Howdy, Buffalo Bob!
Copyright The HUMOR Project, Inc 1988 -- All rights reserved
Let's go-- it's time to meet Buffalo Bob Smith! This living legend of show business created Howdy Doody. Together, they captured the hearts and minds of America's youth from 1947 to 1960 in entertainment and education that has never been forgotten. With cohorts like Clarabell, Chief Thunderthud, Phineas T. Bluster, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, Dilly Dally, Inspector John J. Fadoozle, Flubadub, and others, Howdy Doody was one of the most popular shows in television history.
In more recent years, Bob has been appearing on hundreds of college campuses, at fairs, and in auditoriums-- to packed houses and rave reviews. I was very fortunate to be in the audience when Buffalo Bob presented his inaugural Howdy Doody revival show almost twenty years ago when I was a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. Quite frankly, of all the shows or performances I've ever attended, I can't recall a more pandemonious, uproarious, laughter-filled evening.
Buffalo Bob Smith is now 70 years young. His boundless energy, childlike spirit, and warmth are just as contagious as ever. I am delighted that he will be making a featured appearance to celebrate Howdy's 40th anniversary at the Third Annual National Conference on THE POSITIVE POWER OF HUMOR AND CREATIVITY on April 22-24 (see last issue of LAUGHING MATTERS for more details). And I am delighted that during one of my recent speaking tours in Florida, I had a chance to interview Bob for LAUGHING MATTERS. Here's your big chance to relive those thrilling days of yesterdecade...a chance to skip down memory lane, to rejoin the Peanut Gallery, and to recapture a childlike perspective on reality: laughs from the past to carry with you into the future.
JG: Let's start with your genius/genesis. I know that your roots in entertainment started early. Who were some of your models for humor and creativity?
BBS: My family all grouped around the radio every night at 7:00. In the summer in Buffalo, walking up and down the street in the warm weather, you could hear Amos and Andy. Everybody had their radio on full blast sitting on the porch - you wouldn't need a radio-- you could hear it from the neighbors. Sunday evening was a great fare with Jack Benny, followed by Phil Harris and Fred Allen. And Tuesday night was Fibber McGee and Molly and Bob Hope.
I've always enjoyed radio more than television, because in radio people conjure up their own pictures of what is happening. Everybody knew about Fibber McGee and Molly's closet. They knew that Fibber was going to open the door and everything in the world was coming out of it. It's just like everybody knows that I'm going to get squirted by Clarabell when I'm out there. Everybody knows, but I don't. I think to this day I think I listen to more radio than I watch television, because I'm not a sit-com guy. I just can't watch these sit-coms and hear this canned laughter and this same thing over and over and over again.
JG: Back when you were a kid, was there ever a light bulb that went on where you said, "Ah, this is what I want to do when I grow up?"
BBS: My dad was very interested in having me become a pianist because I showed a pretty good talent when I was five years old. I could walk up to a piano and play songs without having to fish around for the note. When I was eleven years old, there was a broadcast in Buffalo called "The Boys Club of the Year." My dad insisted that I audition for the show. I wound up doing the show every night. No money, of course - it was a great honor just to be on it. I won't say that I had aspirations of doing radio or television back then-- it was just a lot of fun. I graduated high school in '33 at the age of fifteen. That was the year of repeal - the year that beer came back. One of the biggest breweries in Buffalo started a show called "Simon's Supper Club of the Year". They were on Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights and they auditioned talent-- 950 contestants in the city of Buffalo. They selected a trio I had formed to sing with the band at WBEN in Buffalo. This was the first thing that I did professionally. We were making $25 a show as a trio- we couldn't believe it, since 1933 was the bottom, bottom, bottom of the Depression. So three shows, that meant each of us was making $25 dollars a week. That was a lot of money back then.
My dad had died in August - August 23, 1933 - the day that we auditioned for that show. I came home at about 5:00, maybe 6:00 in the evening, came up the stairs with the good news that we were selected, and my mom said, "Robert, get the doctor right away. Your dad's sick." Dr. Ellis lived two blocks away, and I ran over and got him and came back. By the time he got there my dad was dead; he had a heart attack...he was 50 years old. The sad part was that my dad never knew about my success.
