WAY, way back in the early days of television, every day was "Howdy Doody Time" for millions of American kids. Maybe it was because for a long time they were the only game in town, but "Buffalo Bob" Smith, the freckle-faced, all-American marionette Howdy Doody, silent Clarabelle Clown, the Flubadub and the Peanut Gallery were objects of unquestioned devotion.
Smith got his start and his moniker in Buffalo, where he sang, spun records and read baseball scores on radio station WBEN. At 65, Smith still has the resonant, memorable voice of a radio announcer.
Kate Smith heard him singing in Buffalo with the Hi-Hatters Trio and took his group to New York with her, where it was sponsored by Hudson Terraplane automobiles. Buffalo Bob hit the vaudeville circuit for a while with an act called "Mickey and Her Boyfriends," then signed up with WNBC radio.
Howdy Doody was born in March 1947 on the Triple B (Big Brother Bob) Ranch, a children's quiz program hosted by Smith, which aired on Saturdays on WNBC. "I had this little Mortimer Snerd-ish country bumpkin character. He was originally called Elmer. He'd come out and say 'uh-huh-huh, Howdy Doody, kids!' So the kids naturally started calling him that."
Although Smith has the original Howdy with him at home, technical complications prevent him from working with the puppet in his personal appearances with Clarabelle Clown. "I always used the same Howdy on the air," Smith says. "We made a couple extra in case of accidents, but they couldn't make them exactly alike." One of Howdy's stand-ins, dubbed 'Double Doody' by Smith, is now in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, next to Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd and Froggy the Gremlin.
The first Clarabelle was none other than Bob Keeshan, now famous as Captain Kangaroo.
"Bobby (Keeshan) was my cue card boy at NBC," Smith recalls. "He had absolutely no talent--he couldn't bang a drum and yell. One day he walked in front of the camera wearing a T-shirt. The boss got mad and said, 'Geez, if he's gonna be on camera, he can't just wear a T-shirt.' The only thing we had in the closet was an old clown costume. So he went on as a clown without makeup for a while. Then the Ringling Brothers circus came to town, and every day they'd send a guest over for the show. Felix Adler and Emmett Kelly, two of the greatest clowns in the world, came over and said, 'Why isn't he a clown all over?' So they created Clarabelle's face."
Smith's current Clarabelle, the third in the line, is Lew Anderson, who was a member of the Honeydreamers vocal group.
Smith retired in 1960 after 2,543 "Howdy Doody" shows. He bought three radio stations in Maine, and now lives in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea with his wife, Mildred, whom he met in first grade. The Smiths have three sons, Robin, 41, a urologist; Ronny, 39, a bond trader on Wall Street, and Chris, 28, a psychologist. "There were marvelous guinea pigs," says Smith. "I worked all my routines on them at home. If they worked, I'd use them on the show."
In 1970, Smith was invited to appear at the University of Pennsylvania. So he grabbed a kinescope of an early show, called Clarabelle and hit the stage again. "That started a whole new career for me. Within the next five years, we did over 600 campuses," Smith says. "I think it was popular with the college students because it was something they could really relate to, they wanted to relive their happy, carefree childhood days, before Vietnam and all the problems. Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob were next to God and their parents."
Although he admires the Muppets and their electronic brethren, Smith says he thinks his form of comedy still connects with kids. "Sure, kids are more intelligent nowadays, vocabulary-wise. They use words at six years that I didn't know till I was 16. That's probably because of television.
"But kids are kids are kids," says Smith, who will do two shows Saturday with Clarabelle and Del Shannon and his band at a '50s sock hop at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School to benefit the Heart Association (tickets available through the Hecht Co.). "Clarabelle and I will do the same slapstick things we did 20 years ago, and they laugh at the same parts and just as loudly."