1/13/2011

Clarabellapalooza!

item 1 >>> LQQK @ †h∆†! AK meets HD Couple of videos before we get going…the first is from 1977, Andy Kaufman meets Howdy…it’s a little long, over 5 minutes, but watch the whole thing…Howdy’s reactions to Andy’s shtick are priceless, and you don’t wanna miss the bit about “being in the box.”  hippie Howdy Then from 1983, the Hippie Howdy flap, with some cool, if fleeting, clips thrown in…

item 2 >>> Today’s DFHC will be The Clarabell Report Part 3…and for now, especially if you could care less, Part the Last. You can get caught up with Parts 1 & 2 at DFHC 1/8 and 1/11. I must explain: those were based solely on net research…I do have 2 excellent books on Howdy, but since they were published in 1987 and 1996, I reckoned there’d be much more freshly uncovered info on the web, all neatly arranged and chronicled. Instead I found a bewildering avalanche of fascinating but in many cases conflicting “facts”…so even this Part 3 is just a work-in-progress. And I must add that with over 2300 shows, countless comic books, Golden Books, records, a Sunday comic strip for a while in the early 50’s (co-written by Stan Lee, founder of Marvel), not to mention a concurrent radio version of the TV show, there is so much Howdy lore that I am struggling to stay focused on Clarabell…I trust you’ll forgive me if I stray a little now and then 😉 😉

The 2 books I will be drawing on are “Say Kids! What Time Is It?” written by Stephen Davis in 1987…I will refer to it as “SK.” His father Howard Davis was the director of the show during 1952 and 1953, then became the head writer in 1954, when a burned-out Eddie Kean, who had written nigh on everything since the very beginning, quit to become a stockbroker. In early 1956, Howard saw the writing on the wall and left to direct The Today Show with Dave Garroway. Stephen was just a kid at this time, and his insider reminiscences are fairly limited. The bulk of the book is research he did talking to virtually every person connected to the show in any significant way. The executives, the actors, Buffalo Bob, all 3 Clarabells, the puppeteers, just about everyone…and much of the story is told in their own words, so there’s some weight there, I think you’ll agree. BTW, “the writing on the wall” was that The Mickey Mouse Club Show was killing Howdy in the ratings…soon after Howard’s departure, it was cut back from 5-days a week to Saturday mornings…and even son Stephen had defected and was watching The Mouse, albeit sneaking over to a friend’s house to do it.

The 2nd book is “Howdy Doody, Collector’s Reference and Trivia Guide” by Jack Koch, 1996, published by Collector Books, which I will call “REF.” This is a treasure trove of photos…both from the show and of the hundreds of Howdy products, then and now. There is also extensive information about the show itself, altho here there are problems. The editing is sloppy…some things are just plain wrong, usually contradicting the correct information found elsewhere in the book. It’s still an excellent reference source overall, but care must be taken…sadly, I cannot call it ultimately definitive, it’s just too messy. That’s the trouble with books, compared to the blogosphere…make a boo-boo in book and it never gets better.

item 3 >>>  Cometh a ClownRobert Keeshan, an ex-marine, was a page at NBC before Puppet Playhouse, the original name of the show, went on the air 2 days after Christmas, 1947. At first it was on Saturday afternoons…then several days a week, finally as a Monday thru Friday “strip” show starting in August, 1948. The origin of Clarabell is told in SK based interviews with Keeshan himself. His initial job was to keep the kids in the Peanut Gallery in line and perform the odd stage task. Occasionally he’d appear on camera, in his sport coat and tie, until an exec said “Who the hell is that? Get him a clown suit or something!” The setting at the beginning was a circus, and Bob Smith wasn’t Buffalo Bob yet, just “Mr. Smith,” in pith helmet and jodhpurs. NBC’s wardrobe department had 2 clown costumes…polka dots and zebra stripes. After several shows without makeup, Keeshan got together with the makeup department…which consisted of one guy actually, named Dick Smith…and the famous face was born. That story about Emmitt Kelly designing it is flat out wrong, at least according to Keeshan’s recollection. And I should mention that despite being all sweetness and light as Capt. Kangaroo, Keeshan was apparently a bear to work with. No one seems to have a good word to say about him…and Stephen’s father Howard recalled that when he joined the show, practically the first words out of Keeshan’s mouth were to the effect that “This place is terrible…you won’t last a month.” Yeah…nice…

