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‘Buffalo Bob’ Smith; ‘Howdy Doody’ Host in TV’s Early Years

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Buffalo Bob” Smith, the cowboy-garbed icon of early live television as host of “The Howdy Doody Show,” has died. He was 80.

Smith, who was on the air with the redheaded marionette from 1947 to 1960, died Thursday of cancer in Hendersonville, N.C. He had lived in nearby Flat Rock for the past seven years, concentrating on his golf game.

“Say, kids, what time is it?” Smith would shout at the start of each of the 2,543 shows, stirring to frenzy the Peanut Gallery of 30 to 50 children in his studio.

“It’s Howdy Doody time!” they gleefully responded, and another afternoon episode was off and running with the freckled puppet and his friends, Clarabelle the Clown, Princess Summerfallwinterspring, Phineas T. Bluster, Dilly Dally, Chief Thunderthud, Trapper John and Flubadub.

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Smith presided over the happy melee in Doodyville, orchestrating interaction among the colorful assortment of puppets and costumed human characters and his pint-size audience.

Howdy Doody, moving as his strings were pulled by puppeteer Rufus Rose, spoke in a high squeaky voice, which belonged to Smith.

Working as sidekick to a wooden children’s character might wound the pride of many performers. But Smith said philosophically, “You’re happy that people want you to entertain them.”

Smith also did the commercials--selling stores out of the Ovaltine and Wonder Bread he persuaded children to request.

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Around the country, 15 million preschoolers watched him on 7-inch TV screens. The show earned such a following in the emerging new medium that, in a 1948 poll, Howdy Doody won more votes as a write-in candidate for president than Henry Wallace. Edward R. Murrow interviewed Buffalo Bob on “Person to Person.”

Pregnant mothers sent in requests to add their unborn children to a waiting list for admission to the studio Peanut Gallery.

Howdy Doody lunch boxes, dolls and other merchandise sold well, and are now collectors’ items.

Stressed by the work, Smith suffered a heart attack in 1954. Although he said the experience taught him to “remember your limits,” he set up a studio in his home from which to do the live broadcasts.

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Long after Smith’s wavy black hair had turned white, he returned to television for NBC’s 60th anniversary special in 1986. He also hosted a TV special about “Howdy Doody” in 1987 and appeared in a tribute to children’s programming at the Daytime Emmy Awards in 1995.

He attempted a syndicated reconstruction of the show in 1976, but it failed.

In the 1970s, Smith became a regular on college campuses after a University of Pennsylvania baby boomer invited him to visit. The students were nostalgic for their old friend.

The 1950s and ‘60s “were the good old days for today’s college students,” Smith told The Times in 1971. “The days with no draft card burnings, no war, no dope.”

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When a Boston youth asked if Howdy ever smoked grass, Smith said, still teaching with laughter: “He tried it, but it stunted his growth.”

Smith continued making personal appearances--with Howdy in tow--for many years, most visibly at events such as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. As a septuagenarian, he published an autobiography, “Howdy and Me: Buffalo Bob’s Own Story.”

“The Howdy Doody Show” not only pioneered children’s programs, but also trained some of the participants. Bob Keeshan, who was the first silent clown Clarabelle, went on to become television’s Captain Kangaroo.

Smith’s show also demonstrated the power of television to teach--emphasizing simple lessons like “be kind to animals,” “save your pennies” and “brush your teeth,” preferably with sponsoring Colgate.

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The program was the first telecast by the network “in living color” and the first children’s show to win a Peabody Award.

Born Robert Schmidt, the future performer grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and eventually adopted the city’s name as his nickname. It didn’t take much of a stretch for writer Eddie Kean to provide a Western history and costume for Buffalo Bob.

Musically talented and trained, Smith began singing and playing piano as a teenager on Buffalo radio stations WGR and WBEN. He worked for a couple of years as pianist and master of ceremonies in the vaudeville shows of singer Kate Smith and then wound up on NBC radio in New York.

Howdy Doody the character was born Elmer the ranch hand on the radio show “Triple B Ranch.” Through Smith, Elmer did corny jokes and shouted “Howdy doody!” so often that the greeting became his name.

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When NBC was ready to launch its first children’s television program, radio veteran Smith was tapped. “Puppet Playhouse"--quickly renamed--made its debut Dec. 27, 1947.

After the show went off the air, Smith, then in his 40s, left the limelight gracefully and without bitterness. “We had a good run,” he said. “Besides, how many TV shows ever lasted 13 seasons?”

Smith owned three Maine radio stations and a liquor store and for many years divided his family’s time between Maine and Florida. He sold the enterprises a decade or so ago and spent his time fishing and golfing.

He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Mildred; three children, Robin, Ronald and Christopher; three grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

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