Howdy Doody

Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: I think I would have wanted to grab up this photo wherever I might have run across it. However, this image is actually of my uncle and was among the cache of photos I discovered in New Jersey last week, referred to in yesterday’s post. I knew the familial tale of my uncle entering the Howdy Doody look alike contest, but if I had seen the photo I did not remember. It evidently hung in my grandmother’s house, so I must have seen it as a child and just can’t recall.

Nor do I remember Howdy Doody since it went off the air in 1960, before I was born. There was an early 1970’s resurgence of interest in it that I vaguely recollect from being a small child, but why anyone would be interested frankly mystified me from what I could see. My own childhood was not without television puppets – Kukla Fran and Ollie made appearances and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was deeply beloved. (Full disclosure, watching the recent documentary on Mr. Rogers on an airplane recently I wept openly the entire time. There was a Danish couple next to me who were clearly concerned about the state of my well-being. Strangely however, many people have reported the same reaction.)

Puppets eventually morphed into muppets and the world got Sesame Street. Although my younger brother watched Sesame Street and therefore I know it well, I was a bit long in the tooth for it myself. However, I recently went to a performance at Dizzy’s where Wynton and Elmo had a conversation and played together. I had forgotten all the music was jazz – turns out I remembered all the music! The Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra will have an anniversary tribute concert to the show in the fall.

For Kim’s generation though Howdy Doody was the real deal. Kim has frequently opined that, despite his father Gene’s involvement in television, he was never able to leverage a spot in the Peanut Gallery on the show. Kim did make numerous childhood and teenage appearances on a variety of kids shows – The Magic Cottage, Allen Swift was a family friend and there was his show Captain Allen among them. In addition, Gene utilized a flipbook Kim made to illustrate the persistence of vision which Gene showed on national television – so it was natural that he would aspire to a spot in the audience of the Howdy Doody show. (Meanwhile, Kim has just told me that the flipbook was on display at the Museum of Modern Art for an exhibit on UPA – however, sadly it seems to have been subsequently lost.) Kim has touched on early television and cartoons in numerous stories he has written and drawn. (Most obvious of course, The Search for Smilin’ Ed and Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Those can be found here and here.)

I gather there were multiple cartoon jockey entertainment tv shows in his youth and Kim credits Howdy Doody with introducing him to silent films. I remember Bob McAllister and Wonderama best – also Bozo the Clown – showing cartoons, but the idea of silent films on those types of shows seems exotic and wonderful. And I do remember the prizes on Wonderama (if I remember it was just sort of a lottery thing and a kid in the audience just won them, but I could be wrong, maybe they did something to win them) and therefore I can only imagine the sort of longing that must have been created by the haul proffered for the winner of the Howdy Doody look alike contest!

I looked for a full list online and that was unfortunately not available despite references to it. Kim remembers that there was a film projector among the loot – clearly this would have been at the top of the list for a young Kim Deitch with his budding interest in animation and film. I imagine the list was drool worthy indeed and clearly my mother’s younger brother, John Wheeling, was not immune. It wasn’t a time when a lot of photos were casually taken in their family so a certain amount of planning (wheedling) must have gone into even getting this 5″x7″ photo I imagine.

Hake’s auctions, eBay and sites now make it possible to have a good look at some of the merchandising and premiums from our childhoods and much earlier periods. Some hold up quite well – the Little Orphan Annie and Buster Brown rings – Captain Midnight’s Mystic Sun God ring brings a premium still. There’s something thrilling and deeply satisfying about actually seeing photos of all those things. I enjoy those sections of the Hake’s catalogues very much. (For a stroll through my enjoyment of these catalogues see an earlier post, Ode to a Toy Catalogue, here.)

 

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Captain Midnight Mystic Sun God ring

 

Sadly, Howdy Doody merchandise and premiums do not hold up to 21st century light of day! They are plastic, cheap paper and of a lower order. I offer a brochure of their premiums and some of the higher end examples below.

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However, being the beneficiary of the toy laden munificence of exotica proffered for this contest was not the fate of a young John Wheeling. Despite his very credible photo, needless to say he didn’t win the contest. Little Billy Oltman, shown below in Life magazine, won the 1950 contest, besting more than 17,000 rivals. He is younger than my uncle and it is said his mother enhanced his freckles to increase the likeness to the (rather dubiously homely) famous puppet. One can’t help but wonder if perhaps some sort of a fix was in. Of course it is a bit late for sour grapes almost seventy years later.

Oltman Howdy Doody Magazine

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