item 4 >>> Seltzer On Thin Ice…Now Keeshan had absolutely no theatrical training, and a tin ear to boot. His Clarabell was awkward and amateurish, but the kids loved him, and even those who disliked him admitted his portrayal of the clown worked…a trained clown or mime probably wouldn’t have been as endearing or comical. That was proven true when Keeshan was fired in June, 1950, replaced by dancer Gil Lamb. They wanted a real clown, but the kids revolted, and Keeshan was asked back within 2 weeks. Incredibly, REF says this was in 1952, and that Bob Nicholson replaced Lamb after Lamb broke several ribs during a rehearsal. Wrong, wrong, and double-wrong-o-doodle. Lamb was simply shown the door… that’s him pictured here, altho you might better recognize him older.  And ultimately, it wasn’t the talent issue, but one of money that lead to Clarabell #2.

item 5 >>>  The Christmas Eve Massacre…Bottom line: Keeshan wanted more moola. In the Summer of 1952, he approached the other cast members about staging a palace revolt. Judy Tyler, who played Princess Summerfall Winterspring, would have none of it…nor would Doc Whipple the organist, Scott Brinker the puppet-maker, or Bob Nicholson the music director, newly arrived from Buffalo, an old chum of Bob Smith. But the other 3 principal Doodeyvillians fell in with him. These were Rhoda Mann, who worked the Howdy puppet…Dayton Allen, who also worked puppets, did the voices of Mr. Bluster and Flub-a-Dub, and played live characters Ugly Sam, Chef Pierre, Lanky Lou, Sir Archibald, and many others…and Bill LeCornac, who was Chief Thunderthud and Oil Well Willie, as well as the voice of Dilly Dally. Long story short: they presented their demands…and on the morning of Dec. 24, 1952, at a meeting of the entire cast and crew, they were given their walking papers. As I mentioned, that night’s show, hastily re-written, went on the air without skipping a beat. Rufus Rose and Lee Carney were hired as replacement puppeteers, a young comic named Allan “The Man of a Thousand Voices” Swift came on board to match most of the voices, and after a month, Bill LeCornac was invited back…only he could do Dilly Dally and the Chief. He said he felt like a traitor to his group…they had pitched a new puppet show to CBS, who turned them down…but he needed the work, and he stayed on till the last show, quoting SK, “the only Indian in the world with a mustache.”

item 6 >>> A Kinder, Gentler Clarabell…The big problem was what to do about the Clown. Besides his musical duties, Bob Nicholson had been portraying J. (for Jasper) Cornelius “Corny” Cobb, proprietor of the Doodyville general store. They said, you be Clarabell…he balked at first, but eventually agreed, and began a 2-year stint that, according to him, he never really enjoyed. Allan Swift replaced him as Corny, but when Nicholson could take it no longer, he returned to his old duties, and Clarabell #3 was born. Now while some viewers may have noticed the switch from Keeshan to Nicholson…after all, Clarabell seemed less boisterous, and could suddenly play the piano, xylophone, and trombone…the vast majority of kids were completely oblivious. They had been careful not to repeat the Gil Lamb miscue, and it worked. But where Clarabell #3 came from is a fascinating story…

item 7 >>> Death’s-Door-O-Doodle…In 1954, Bob Smith was a wealthy man and he was earning every penny. The Howdy Doody empire would have been a lot on anyone’s plate, but he was in his mid-30s, at the peak of this powers as they say, and seemingly bullet-proof. He had quit his 6-day-a-week morning DJ show in New York City, and with the time that freed up, he embarked on a new project: a prime-time TV variety show called The Bob Smith Show. This was for grownups, not kids, and very well-received. But time ran out on the morning of Sept. 6, 1954, when the Buff suffered a massive heart attack. He wasn’t expected to live. Somehow he did…it was his personality maybe? In January of 1955, he began transmissions from a studio in the basement of his New Rochelle home…they called it Pioneer Village…but even then under the close watch of this doctors. He wasn’t back on the show full-time until a year after the attack, but by this time, Howdy Doody’s salad days had pretty much wilted.

item 8 >>> Dreaming Honey Dreams…But there was this singing group on The Bob Smith Show, the Honey Dreamers. One member, Lew Anderson, showed a knack for ad-libbing, and Smith would use him in skits, and as an audience plant, the old trading-barbs-with-the-heckler routine. Lew occasionally showed up at Pioneer Village, portraying a character named Trapper John. (Any M*A*S*H connection?*) When Bob Nicholson threw in the bicycle horns in March 1955, Lew Anderson was the natural choice for Clarabell, and they liked the fact that he also was a musician. He remained till the final curtain call…in fact, there’s a story that his “G’bye Kids!” was actually recorded by Bob Smith and Lew mimed it, but I’ve seen the show, and it doesn’t look that way to me. But there you have it…and I must point out that both SK and REF talk about the “3 Clarabells,” plus Gil Lamb, and that’s it.

