Photo ©1998 Frank G. Chmielewski

The Smithsonian Howdy Doody

One of the two known Stand-in Howdy Doodys. When the original Howdy was out being repaired or repainted one of the stand-ins were used so their was no interruptions in filming.

Photo ©1998 Frank G. Chmielewski

The Original Howdy Doody



Photo ©1998 Frank G. Chmielewski

Photo ©1998 Frank G. Chmielewski

Detroit Institute of Arts Howdy Doody

Howdy Doody, one of America's best-loved puppets as he makes his debut at the Detroit Institute of Arts 06 April 2001 marking his first time on display for the public since the Howdy Doody Show went off the air in 1960. Howdy's appearance at the DIA. followed a January 2001 decision by US District Court Judge Christopher F. Droney to honor a 1967 contract between Howdy Doody puppeteer Rufus Rose and NBC. The contract specified that Howdy Doody enter the museum's collection after Rose no longer needed the puppet.

Howdy Doody is an American children's television program (with circus and Western frontier themes) that was created and produced by E. Roger Muir and telecast on the NBC network in the United States from December 27, 1947 until September 24, 1960. It was a pioneer in children's television programming and set the pattern for many similar shows. One of the first television series produced at NBC in Rockefeller Center, in Studio 3A, it was also a pioneer in early color production as NBC (at the time owned by TV maker RCA) used the show in part to sell color television sets in the 1950s.

Photo ©1998 Frank G. Chmielewski

Double Doody

In the summer of 1997 I got a call from my business partner informing me that NBC wanted me to photograph Howdy Doody, and other props from the iconic show that were stored at NBC Studios at 30 Rockefeller Center. I jumped at the opportunity because it was NBC! All I knew was Howdy Doody was some puppet, and that was about it. The Howdy Doody Show was way before my time, so I had a lot to learn before I got started. The New York Public Library at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street had pretty much everything I needed to bring myself up to speed.

I remember the first items I photographed was a water spray bottle and a clown suit. Of course this was the original wardrobe of Clarabell the clown that was worn by actor, Lew Anderson. It wasn’t until a few days later when an old crate arrived that housed a marionette of Howdy Doody. The thing that struck me as being a bit odd was that Howdy was dressed in a flannel shirt with pants and boots, okay, but everything was in different shades of beige or tan. Secondly, the strings were cut. That was puzzling, because how do you control him with cut strings. Soon after that I learned that this particular Marionette was called “Photo Doody” and was the one used in all of the vintage photographs of Howdy and was the Howdy that travelled with the show’s star Buffalo Bob Smith. The reason for the beige clothing was that it was the best shades to use when using black & white film, which is what they used in the late 1940’s and 50’s.  Half way through the project, some illustrations of the marionette were needed, so I quickly stepped up and got that job as well. After the photos and illustrations were approved, I went back to my Gramercy Park studio and life went on.

It was almost a year later when I found myself packing a rented black Chevy Van with lights, screens, extension cords and cameras. The heading North on I-95 to New England. Getting off to a late start I figured it best to get a motel room and start fresh the next morning. The job was at the farm house of the late Rufus and Margo Rose, they were the puppeteers that made all of the marionettes for the Howdy Doody Show except for the original Howdy Doody, that was made by Frank Paris. 

