By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008
All lives feel like they're lived in exile from something, because they are.
That's the way it is, boys and girls.
So, 60 years after I appeared on the "Howdy Doody" show, I'd like to offer a qualified thanks to Howdy, Buffalo Bob, Clarabell, Big Chief Thunderthud, Mr. Bluster, all of them, for wising me up -- and sending me into exile from Doodyville the instant I walked on the set.
I was 7, an excitable boy, but one who cast a cool eye on things, who actually courted disillusion. It seemed the only way to escape childhood and its children "with their shallow violent eyes," as the poet Philip Larkin put it. Of course, I would end up taking refuge in a world of grown-ups with their sly and shopworn eyes, but the "Howdy Doody" show gave me all the warning I needed about that, too.
"Say, kids!" Buffalo Bob would shout from Doodyville every afternoon on our black-and-white TVs. "What time is it?"
And 40 or so members of the Peanut Gallery would scream, with adenoidal glee: "It's Howdy Doody time!" This time zone was one where the sad limits of both adults' and children's worlds gave way to infinite possibility, pure animal joy. Except it didn't exist. I learned this on the day my sister Julie and I ended up in a New York studio doing our share of the screaming, thanks to an aunt who worked at NBC. (The Peanut Gallery was a tough ticket. You had to know somebody.)
It's hard to describe how big Howdy Doody was then, a symbol of NBC the way the peacock would be later. The show started at 5:30 in the afternoon, this being 1948 when the networks didn't even broadcast till late afternoon. Television was new and wildly exciting, like jet planes breaking the sound barrier, and fluoroscopes that X-rayed your feet inside your new Thom McAn shoes. We watched our toes wiggling in the fluoroscope because we could, and we watched television because it was television. We'd sit on the floor of the Hamlins' living room and watch the test pattern, watch anything -- Charlie Chaplin shorts, silent cartoons with Koko the Clown slipping out of an inkwell to make mischief in the electronic snowstorm that was the picture in those days.
Then: "Say, kids!" It was time for Howdy Doody, along with Clarabell, a clown of the Auguste variety, as it's known, a low slapstick type with a ruff and a seltzer bottle he'd squirt, often at Buffalo Bob, who wore a Western rig -- a shirt with fringe, buckskin style.
Howdy himself was a marionette who wore cowboy clothes, too -- tiny boots, a neckerchief and a checked shirt. He had freckles. If he'd been a real boy, he would have looked like a genetic oddity -- it occurs to me now -- perhaps one exhibiting the rare Williams syndrome (one in 7,500 births) with the pendulous lower lip and preternatural cheer that would appear later in Alfred E. Neuman, the "What, Me Worry?" mascot of Mad magazine.
Among the 4-year-olds in my neighborhood, there was belief that Howdy was a real boy, but at 7, I'd grown beyond that. I corrected them gently, pointing out that the little vertical lines on his jaw gave him away.
Vertical lines were fine: We lived then in a Golden Age of puppetry, along with ventriloquism. Charlie McCarthy wisecracked on the lap of Edgar Bergen, and Jerry Mahoney perched on Paul Winchell, vaudeville acts that had continued into radio and television. The vertical lines were part of the game, as was the ventriloquism, which was said to be a mysterious ability to "throw" your voice without moving your lips. I hadn't bothered to wonder who was throwing his voice into Howdy's mouth. (Nor had I wondered how it was that ventriloquism was a hit on radio, where you couldn't keep an eye on the ventriloquist's lips, to see if he moved them.)
Our trip to Doodyville started well enough. We probably rode from Fanwood, N.J., to New York on the Jersey Central, with its steam locomotives. We may have taken a Hudson River ferry, a huge, thundering thing that didn't move on or through the water as much as it shoved it aside like a bouncer clearing a crowd.
I think we toured the Empire State Building that day. On the way up to the observation deck I asked the elevator operator how he liked his job. He said: "It has its ups and downs."
People in the elevator laughed, all but me. For one thing, it took me a while to get the joke, and the fact that it was on me. Even at 7, I didn't like being anybody's straight man. I knew, too, that I could only blame my unfounded pride in being a boy who asked extremely intelligent questions. New York will catch you out on that stuff, every time.
So I was probably in no mood to cut any slack for the civic allure of Doodyville when, after a mandatory bathroom stop, we were led into a studio. It was a big, ceilingless space with an industrial clutter of cables, lights, booms and television cameras the size of doghouses, back in those vacuum tube days. The Peanut Gallery bleachers were shabby and provisional, like the rest of the set. Men stood around smoking cigarettes. All grown-ups seemed to smoke cigarettes in 1948, but -- in Doodyville?
I don't recall if Buffalo Bob or anyone else greeted us or rehearsed us. It didn't matter. We all knew the answer to the question and the words to the song:
It's Howdy Doody Time.
It's Howdy Doody Time.
Bob Smith and Howdy do
Say howdy do to you.
Let's give a rousing cheer,
'Cause Howdy Doody's here.
It's time to start the show,
So kids let's go!
I don't remember what happened on the show itself, either. Was Big Chief Thunderthud there to shout "Kowabunga!"? Was Mr. Bluster, the Doodyville mayor, brought on to be old and officious? My memories consist of what I saw off-camera, what I'd never seen while sitting on the floor of the Hamlins' living room.
First, there is little as dispiriting as a marionette hanging motionless from its strings in the posture of somebody shot trying to escape over a fence, especially if it's Howdy Doody, during commercial breaks. But what really appalled me was Howdy's voice.
It turned out that back then, Buffalo Bob (known in 1948 as Uncle Bob, I think) did Howdy's voice, but he didn't even have the professional decency to keep his lips from moving, like Edgar Bergen. He just stood off-camera and talked in a slightly strangled version of his own voice. But we have to save Doodyville, Uncle Bob! Then he'd be back on camera: Don't worry, Howdy!
After the show ended, and feeling suddenly superfluous, we of the Peanut Gallery were hustled back over the cables. We passed Clarabell, who, if he wasn't smoking a cigarette, looked like he was while he swapped wisecracks with a member of the crew. I thought about saying hello to him, he was only feet away, but I thought again. A girl in back of me went for it.
I was watching Clarabell's face the way I used to watch ventriloquists' mouths. I saw he had heard the girl's greeting and decided to ignore it. I felt bad for the girl. I also felt very glad, even proud, that I hadn't set myself up for the dust-off she got. Clarabell, it seemed, was just another grown-up in the grown-up world that seems shopworn and unhappy to little kids, a world of foreclosing possibilities and ugly appetites.
I'd keep watching "Howdy Doody," but it was never the same. I was like an expatriate reading a newspaper from home and knowing it was propaganda.
Years later Mad magazine taught me that disillusionment has another advantage besides conferring adulthood: It's life's own supply of raw material for laughs. Maybe this is why a lot of parents hated it. In the issue I'm thinking of, there was a satire of "Howdy Doody." A cartoon Buffalo Bob asks what time it is, and the Peanut Gallery responds by saying things like "Day time? Nap time? Daylight saving time?" It was everything but Howdy Doody time.
I'd long since learned that. But it was nice to see that somebody else understood, that I'd been right all along, that I had a good shot indeed at becoming a grown-up myself, someday -- maybe even one who didn't dust off little kids who said hello.