the program to potential sponsors.

BUFFALO BOB: And then it’s box 333. Box 333. And then it’s New York 19, New York. Now come on. All of you kids get in there and vote, will you?

CHANCE MITCHELL: And so they thought, “You know, maybe we can print up probably 5,000 buttons or something.” Well, at the end of the entire run, they had reached a total of 60,000 buttons.

DAVID WEINBERG: This was an insane number. We don’t actually know how many postcards would’ve come in because NBC’s mailroom got so overwhelmed they refused to accept anymore, by which point the number of postcards received was equal to one third the total number of TV sets in America. That was more households than were technically able to get Howdy Doody.

CHANCE MITCHELL: Which proved that kids and their families would go over to their neighbor’s house that did have a television set and sit down and watch The Howdy Doody Show. And so this got them sold out completely.

DAVID WEINBERG: Within months, some of the biggest brands in the country wanted to sponsor the show. Colgate, Ovaltine, Kellogg’s… the department store Macy’s wanted to sell Howdy dolls. And NBC was more than happy to arrange a licensing deal. Money was pouring in.

ROMAN MARS: But there was one person who was not getting a cent: Frank Paris, the man who had designed the Howdy Doody puppet. NBC had only paid him $500 to make it, but Buffalo Bob and NBC owned all the rights to the character.

CHANCE MITCHELL: Well, Frank got very angry at this and one day barged into the office and said, “Well, if you think it’s your puppet, see how you do a show tonight.” He took the puppet and went home around two o’clock in the afternoon when the show had to be on at 5:00.

ROMAN MARS: Howdy Doody was supposed to go live in a matter of hours, and the star of the show was missing again–puppetnapped by its disgruntled creator.

DAVID WEINBERG: And because the show’s producers were still learning how to run a television show, they had only made the one puppet. There were no backups. They would need time to make a new one, leaving Buffalo Bob and the writers to come up with one of the most preposterous storylines in the history of television.

ROMAN MARS: Because when Frank Paris stormed out with Howdy Doody–aka Ugly Doody–they realized that it might just provide the perfect excuse to give Howdy the visual upgrade they had always wanted.

DAVID WEINBERG: After the opening theme song, Buffalo Bob explained to the kids in the Peanut Gallery that Howdy would not be joining them today because he was out campaigning to be president. And while he was on the campaign trail, Howdy had met his opponent–a mysterious man who went by the name Mr. X.

BURT DUBROW: And Eddie Kean came up with the idea–which sounds so ridiculous now–that he ran into his running mate, Mr. X, and Mr. X was very handsome and getting all the votes from all the girls.

ROMAN MARS: Buffalo Bob told the kids that after Howdy met his insanely handsome opponent, he had come to the sad realization that he was too ugly to be president.

DAVID WEINBERG: But fear not because there was a solution. Howdy was going to visit a plastic surgeon.

ROMAN MARS: For a few weeks after that, from the neck down, Howdy looked just like his old self. But from the neck up, he had bandages covering his head. That way none of the kids realize that it was just some random puppet standing in for the star.

BURT DUBROW: In the meantime, they fire Frank. They get rid of the ugly puppet. And now they got to find someone to make a new one–a good looking one.

DAVID WEINBERG: NBC hired a woman named Velma Dawson to create a new Howdy Doody puppet–one that would not allegedly frighten small children. And on June 8th, 1948, the new Howdy was ready.

BURT DUBROW: And so then when the new one came in, they took that puppet, put bandages around him, and then unveiled him.

DAVID WEINBERG: Slowly, Buffalo Bob unwrapped Howdy’s bandaged head. And a freckled, bulbous-cheeked child gazed out at the world with its unblinking blue eyes and a perpetually smiling face. The surgery was a success. The future president of the kids of the United States had arrived, and the kids went wild.

ROMAN MARS: For the next decade, Howdy Doody had an unprecedented run of success. It was the first kids show to be broadcast nationally and the first to regularly broadcast in color. And as the show became more popular, so too did television itself. When Howdy Doody first went on the air in December of 1947, there were fewer than 200,000 television sets in America. By 1960, it was the longest running show on TV and America had nearly 50 million televisions. Almost 90% of the country owned a TV.

DAVID WEINBERG: This freckled, 10-year-old boy embedded himself into the minds of an entire generation of children in the 1950s. And the thing that Howdy fans dreamed of more than anything was to be one of those lucky, few kids who got to experience the show in person as a member of the Peanut Gallery–to feel that fine mist of seltzer on their face as it rained down from Clarabell’s bottle.

BURT DUBROW: I do remember, like it was yesterday, walking into that studio.

DAVID WEINBERG: Superfan Burt Dubrow says that back when he was a kid, after he finally won Bob over, Bob gave him a handful of tickets to a taping of the show. And even though he had seen Bob behind the counter of the liquor store dozens of times by then, when he stepped into the studio, he was transported. Up to that point, Burt had only ever experienced Howdy Doody on his black and white television.