About a year or two later, Kate Smith came to town. She performed for a week and also held a talent search. She picked our trio out of the whole city to take to New York with her. She was on the CBS network every Monday night. So Johnny, Elmer and I went to New York, and we sang with Kate Smith. Then we did a vaudeville act all over the theaters in greater New York - Coney Island, the Bronx Zoo, Staten Island- and quite successfully. I could help support my mother.
Then I got homesick. So I went back to Buffalo, and started a team called Jack and Gil. The two of us sang, did corny jokes, both played the piano together. We originated a show to Columbia Broadcasting every Sunday afternoon. Then I was made staff pianist, which was probably one of the first big breaks I got.
From there on I just did everything that I possibly could in Buffalo radio. I wrote arrangements for the band, I directed the band, I had my own little band that would go out and job on Saturday nights. I MC'd comedy shows-- including one we originated to the Mutual Broadcasting Company called The Cheer Up Gang. We did that every morning 10:30-11 for the entire Mutual network.
JG: What kinds of humor or comedy?
BBS: The Cheer Up Gang was a show where we did take-offs. Instead of the Ink Spots, we had the Pink Spots. We had a guy sing just enough out-of-tune to make it funny. He was Nick Nicholson, incidentally, who later became Clarabell and then J. Cornelius Cobb on the Howdy Doody Show.
One of the stunts we did was Stump Bob Smith. Clint would go around the audience and ask people to name a song that was popular in the last 15 years. If the rest of the audience said that it was, I was supposed to play it. If I could play it I did; if I didn't they'd get a $5 war stamp. We had a lot of fun doing that. People would come up with songs like "Oh how I love to go pitching horseshoes with you under a Washington, D.C. moon, dear" just for a laugh. We would give flowers away, too-- to the person who had the most grandchildren, to the person who traveled the farthest, to the woman with the heaviest handbag-- if she'd let us take all the articles out after we weighed it to see what made it so heavy. It was a really cute, most successful, audience participation show. In July 1946, NBC was looking for a personality to do their morning radio show. This was because at that time, people got up in the morning and they'd have coffee and orange juice and Arthur Godfrey on CBS. Godfrey was as much a part of their breakfast as orange juice.
NBC offered me a whale of a good contract to come to New York to do the early morning show. I must say that I was blessed in that Godfrey then quit his morning show. Within a very short time I was completely sold out at NBC, and I wound up doing the show for two and one-half hours every morning. Then in March 1947 I was asked if I wanted to do a Saturday morning kids' show.
We came up with a show called "Triple B Ranch." The 3 B's stood for Big Brother Bob. This was a quiz show in which four kids from one school sat on a wooden horse that had four seats on it; four kids from another school sat on a second wooden horse that had four seats. If they got the correct answer to our entertaining questions, they could stay on the horse. If they missed it they were knocked off the horse, like in a rodeo. Then the last one up would be the winner. Their buddies cheered for them out in the audience, and we came up with quite a show that had a darn good following.
We also developed a country bumpkin, Mortimer Snerd-ish type character whom we called Elmer. We'd start the show and I'd say, "Oh, here's Elmer; hi, Elmer." And he'd say, "Oh, well, Howdy Doody, ho, ho, ho". Then we'd do some really corny jokes. We'd always button it up and say, "Well, so long, Elmer." And he'd say, "Well, Howdy Doody, ho,ho,ho." So he was my little ranch hand and anything I'd ask him to do he'd do.
Well now, this was radio so we didn't have a dummy or a puppet or anything; I'd just talk to myself. The kids would come in and see the show and invariably they'd come up to me after the show and say, "Gee, we're disappointed. Where is Howdy Doody? We wanted to see Howdy Doody." This gave us two ideas: let's not call him Elmer anymore; we'll call him Howdy Doody. Second, if the kids want to see him, let's think about television as a medium.
We went to the NBC television people and told them about this and they said, "We were thinking of doing a kids' show anyway." So the following Saturday morning the TV people watched the radio show. They said it was marvelous, it fit right in with their plans. They already had hired a puppeteer and they had a lot of old-time silent films. They suggested that I could do the narration on those and that they would get an organist to play background music. They wanted me to host the whole thing, and to talk for a new puppet they would make: Howdy Doody. So I said, "Fine. When do you want to start?" He said, "Saturday". Now that was Tuesday, December 23, 1947, because that following Saturday was December 27, the day of a tremendous snowfall in New York.
