Howdy’s Still A Friend Of Mine

News of Detroit’s fiscal heart attack wasn’t all bad; Howdy Doody is safe and secure in a posh Motor City museum.

I , and I think many, many other former “boys and girls” am much cheered knowing our Howdy is in the Detroit Institute of Art, and the folks who run the place say there is no way he’s going bye-bye. Howdy, you see, was, is and always will be my friend.

He and I became acquainted, guessing a little here, sometime about 1950 when I was 5. I learned of Howdy from the Crosta girls who lived a couple of doors up Colton Avenue in Lackawanna and were lucky enough to have a TV in their home.

So I joined the crowd in Charlie and Laura Crosta’s living room each weekday at 5:15 p.m. to watch Howdy, Buffalo Bob, Clarabell and the rest of crew. Mr. and Mrs. Crosta, I believe, were quite pleased to have seven or eight kids depreciating their living room furniture since a television was a status symbol.

The devices were both costly and frequently troublesome. I’ve computed a TV then cost about six-to-eight weeks of take-home pay or about three large in 2013 paper money.

Inside the wooden box about 25 vacuum tubes supported the big cathode-ray tube, known as the “picture tube.” If one of the support tubes failed to emit the dim orange light, it could be replaced for about five bucks including a visit by the TV repairman who, like an MD, made house calls. If the picture tube went down it was about the same as a layoff notice from the steel plant.

Howdy visited Western New York via WBEN on Channel 4. Until the mid-1950s WBEN, owned by The Buffalo Evening News (‘BEN, get it?) had a monopoly on over-the-air video.

Channel 4 signed on at five o’clock, five o’clock in the evening that is, and for 15 minutes transmitted a test pattern. This arrangement of circles and lines allowed a viewer to adjust the set by tweaking various controls with designations like “Horizontal Hold.” The most-used controls were in front, but there were five or six more on the back of the chassis. This meant the person adjusting, usually the old man ( I guess it was an early guy thing like the remote control now) would turn various knobs as the viewers would shout “better” or “worse.” Oh, and then the antenna or “rabbit ears” required yet another adjustment to find the shifty sweet spot of viewing pleasure. It was all part of coming to grips with modernity 1950s style. If idle hands are the devil’s workshop early television sets were a kind of plenary indulgence.

I was an active little feller, outdoors whenever possible, but I rarely missed my quarter hour in Doodyville. I watched wherever I could, and in 1952 Red and Mary had saved enough to buy a 12-inch FADA (short for F.A. Andrea out of the New York area) at “The Big Little Store” on Seneca Street near Jacob Rich & Sons dairy where my dad worked. (An aside: my dad had delivered milk and also did much of the route planning. His knowledge of streets in Buffalo and environs was encyclopedic.)

A rare miss was the basis of one of my parents’ favorite stories: We were on the bus coming home from somewhere, and a winter storm had stopped things. The adults, my mom remembered, were sullen at the delay. I asked what time it was and being told it was something after 5:30 screamed, “I missed Howdy Doody!” which, Mom said, loosened everyone up with a good laugh. Glad I was able to help, but I did miss Howdy that night and no recorders were available.

It was also my own dear mother who told me Howdy was not flesh and blood, but a puppet controlled with strings. How then did Howdy talk? Buffalo Bob was a ventriloquist.

I didn’t believe her. Howdy was a friend, a good friend. I had taken the sticker from the end of a Wonder Bread wrapper and voted for Howdy for mayor of Doodyville. I watched my dad put the ballot in the mailbox at the corner of Colton and Crescent. Howdy was elected. His opponent, Mr. Phineas T. Bluster had received only one vote, his own. Puppets don’t win elections. I, not for the last time, pitied adults who seemed blind to the obvious.

Howdy and his buddies were celebrities, and I was one of millions of groupies. When the Welch’s jam or jelly was consumed you had a nice glass, and on the bottom of that glass was a pressed-in impression of Howdy, Flub a Dub or one of the other cast members smiling at you because you’d finished your milk or even better Welch’s grape juice.

So Howdy’s up in Detroit. Perfect. A memorial to many things that are no longer.

Detroit, no longer the Motor City; TV’s no longer made here; kids routinely dropping into other kids’ homes to use the bath room, have lunch, get a cut cleaned. And no Howdy Doody Time on the air, the cable, the satellite, uh-uh.

But Howdy’s still a friend of mine. Puppet or not.