BURT DUBROW: And the only thing I can compare it to is in the Wizard of Oz–you know–it starts out in black and white. And then when they open the door and she’s in Oz, you see the color–that’s what this was like for me. And there’s everything. I mean, there’s the puppets and… I mean everything that I knew better than anybody knew it. And then all of a sudden, Bob–or I should say Buffalo Bob now–came through the cameras and yelled out, “Where’s Burt?” And my friends are all in the Peanut Gallery and they can’t believe it. And he said, “Introduce me to your friends.” And it was ridiculous.

ROMAN MARS: When we come back, the story of how the medium that Howdy Doody helped create would pass Bob and Howdy by and never look back after this… When we left, the Howdy Doody show appeared to be at the height of its popularity, its prestige, and its profitability. At the time, it would’ve been hard for kids and adults alike to imagine the show ever ending.

DAVID WEINBERG: But incredible as it was for fans like the young Burt Dubrow to sit in the Peanut Gallery, the truth was that for a long time, just behind the scenes, the Howdy Doody show had been having problems–one of which was money.

ROMAN MARS: In 1950 Buffalo Bob agreed to sell Howdy Doody to a new company created by NBC and the Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers.

DAVID WEINBERG: The name of this new company was KAGRAN, which in my humble opinion sounds like the name a TV writer would come up with for a soulless corporation that buys a beloved children’s television show with the singular focus on squeezing as much money from the pockets of children’s parents as possible.

ROMAN MARS: Which coincidentally is exactly what happened. When KAGRAN took over, sponsors became increasingly involved both onscreen and off. More and more companies started to see the potential of marketing their products to kids or through kids. As Buffalo Bob told children to get their parents to buy this or that product, Howdy became a marketing bonanza.

BUFFALO BOB: Kids look here. Clarabell has his whole lunchbox just filled with Hostess Twinkies. So kids, you ask mom to buy some Hostess Twinkies the next time she goes to the store.

DAVID WEINBERG: Howdy’s face began staring at people from bread packaging and juice bottles. And eventually there was a backlash to the show.

STEVEN SPARK: It provided an early window into how television would be criticized by intellectuals. And they could make the argument that how can you show this crud to children? It’s going to have this terrible effect on them–leaving out for a second that Milton Berle was the same show, so adults were consuming the crud just as much as the children were.

DAVID WEINBERG: At the same time, TV was evolving as a medium. New children’s shows were popping up. Howdy had competition, including perhaps the biggest development in children’s television–the cartoon.

MIGHTY MOUSE: Here I come to save the day!

DAVID WEINBERG: The other networks realized that airing cartoons was cheaper than filming a bunch of actors on a sound stage every week, and kids loved them.

STEVEN SPARK: And of course, puppets–compared to a cartoon character–they can’t possibly compete because they fit the style of the medium.

ROMAN MARS: And the competing live action shows didn’t go away. They just got more visually sophisticated, including the show that perhaps would prove to be the perfect marriage of live action and cartoon IP.

THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB: Who’s the leader of the pack that’s made for you and me? M.I.C.K.E.Y. M.O.U.S.E. Mickey Mouse! Donald Duck!

ROMAN MARS: The Mickey Mouse Club featured a cast of singing and dancing kids alongside cereals often involving Disney characters.

DAVID WEINBERG: Meanwhile, Howdy Doody–the show that never met a problem that it couldn’t innovate its way out of–had stopped innovating. It was just the same old vaudeville puppet show. As programs like The Mickey Mouse Club evolved around it, Howdy looked increasingly old fashioned and threadbear.

STEVEN SPARK: So by 1960, when it left the air, basically the air had left them because the other shows were better.

DAVID WEINBERG: In 1956, the executives at NBC cut the show back from five days a week to just one–on Saturday afternoon. And suddenly everyone on the show was only making a fraction of the money they had before. Burt says that’s one of the reasons Bob purchased the liquor store. It was his way of giving some of the show’s staff a job.

BURT DUBROW: He wanted something for the guys that worked for him to do after the show was off the air. He knew the show was going to go away.

ROMAN MARS: The last episode of Howdy Doody aired in 1960. Bob Smith had not planned on being just a children’s entertainer, but he didn’t have a second act after he hung up his Buffalo Bob outfit.

DAVID WEINBERG: And it was during this twilight period that our intrepid super fan, Burt Dubrow, actually becomes part of the story. When he grew up, he went to college in Boston. But he never stopped being fascinated with the entertainment industry.

DAVID WEINBERG (FIELD TAPE): What was the dream at that point?

BURT DUBROW: Just to be in television–to be a producer–to be in television. I’m not even sure a producer–just to be in it. But it was because it was live and it was real. So once it became cartoons, I didn’t have an interest in it anymore. But I always did with talk–always.

DAVID WEINBERG: Then in 1970, he heard that Buffalo Bob was coming to town to perform. He had been doing a Howdy Doody revival tour.

BURT DUBROW: So I go to the auditorium, and I sit down–big place–probably 1,500 people. And it’s like, “There’s Buffalo Bob.”