(* Sorry to say, no…the back-story on John F.X. McIntyre was that he was discovered canoodling with a lady in the parlor-room of a train, and she exclaimed: He trapped me!)

item 9 >>> More Clarabells?…Well, that’s almost it. This is from SK: In the immediate wake of the Keeshan firing, they put the clown suit on the prop man Bernie Morshen, but he could do little more than stand around and honk. The transition to Nicholson was actually rather clever…Clarabell was trapped at the bottom of the ocean…as portrayed by a tiny doll suspended in a fish-tank!…and a new puppet, tug-boat captain Windy Scuttlebutt, was invented to rescue him. SK makes no reference  to Ed Alberian…in REF, he is described, and misspelled, as “Ed Alberion…One of the part-time Clarabells for Pol Parrot road promotions.” (And indeed, that shoe company spokesbird even got its own puppet, as commercials were seamlessly inserted in a show’s plot-line. The kids would join Buffalo Bob and sing along the with the jingles…they knew all the words!)  As for Ed’s Gus Gasbag character, he is mentioned in REF as appearing briefly in April 1960…1960 mind you…and nothing more. We sure are a long way from Percy Shain’s “Millions have seen him on TV,” aren’t we? And this Henry McLaughlin guy? Not a word about him in either SK or REF. At this point I’m leaning towards the theory that he too was a road clown, such as the unidentified one shown in this photo from SK, along with Bob Smith’s older brother Buffalo Vic, out hawking marionettes. But then, who in their right mind thought anybody would care about this stuff 60 years hence? When Shain wrote that column, Howdy had been gone for 14 years, several lifetimes the way society was changing…so just plug Dokey at Filene’s, drop some names, and start the next day’s column, I’m thinking.

item 10 >>> But Wait…There’s More… So who was Clarabell on the 1976 Howdy Doody revival show? It was a bust, altho at 5 shows a week, it did rack up 130 episodes. Howdy with real hair, in a 1970’s cut? Pul-lease. And that “flying saucer” puppet Outer Orbit?  I was much more concerned with Marilyn Patch as Happy Harmony. She had hosted a Saturday morning show in Boston at age 11…Calico was a donkey and she was a real ventriloquist no less. But The New Howdy Doody Show really was a reunion affair…Bill LeCornec was back, as the fictional producer, not an Indian this time, Bob Nicholson was again Corny Cobb…and guess what, Lew Anderson played Clarabell. Well, with the surprising success of Bob Smith’s college nostalgia tours and subsequent LP, it was certainly worth a shot…

Wicked Ballsy

In 1933, the movie King Kong took the public by storm…it was re-released every few years, and in fact made the most money in the 1950s, thanks to advertising on that newfangled television machine. But in the wake of that success, several men made a decent living appearing at county fairs across the country as “the original King Kong”…that’s right, a lot of people still thought it was a man in a hairy suit. Likewise, when the Howdy Doody nostalgia craze hit in the late 1960s, can you fault anyone who had even the slightest connection to the show for trying to get a piece of the action…and for now at least, that’s the final word on Percy Shain, Ed Alberian, Clarabell, Clarabell, Clarabell, and the other Clarabells…Kowagoopa!

But the reason we’re seeing another Marilyn here…like you need a reason?…is an anecdote from SK: In early 1954, 37-year-old Senator John F. Kennedy underwent surgery for his bad back. A reporter duly noted the accoutrements of his hospital room: a tropical fish tank, a Marilyn Monroe poster, and a Howdy Doody doll…’nuff said.

shameless magenta plugs…

Podcasts at http://stolfpod.podbean.com and   http://thewholething.podbean.com

Daily blogs at http://stolf.wordpress.com and  https://deepfriedhoodsiecups.wordpress.com

More bloggage at http://travelingcyst.blogspot.com and  http://www.examiner.com/retro-pop-culture-in-watertown/mark-john-astolfi

Resume and audio samples at http://home.rr.com/mastolfi

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