Sparking the memory, the puppet master from Pascoag related a story about Howdy Doody, America’s first puppet star. The unlikely TV celebrity got his start in 1947 on a show produced at NBC at Rockefeller Center. The people who first worked on the show didn’t really know puppeteering and didn’t expect the series to be such a hit. When it became a success, Howdy went Hollywood, where producers hired professional manipulators, aiming for a slicker, more polished puppet. According to Butterworth:
They quickly found out that the people didn’t want that. That wasn’t Howdy Doody. So in the parlance of puppetry, “Howdy Doodying” means to just bang the puppet around.
Flashback to Westerly, circa 1999. I was walking by The Washington Trust building downtown, near the Pawcatuck River, when a man nearby pointed to the bank and said:
“Howdy Doody’s trapped in there.”
I looked at him blankly.
“You know the puppet? Howdy Doody?”
I told him I had heard of him.
“They’ve got him in a bank vault in there. He’s being held for safe keeping until they can settle a lawsuit.”
“The original Howdy Doody. He’s been stuck in a bank vault in Westerly for over a year now.”
As it turns out, the stranger was telling the truth. Howdy Doody spent more than a year of incarceration in a Westerly bank vault, the victim of a custody dispute. After the death of Buffalo Bob Smith, who hosted the show, providing Howdy’s original voice, a legal battle erupted between the heirs of Smith and Rufus Rose, one of the original puppeteers, and a museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, to which Howdy Doody had been bequeathed. The puppet’s saga made headlines around the world. One of the better ones was “Original Howdy in Deep Doody.”
During one day of the deposition, a puppetmaker named Alan Semok, who had worked on the first Howdy marionette, was asked to unseal a trap door on the back of the puppet’s head. According to Wikipedia:
Velma Dawson, the puppet’s original builder, who was 88 years of age at the time of the deposition, was present and given the opportunity to examine the inside of the head in an effort to verify that the puppet in question was the original that she created. Despite 50 years of numerous repairs, repaints, and replaced body parts, Dawson eventually declared the head of the puppet to be the one she originally made in 1947. The Detroit Institute [of] Arts, which has one of the largest collections of historically significant puppets in North America, ultimately prevailed in the case and now has custody of the original Howdy.
Back when I was in college, a satirical, LA-based TV show called “Fridays” used to spoof Howdy Doody. It featured a voiceover by Larry David (of “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fame). Howdy Doody, never actually seen on camera, was presented from the camera’s point of view as the stereotypical Hollywood celebrity, always being fawned over wherever he goes. In the inaugural sketch, David plays a plastic surgeon who agrees to give a patient (Bruce Mahler) the face of celebrity – turning him into Howdy Doody. Next we see scenes from Howdy’s viewpoint as he enters various locations in his distinctive, staggering, herky-jerky style, while David would be heard fawning: “Good morning, Mr. Doody. How are you, Mr. Doody. Nice to see you, Mr. Doody.” Great stuff from a sketch comedy series that is severely underrated in the annals of TV history. (The same folks did a brilliant breaking news segment on the brutal practice of “Muppet bashing” on southern California beaches. So they had the puppet demographic covered.)
This week’s question: What was the strangest Rhode Island court case?