JG: I heard that there was a 25-inch blizzard.
BBS: That's right. The boss said to me on Friday, "Don't go home tonight, Bob. Stay overnight-- you might not make it in the morning." He was just thinking about the morning radio show; he didn't know that I was going to do a television show in the afternoon.
So, on Tuesday we decided we were going to do the show on Saturday, at which time it was called Puppet Playhouse. They wanted Howdy on the first show. But we didn't have a Howdy; he was being built by the puppeteer. So what we did was pretend that Howdy was in my desk drawer. We had a camera take a picture of my desk drawer. I'd sit there, and say, "You in there, Howdy?" and I'd put my hand over my mouth so that it sounded like he was coming out of the drawer. And he'd say, "Oh, yea, huh, only I'm too bashful to come out." Well he was too bashful to come out for three weeks until the puppet was finished. We started the third week with Howdy in the drawer. And then we opened the drawer and Howdy came out for all the kids. That was the beginning of 2,543 shows.
JG: Walking down memory lane, are there any particularly humorous, embarrassing planned or unplanned events you recall?
BBS: Being live everyday, naturally we had some things that happened. We did a Tootsie Roll commercial one day right in front of the Peanut Gallery. All during the commercial this little kid kept saying, "Buffalo Bob, Buffalo Bob, Buffalo Bob!" It was worrying me because we only had about a minute or so for the commercial.
I walked over to the Peanut Gallery and the boom microphone followed me so that I could get the commercial in within the alloted time. This kid kept hollering "Buffalo Bob!" all through the commercial. So anyway the commercial is over and I went to the Gallery and I said, "Yes, sonny, what would you like?" He said, "I can't eat Tootsie Rolls 'cause I'm allergic to chocolate!" I went on with the show, and I thought, "Well there goes that sponsor." After the show I walked into the control room with my tail between my legs, and the man from the agency said, "Look, don't worry about that, Bob. We'll get more publicity on that than anything you could have said."
JG: Is there another time you had to Tootsie Roll with the punches?
BBS: There was the pumpkin story. This was a Halloween night early in the '50's. We had the whole set decorated with big, lighted pumpkins, black cats, and witches. The kids were in their costumes. At the end of the show, we usually had an old time silent film which I would narrate. This particular movie was about a fella who was asleep all the time, and I happened to nickname him Rip Van Winkle.
So, Halloween night I'm in the Peanut Gallery when we turned down the lights to cool the studio. The cameraman and the lighting man were standing around watching the film on the monitor. While I'm telling the kids about old Rip, a little kid sneaked out of the Gallery and tugged on my pant leg. I said, "What do you want, sonny?" He said, "Buffalo Bob, I've got to tinkle." Well obviously I can't go tinkle with the kid; I've got to tell about the movie. So I pointed over to one of the cameramen thinking that the little kid would go over and get himself a tinkle box. But in the same direction that I was pointing there was this tremendous lighted pumpkin in front of our puppet stage. I guess the little kid thought I was pointing toward the pumpkin, 'cause he proceeded to go over and put out the candle. Well I didn't see this; the cameramen did see it and went crazy. It was hysterical. They all saw it in the Gallery. One little kid got up and said, "Buffalo Bob, sissy in the pumpkin!" So, I got up and saw this little kid standing there, and we were all hysterical. Everybody on the show was dying laughing. Well, when I laugh, I'm gone, and I just crawled off the set on my hands and knees. I didn't come back til the next night. Dayton Allen, one of our great puppeteers, came up on the puppet bridge. He knew that I was in trouble so he got down in a hurry and had enough composure to do the closing narration, the closing commercial and wind up the show.
JG: Meanwhile, the people at home are watching a movie where the guy is asleep all the time, nothing to laugh at at all, the movie's over, everybody is hysterical, Buffalo Bob is gone - well, what happened?
BBS: We got letters and phone calls. The NBC switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree with "What was so funny on Howdy Doody?" In response, we wrote the following poem:
So many of you asked what happened on the night of Halloween, when everyone was hysterical and Buffalo Bob had to leave the scene. It was during an old time movie about a man named Rip Van Winkle, when a four year-old boy from the Gallery told Bob that he had to tinkle. Well, Buffalo Bob couldn't take him, so he pointed to someone who could, but the little kid didn't follow directions, he just walked to a pumpkin and stood. Now the rest of the story is obvious, we didn't even need a mop. 'Cause our little friend had great aim, and he never spilled a drop."