The morning of July 29th 1998, it was a beautiful morning if you discount the heat and humidity, but that wouldn’t be an issue because the shoot was planned to be inside the Rose theater located in the basement of the house, which I figured was air conditioned. When I arrive at the farm house I was greeted by a Chris Rose, the son of Margo and Rufus Rose. So I am anxious to start there are a lot of these Marionettes to do, as well as the original Howdy from the Show, his understudy, called Double Doody, and another one tagged Canadian Doody. Now, my first thought was this is really historic. Years of television history in my hands. It was decided that we would do at least two shots of each puppet and more if there was something extraordinary. So I usually carried around 20 rolls of 135/36 100 ASA Kodak film and about the same amount of Tri-X film, extra batteries, lenses, filters, and I am ready to go. SO I start unloading the lights, tripods, cables and I ask the most important question “where are the outlet?” the answer… “The electric has been turned off.” My heart dropped and then he informed me that there was no running water as well. Now, what the hell do I do? Spent the advance, got to make this happen. So I look up at the sky and it’s about 10:00 AM and it’s a beautiful clear day. Alright, light’s not going to be a problem, they are all marionettes, so a stage isn’t necessary, I just need a back drop and some tape. The side of the van will be a perfect backing. Luck was on my side because I had a large black cloth which will serve as a back drop. A few minutes later, thanks to some tape and parts from the tripods, I had a functional backdrop that gave me an unexpected edge. Typically, you would try to hide the strings attached to the Marionettes, but in this case showing the strings was a bonus and the black cloth background provided the perfect contrast. The biggest challenge would be to manage the angle of the sunlight during the day. Since there was a circular driveway, I could deal with that.
So we hauled everything from the basement onto the giant front lawn, and started shooting. Of course I didn’t account for one thing, it was hot, it was humid, no fresh water, and a wealth of mosquitos, which were extra hungry that day.
The first thing, which was all important was to get the pictures of the Howdy Doody’s done first, which are all shown here. Then he pulls out this worn, aged, mostly rusty little bicycle, this was Howdy’s from the show, and think this is super cool. So now we had to figure how do we get the bike to stand on the grass and we put the original Howdy on the bike and make it look like he’s riding. With a very tall ladder, a couple of broom handles, some small rocks, we made it work, and the shots look great because the strings are controlling the motion, but you can’t see how or who is controlling them.
So then the rest of the shoot was long and tiresome. I worked all day, without taking any lunch, or unnecessary breaks, because the was a one day deal and the clock was ticking away and the sun wasn’t about to give me a break and stay out longer. So was already dusk around 7:30 pm when we finally started to break it all down. So it was almost 9:00 pm when I finally pulled out of the driveway, and I had the original Howdy in his crate all wrapped up for the long drive back to Staten Island.
I finally get home around midnight and I unpack the cameras and Howdy and take it all into my house for the night. The next day, which I took off, I hear on the TV that The Howdy Doody Show co-star Buffalo Bob Smith suddenly passed away. So what do you do? I un pack Howdy and sit him on my sofa in front of the TV, stupid thing to do, but I felt sad for the little guy, after all his best friend in the whole world just died.

Where are they now?
After I dropped Howdy Doody off, I didn’t keep track of what happened to them, I have a few pictures from that day, which are shown here. But where the original Howdy Doody, Photo Doody, Double Doody, and Canadian Doody went, after Buffalo Bob died, this is what I was able to dig up:

The continuing saga of the original Howdy Doody, that I photographed gets pretty wild. It took me a few days of digging around to get to the guts of the story. The following is a segment of an interview from Grubstreet Online Magazine with Bert Dubrow (

GS What do you think an original “Howdy” would sell for, today, at auction?

BD I know the original “Photo Doody” went for $130,000, at auction, not long ago. The original “Howdy,” used only for the television show, lives in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Long after the show and the touring ended, Bob Smith wanted to sell his “Howdys,” which set off a firestorm of legal action, much of it unexpected. The Smith set was worth a fortune; Michael Jackson wanted to buy one or the whole set. The problem was Smith didn’t own “Howdy,” though he used them.

GS Who owned “Howdy”?

BD For a long while, ownership was a much asked and little answered question. NBC thought it owned “Howdy Doody.” The heirs of puppeteers, Rufus and Margo Rose, thought they owned the puppets.

When the show ended, NBC gave Roger Muir the on-air “Howdy,” in use at that time. He produced the show through its entire run. Muir sold that “Howdy” at auction and that was that.

In 1960, when the show ended, Rufus Rose was head puppeteer and his wife, Margo, his first assistant. Rufus and Margo were famous, in their own right. They worked as the Rufus Rose Marionettes.

At the time, NBC didn’t know what to do, with “Howdy” and the other puppets. These were props to the network. The puppets were not different from scenery.

NBC let Rose take “custody” of “Howdy” and friends, when the show went off the air. Rose kept the puppets in his workshop, all but the original, on-air “Howdy.” The original “Howdy” had a special place in the Rose home.

