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Howdy Doody, 1960: Clarabell The Clown Ends It With Two Words

Entertainment | September 24, 2020

Clarabell delivers his farewell. Source: YouTube

On September 24, 1960, the children's TV institution Howdy Doody came to an end, and it was Clarabell the Clown who made sure we knew it was truly over. Clarabell was an important cast member, though unlike the chatty puppet Howdy Doody and main host Buffalo Bob, Clarabell never said a word. In 13 years, that clown -- played by Bob Keeshan, Nick Nicholson and Lew Anderson -- never said a damn word. But on the show's finale, after prodding by Bob, Clarabell turned to the camera and tearfully whispered, "Goodbye kids." And suddenly, it was no longer Howdy Doody time, and never would be again. Nothing lasts forever, kids.

'Howdy Doody's Finale Was Called 'Clarabell's Big Surprise'

Buffalo Bob Smith, Howdy Doody, and Clarabell The Clown on 'Howdy Doody.' Source: Nostalgia Central

Long before the Game of Thrones finale stunned the masses, there was the final episode of the 1950s phenomenon Howdy Doody that set the standard for how television shows would conclude throughout the future. During an era when series would simply just end as if it was another episode, the 13-year-running program Howdy Doody was the first series to finish with a bang of significance with “Clarabell’s Big Surprise” when only two words were spoken by the miming clown Clarabell who had not said one word up until that point. Every TV-watching child of the 1950s should be able to tell you where they were when those last few seconds left them speechless.

Howdy Doody Began As A Radio Character

Source: Pinterest

Radio personality Buffalo Bob Smith created the character Howdy Doody for his on-air sketches, but Howdy was just a voice at the time. When Smith brought Howdy Doody to life for his first time on NBC’s Puppet Playhouse in 1947, the act was so popular with viewers that NBC decided to give him a shot with a television show. Puppeteer Frank Paris was hired to design the marionette cowboy, and Buffalo Bob became the host of the show which would air three days a week, a frequency that was eventually increased to six days. NBC’s first and longest running series was also one of the very first television shows to be aired in color when it made the switch in 1955. Howdy Doody was then used to help sell color televisions during the 1950s and led to the boom of color.

Howdy Doody: The Western Puppet Show

Host Buffalo Bob Smith with the show’s star Howdy Doody. Source: Pinterest

Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob dressed as cowboys (cowboy boots, spurs, neckerchiefs, buckskins and all) as the show took place in the western town of Doodyville. The plot revolves around the adventures of Howdy and his circus while the serious Mayor Phineas T. Bluster tries to ruin all of their fun. Slapstick comedy, singing, and safety advice are all involved. Howdy ended up on a grand journey when a dispute occurred behind the-scenes between Paris and Smith. Smith was given the complete rights to the puppet Howdy Doody, which upset Paris who felt he was being ripped off since he actually created the puppet, and merchandise of Howdy Doody was selling rapidly. In a fit of anger, Paris stormed off with the freckle-faced puppet one day just hours before an episode was about to air live. That’s when Howdy became a presidential candidate and left the show shortly to work on the election and to undergo some plastic surgery. His “plastic surgery” took place when Disney animator Mel Shaw was hired to design and build a new-and-improved Howdy Doody, who was much more polished.

Clarabell Never Spoke Because The Show Was Cheap

Source: Nostalgia Central

Joining Howdy and Buffalo Bob in Doodyville were fellow puppets Mayor Phineas T. Bluster, the Flub-a-dub, and Dilly Dally. There were also more human characters including Princess Summerfall Winterspring of the Tinka Tonka tribe, Chief Thunderthud of the Ooragnak tribe, The Story Princess, Tim Tremble, and the most notable Clarabell The Clown. Clarabell could only communicate through miming, honking the horn on his belt (he wore “Yes” and “No” horns), and squirting his seltzer bottle. Bob Keeshan originated Clarabell, but he left in 1952 over a salary dispute (and would go on to children's TV fame as Captain Kangaroo). Clarabell was mute for a simple reason: non-speaking actors could be paid at a lower rate, per Screen Actors' Guild rules, and the show was low-budget. Robert "Nick" Nicholson took over, but in 1955 he switched to the role of J. Cornelius Corny Cobb and Lew Anderson filled in until the show’s end.

The Peanut Gallery Opened The Door For Audience Participation In Television

Source: Pinterest

Howdy Doody was one of the first television shows to utilize audience participation, an idea that would also influence future generations of television that would feature the same component. The show featured onstage bleachers in the background seating about forty children which would be known as “The Peanut Gallery.” Each episode began with Buffalo Bob asking “Say Kids, what time is it?” and the kids responding “It’s Howdy Doody Time!” before they would sing the classic theme song. The children also sang some of the commercial-break jingles for companies such as Colgate Toothpaste, Wonder Bread, Hal Shampoo, and Three Musketeers. 

The Peanut Gallery not only set the precedent for audience participation in television shows that would follow, it also inspired  United Feature s Syndicate to change the name of its popular Li'l Folks comic strip to Peanuts, which cartoonist Charles M. Schultz never liked.

The First Finale That Shocked The World

Source: Pinterest

The finale episode of Howdy Doody was an hour long special called "Clarabell’s Big Surprise" that aired on September 24th, 1960. This was an emotional hour for both kids and some adults who had kept up with the show for a long thirteen years. As the episode took a nostalgic look back at some of the series’ best highlights, the characters tried to figure out what Clarabell’s huge surprise would be. Mayor Phineas T. Bluster succeeded, but promised to never tell. Eventually, Clarabell explained to the main characters Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob through pantomime what the secret is; Clarabell can talk! The two couldn’t believe this information so they asked Clarabell to prove it. That’s when the show arrived at its dramatic ending. Drumroll, please. The camera zoomed in on the clown’s face, and Clarabell said out loud, directly to the camera “Goodbye kids.” 

Howdy Doody's Audience Had Learned To Watch All The Way To The End

Source: Pinterest

Those last words shocked viewers everywhere as they believed for thirteen years the beloved clown would never let out a peep. Howdy Doody created a whole new method of running a series with an ongoing plot that viewers could follow from episode to episode and characters they could feel so connected to. Most shows before this innovative series would feature episodes completely independent of each other with an entirely new plot uninfluenced by the previous episode. The narrative movement of Howdy Doody with audiences following from start to finish is why those final seconds could create such an impactful feeling.  

Tags: Clarabell The Clown | Howdy Doody | Remember This?...

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Brian Gilmore

Writer

Brian Gilmore has been writing about and studying everything the Internet loves since 2006 and you've probably accidentally read something he's written before, and if you haven't, you're already reading this bio, so that's a good start. He's a culture junkie ranging from Internet culture, to world history, to listening to way more podcasts than the average human being ever should. He's obsessed with the social catalysts that have caused some of the biggest movements of the last few hundred years, including everything from their effect on the pop culture of the time, to where they end up ideologically. The idea that generations have a beginning and an end is fascinating to him, and the fact that their lasting effects at any given point of their evolution can steer the direction of the entire world lead to some interesting questions, and answers, about our current culture at any given time. He also loves retrofuturism, phobias, and the fact that every pop culture icon has at least a few photos of them that make you feel like you might know them. History isn't a collection of stories as much as it is humanity trying its hardest to maintain a grasp on lessons we've learned before as a species, and that is just way too interesting to not look into a few hours a week. Oh and he used to collect Pez dispensers.