It's Howdy Doody Time
Mike Feder remembers the iconic TV show
I’ve been a fan of Mike Feder, who was once known as the WBAI storyteller, since I first heard him when I lived in New York City in the 1970s. Mike, like Spaulding Grey, was a storyteller long before it became trendy, but the only way to hear his stories was to tune in to WBAI at 11am on Sundays every week. There was no internet and you either caught the show or you missed Mike. A tortured, neurotic Jewish New Yorker who had once been a probation officer like me, and had a long history in therapy like me, his show was appointment radio. His storytelling was riveting— bitter, ironic and marvelously funny. Check out his book, The Talking Cure and short stories, A Long Swim Upstream. Unlike me, Mike has a prodigious memory and I found this gem on his Facebook page this week. He gave me permission to reprint it. If you want to share your own Howdy Doody memories with him, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment.
By Mike Feder
When I was a very small kid (we're talking chronologically here—not emotionally, which is a whole other story), I watched (along with millions of other little kids) a children's TV show called The Howdy Doody Show—I don't remember if it aired daily or just came on each Saturday morning. The show featured a sort of EMCEE and resident grown-up named Buffalo Bob Smith, various puppets (marionettes) and some live characters.
The star of the show was a marionette named Howdy Doody. (Since it took place in a faux old time "Western" setting, the name, "Howdy Doody" was derived from “Howdy”, as in How-do-you-do, spoken in good-old fashioned genial cowboy patois). Howdy wore western garb, like his father/creator Buffalo Bob, and spoke in a sort of child-adolescent golly-gee-whiz voice. He had a lot of freckles and was obviously intended to be an all-American boy from the heartland, like Alfalfa from the Our Gang comedies or maybe Mickey Rooney... Howdy Doody was a regular Candide, an innocent who, though he encountered the confusing, sometimes unjust, occasionally threatening world of adults, always emerged unspoiled and with his good old-fashioned boyish American innocence intact.
I tried to like Howdy, but the truth was—he gave me the creeps. It wasn’t just the natural feeling of surreality and hovering psychosis that seeps into your bones when you see a marionette spastically jerking around, opening and closing that strange, hinged mouth, and talking in someone else’s voice. It was also Howdy’s exaggerated all-American look. He had too many freckles, his eyes (being marionette’s eyes) never changed expression, no matter how gee-whizzy he got, and his nose was too long. It reminded of Pinnochio’s nose when he was lying. I couldn’t absolutely trust (let alone love) Howdy, no matter how much I knew I should.
…There’s a lot to talk about when remembering this show; including my crush on a very hot little (not so little when you’re a five-year-old) marionette called Princess-Summer-Fall-Winter Spring—a very attractive Hollywoodish version of an "Indian Maiden"). I had unidentifiable, troubling mini-urges when I looked at her and had often to remind myself (in the service of preserving my own innocence) that the Princess, in her sexy buckskin-fringed outfit, was just a piece of wood hanging from some strings.
Lots of Doodyish things to talk about... But, for now, some particular images and thoughts that I remembered this morning when I woke up with my consciousness located—as usual—somewhere in my childhood... Most particularly—a picture popped into my mind—for the first time in approximately seventy years—of one of the regular marionette characters on the show: Mr. Bluster.
His full name was Phineas T. Bluster, and he was a classic, crotchety old guy (probably with a mustache or scraggly beard, or some other disgusting old person's bodily effusion) who lived to terrorize small children. Obviously, he was a universal enough character to be given a regular spot on the show.
Like--I'm sure--millions of other kids, I feared and hated Mr. Bluster… I vaguely recall that he was often jeered at by the kids in the "Peanut Gallery". The Peanut gallery was a sort of live, in-studio Greek chorus of kids selected to be there each week. They cheered when Howdy had some small triumph and laughed when some puppet or human character did or said something funny. The Peanut Gallery generally served as reactive human puppets for whatever point Buffalo Bob was making or product he was pushing.
Bob opened each show by asking in a loud, game-show host voice, "What time is it, Kids?" And the Peanut Gallery would shout, in perfect unison, "It's Howdy-Doody Time!!" I desperately wanted to be a member of the Peanut Gallery (was I not an American kid?) but was sure that I looked too Jewish to make it, and, at the same time (sour grapes?) I thought they were a bunch of trained-seal, conforming, Hitler Youth idiots.
Mr. Bluster was (according to Wikipedia) also the mayor of Doodyville. This I don't remember—maybe because I was too small to understand what a mayor was. Mr. Bluster was the symbol of every kid's worst experience with a nasty old person who lived in their neighborhood and seemed to hate kids. He was Ebeneezer Scrooge, Mr. Potter, The Wicked Witch of the West.
...But this morning, as I thought of Mr. Bluster, I felt a sharp pang of regret. It's only now, seventy long years after the fact—and having become a crotchety old man myself—that I truly understand and sympathize with Mr. Bluster. What do little kids, with their narcissistic whining, and their annoying jumping and running all over the place, know of the trials of old age; What do they know of disappointment, of loss and of GERD and rheumatoid arthritis? I just want to say, if Mr. Bluster is reading this, "I deeply regret, Mr. Bluster, that I booed and jeered when you were foiled and made to look a fool on Howdy's show.
"I want you to know that, although it's far too late to prevent the suffering you endured from the slings and arrows launched at you by fools, marionettes and children of Doodyville— I want you to know that I understand you, and that I respect you as a human being. You, Phineas, were the only one on Doody's show that didn't participate in the mass delusion of insane optimism that gripped everyone else on the show-- You stood tall against the great tide of blissful ignorance and mindless fantasy. God Bless you!
“You are not alone, Phin—soon I will be with you and we can laugh at the mistakes and foolishness of those vanished days..."
I also remember that I could never think of Howdy Doody or the show at all without having to struggle with the fact (unconscious as I tried to make it) that "Doody" (Dooty) was—back in the day—a euphemism for poop, for shit. That's how my mother and aunts and grandmother referred to "it". –So I had to deal with this linguistically associated revulsion the whole time I watched the show or every time heard someone say “Howdy-DOODY!” Sometimes in the throes of my nascent insanity, I had an obsessive thought that Howdy Doody was made of shit, that one day his freckles and strings would fall way and he would be revealed as his true, horrible, steaming self...
I break off here to recover myself—more, perhaps, on the HD show at another time…