ROMAN MARS: And in spite of the fact that Bob was effectively putting on a show designed for toddlers in front of a bunch of grown men… Or who knows? Perhaps because he was putting on a show for toddlers in front of a bunch of grown men, the audience loved it.

BURT DUBROW: And he was F-ing amazing. All the songs–he sang all the songs. He did everything. Everybody knew the words to every song. Like an idiot, I’m singing the songs too.

DAVID WEINBERG: And when the show was over, Burt went to see Bob and his brother, Vic, backstage. He knew that Bob had had a heart attack several years earlier, and he figured that Bob’s health was as good a reason as any to get his foot into the door of show business.

BURT DUBROW: So I said to Vic, “Listen, he needs me on the road. He’ll drop dead. He’s going to get another heart attack.” Anyway, Bob called me and said, “Let’s do it. You’ll travel with me and all that.” And it was rough. He was rough. He was not easy.

DAVID WEINBERG (FIELD TAPE): What do you mean?

BURT DUBROW: He was very demanding and I’d say moody. I didn’t get my own room on the road, so I had to sleep in the same room as him. So I think I got $25 or $50 a show. That was it. But I couldn’t have been happier.

DAVID WEINBERG: Burt’s decision to drop out of college and pursue a career in television paid off. He went on to create The Sally Jessy Raphael Show. And then after it became a hit, he came across a local news anchor in Cincinnati, and he thought, “This guy should have his own talk show.”

ROMAN MARS: That anchor’s name was Jerry Springer.


BURT DUBROW: It started out as a straight show and ended up with throwing chairs, but…

DAVID WEINBERG: I interviewed Burt at his home in Denver, Colorado. He told me we would be doing the interview in his basement, and I was not prepared for what was down there.

BURT DUBROW: Get ready. Go ahead. I’ll meet you down there.

DAVID WEINBERG (FIELD TAPE): Okay. All right. Sounds good.

DAVID WEINBERG: When we descended the stairs, I was greeted by the smiling faces of so many puppets. It was like a museum.

BURT DUBROW: Put the lights on.

DAVID WEINBERG (FIELD TAPE): Wow. This is amazing.

BURT DUBROW: Yeah, feel free to look around.

DAVID WEINBERG (FIELD TAPE): Yeah, I’d love you to give me a little tour.

BURT DUBROW: Sure, sure, sure. There’s Buffalo Bob’s suit.


BURT DUBROW: And there’s Clarabell’s. That’s the real stuff. This is the last seltzer bottle he used. The last one.

DAVID WEINBERG: All around me, everywhere I looked, was something from the original Howdy Doody show–all the costumes and props and photographs and puppets. I felt kind of like how Burt must have felt when he first went to that taping and finally got to see everything in color.

BURT DUBROW: That’s the original Princess Summerfall Winterspring puppet, one of the hats that they used to give away at the Peanut Gallery… There I am in the Peanut Gallery that day. That’s me.


BURT DUBROW: Right there. Yeah.

DAVID WEINBERG: When I asked Burt how he got all this stuff, he says that when the revival tour was winding down, he asked Bob if he could keep a few things. And Bob couldn’t understand why he would want any of it. This was before collectibles really took off. So when the show wrapped, he gave Burt everything that happened to be left.

BURT DUBROW: And so here I am sitting with Clarabell’s box and the horns and… Hold on here. Hold on. Everybody that knows Howdy will recognize that sound.

DAVID WEINBERG (FIELD TAPE): And that’s the actual horn.

BURT DUBROW: It’s one of them. There’s Bob and Springer and me.

DAVID WEINBERG: Burt led me around his basement–glass of ice water in his hand–pointing out various pieces of memorabilia from his long career in show business. And there in a corner, standing upright, was the star of the show, Howdy Doody himself–one of the very few puppets made from the original mold that was used on the show when Howdy first came out of plastic surgery.

BURT DUBROW: There’s the boy in the corner over there. Last case.


BURT DUBROW: Yeah, I know. This is sort of my freaking life. It’s crazy.

ROMAN MARS: 99% Invisible was reported this week by David Weinberg, produced by Jeyca Maldonado, and edited by Joe Rosenberg. Mix and sound design by Dara Hirsch. Music by Swan Real. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Special thanks to Roberta Shorrock and Fresh Air for use of the Stephen Davis interview.Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmett Fitzgerald, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Gabriella Gladney, Kelly Prime, Neena Pathak, Sarah Baik, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence.We also strongly recommend you go check out David Weinberg’s experimental podcast, Random Tape. It’s a sort of cabinet of auditory wonders and curiosities that David started in the form of – and I am not joking here – a physical audio zine on compact disc in 2006, and it’s been a favorite of radio and podcast nerds ever since. Check it out. It’s worth your time. 99% Invisible is part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find us on all the usual social media sites as well as our own Discord server, which I highly recommend you check out. That’s where I’m spending most of my time these days. You can find a link to it and every past episode of 99PI at



This episode was reported by David Weinberg, edited by Joe Rosenberg, and produced by Jeyca Maldonado-Medina. Sound design by Dara Hirsch.

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