One day, the Rose workshop burns down, probably in the late 1960s. A newspaper gets wind of the fire and headlines, “Howdy Doody Burns in Fire.” Bob Smith told me his mother received condolence notes; some people couldn’t disconnect Smith from “Howdy,” let alone television from everyday life.

The story of the fire played in media across America and NBC goes out of control. Its executives hit the ceiling. “We own the puppets,” they claim. “Rose only had custody.”

NBC sues Rose, but doesn’t do its homework. When Rose is about to testify, he brings “Howdy” along. Rose is sitting in the witness box, with “Howdy” on his knee. NBC claimed “Howdy” had burned, but there he was, in the courtroom.

GS Shades of the movie, “Miracle on 34th Street.”

BD Yes and Rose then sued NBC. He won. As part of the settlement, NBC gave “Howdy” and his puppet pals to Rose. After Rufus and Margo Rose passed away, their children sold the puppets at auction.

GS These icons of pop culture should be in the Smithsonian Institute.

BD There’s a “Howdy” in the Smithsonian, one of the doubles. Everyone says what you say, but the problem, with the Smithsonian, is when you give it something, it can do whatever it wants with your gift. The basements, of the Smithsonian, three stories below ground, are full of treasures.

GS How did “Howdy” find his way to the Detroit Institute of Art?

BD It’s a long, involved story, but here’s the short version. Originally, Smith and Roger Muir owned rights to the show, characters and puppets. In the early 1950s, I think, they sold everything to NBC, with Smith keeping only the “Buffalo Bob” character. By the 1970s, after the ownership lawsuits, Rufus and Margo Rose, the puppeteers on the “Howdy” show, owned all the puppets. This included the puppet Smith used. When Smith was touring “A ‘Howdy Doody’ Revival,” in the early 1970s, he needed permission to use a puppet, occasionally, specifically, “Photo Doody.”

Smith asked NBC, which owned the rights to “Howdy,” if he could use the puppet. They agreed. Smith then asked Rose, who owned the puppets, for the original “Howdy.” Rose offered Smith use of the original “Howdy,” adding that when Smith finished using the original “Howdy,” he must give it to the Detroit Institute of Art. After Rufus and Margo Rose passed away, their son, Chris, wanted to sell the puppets. He talked to Smith. They agreed to sell the “Howdy” and split the money. Smith forgot about the “after you’re finished” part of his deal with Rufus. The Detroit Institute of Art, which Rufus copied on his letter to Smith, did not forget about this part of the deal. The Institute wanted its “Howdy.” Smith declined.

All sides hired lawyers. Chris Rose asked, “How do we know this ‘Howdy’ is the original?” Since 1948, replacing puppets and puppet parts was a steady industry. How do we confirm if this is the original “Howdy Doody” or not?
No one knew, but this was the question. Everybody must find out. Both sides spend time and money to study the issue. Meanwhile, a judge stores “Howdy” in a drawer, in a bank vault.

GS How indignant is that?

BD Rhoda Mann, who ran “Howdy” from 1948 to 1953, says it’s not the original “Howdy.” Velma Dawson, who made the early puppet, used on the show, waffles, but decides this is the original “Howdy.” I, too, confirm it as the original; I’d seen it, up close and personal, on a regular basis, since I was a child.
The lawsuit drags on for years. Bob Smith passes away before the case resolves. Eventually, the Detroit Institute of Art wins and takes possession of “Howdy”; the Rose heirs auction the other puppets.


Photo ©1998 Frank G. Chmielewski

Photo Doody bought at auction by Author T.J. Fisher 

TJ Fisher's is the first and only Howdy marionette to be in private hands; the other two original puppets are museum property — the original one used in the show is on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts; and the other a Stand-in for the original Howdy Doody resides at the Smithsonian.

Photo ©1998 Frank G. Chmielewski

Photo ©1998 Frank G. Chmielewski

Photo ©1998 Frank G. Chmielewski

Photo ©1998 Frank G. Chmielewski

Photo ©1998 Frank G. Chmielewski