JG: Is there any other time where you could have dropped?
BBS: Besides our Howdy Doody television show we also had a Howdy Doody radio show. We were on every Saturday morning from 9-10:00. We would record it in different sessions-- we'd meet during the daytime and we'd just do all the music. Then for our comedy, after the Howdy Doody television show was over, we'd invite the people into the radio studio at 6:05.
JG: You'd invite the Peanut Gallery in?
BBS: The Peanut Gallery and their parents. The parents from up in the viewing room on the 9th floor would come in and sit in the audience, and the kids would be on stage. Some days we'd do comedy routines just to get the audience laughter, and then we usually had a provocative interview question where I could tape 40 kids and we'd take 6 or 7 of the best and edit them. We'd have questions like, "If you could be any kind of an animal in the world what kind of animal would you like to be and why?" Well, you could get some answers.
This particular day, we wanted to find out how their parents punished them or chastized them when they had done something wrong. First I asked if they had done anything wrong and then we'd get into the punishment. I must have interviewed five or six kids and nobody said they did anything worse than take a pencil away from a brother, or take a cookie, or pull sister's hair. It was obvious to me that they were afraid to say that they had done something really bad, because they might get a spanking when they got home for something they had done two weeks ago. So I said, "Cut tape (to the control room), hold the tape." I said, "Now look, kids, make up something, think of the worst thing you could do. You parents, you don't mind? Na, let them go. Say you did anything, just make up something, now let's have some fun, ok? Roll tape, go."
A little kid about this big; "What's your name, little fella?" He said, "Kenneth". I said, "Kenneth, did you ever do anything wrong?" He said, "I farted". I said, "I see. I looked in the control room and everybody is on the floor. I looked out in the audience, all the parents got their hands in their lap, and I wanted to get rid of that kid 'cause I didn't want to look at him, 'cause I knew I'd have to laugh.
JG: You were going to lose it too! Farting is such sweet sorrow!
BBS: So I got rid of him and I came to the next guy and I said "What's your name?" He said, "Teddy", and I said, "Teddeeee." I looked, they were still on the floor. Well, if you think I laughed during the pumpkin scene... I was just bent over; I was on the floor.
JG: Do you have any idea what these little boys are doing now-- the little pumpkin boy and our little friend, Kenneth, with the gas problem?"
BBS: Very fortunately, my secretary kept a Peanut file on some of the interesting kids that appeared on the show. You might be interested in the little pumpkin boy. His name is Charlie and he now lives in East Orange, New Jersey. He's 43 years old and he's a member of the volunteer fire department there in East Orange. And little Kenneth now lives in Chicago, the windy city, where he works for the gas company!
JG: Aside from flatulence and putting out fires, as you look back over the years of working with kids in the Peanut Gallery, what have they taught you about humor?
BBS: Kids are kids are kids. Kids laugh at the same thing today as they laughed 40 years ago. I know this because Clarabell and I do the same routines today that we did 40 years ago - tried, proven routines. Broad, big, slapstick, I mean, I'm the only one who doesn't know I'm going to get squirted. They know. Clarabell sneaking behind, puts a wig on my head - I don't know it. I finally catch him and he squirts me. He plays a shell game where he mixes around lolly pops and some seltzer bottles, and if you guess the lolly you get the lolly, if you guess the seltzer you get the seltzer. Of course, we know it's all in the middle, right? While I'm talking to the kids he switches them around. And I say, "It's right here kids in the middle," and POW, I get it.
JG: In looking ahead, do you have any plans for Howdy? Is Howdy going to run for President in 1988?
BBS: He might. He's got a good platform, I'll tell you that. He wants the kids to get three scoops of ice cream for a nickel, two Christmases every year, make sure that any of his supreme appointments will not have smoked dope.
JG: You and Howdy certainly have been courting laughter for 40 years now. In fact, you and Howdy built a platform on which an entire generation grew up. Thanks for the memories...and we'll look forward to celebrating Howdy's 80th a few years down the road! In the meantime, some of our readers may, in fact, find Howdy to be the best candidate in '88.
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