Where My Puppet Obsession Began
One night my parents were entertaining and they sat my down for the premiere of The New Howdy Doody Show. It was 1976 and the producers of the Original Howdy Doody Show decided to bring it back in living color … or “livid color” as Mr. Doody told me when we met years later. My mom made me a bowl of popcorn (made fresh in a pot on the stove, no microwave popcorn yet), and then I saw it. The red and white striped puppet stage, the blue curtain, Buffalo Bob, the Peanut Gallery and then, something I had never seen before. A little wooden man with freckles, a cowboy outfit and a big grin. I saw the strings, but it just didn’t ruin the moment. In fact, it enhanced it. On the surface I was bubbling with excitement over a puppet. But subliminally I was enthralled knowing there were people hidden away controlling him. How? Where? I began my deep love for puppetry and the technical side of show business.
My parents used to scold me for spending too much time in front of the television. But I wasn’t just watching the “idiot box” turning my brain to mush. I’d notice the shadow of the boom mic. I’d wonder how they shot the last camera shot on a fourth wall when I knew the set only had three. And I’d catch the head of Muppet creator Jim Henson accidentally poke into camera shot when performing the most famous frog.
So Howdy Doody sparked my greatest love for a lifetime. As I mentioned, years later I was producing a television pilot pitch and needed a special guest. I had befriended puppet master, Alan Semok years earlier through the world of ventriloquism followed by working on two studio films together. Alan had been tapped by Bob Smith to refurbish Howdy for special appearances. Later Alan would take over performing the iconic character when he would leave his post at the Smithsonian. He agreed to bring Mr. Doody to the set.
It was a very young audience and crew. But when the host’s interview was rapped, even the coolest of the cool were standing in line to snap a photo with Howdy Doody. In between takes, we kept the camera’s rolling and Howdy and I did a little bit together. It connected my childhood to adulthood. Once watching him on TV and now directing him, it was one of my happiest days.
Two years after the premiere of the New Howdy Doody Show, it was cancelled. My mother and I sat down to write a letter to the studio in New York City. I received a reply on Doodyville stationary talking about ratings and such, thanking us for our support and viewership.
From that point on, all I wanted were puppets. I had bags and bags of them. I’d rip them apart and glue others together to make new characters.
In second grade my parents bought me a portable, transformable puppet stage for hand puppet and a marionette shows. Mrs. Green, my elementary school’s secretary gave me a piece of mimeograph paper (I loved the smell of the ink didn’t you?) and hand-wrote a flyer for puppet shows. $20.00 for one show, $25.00 for both. Scouts, schools and birthday parties were my clientele. The shows consisted of bits, lip-syncing and handing out party favors. My mother was my production manager, driving me around and engineering the record player.
Eventually the puppets were set aside because my grades were getting bad as I became less interested in school and it certainly wouldn’t help a young man’s social life.
But like many, I was obsessed with Sesame Street and later, the Muppets and anything Jim Henson. Even in elementary school it weighed heavily on me that by the time I grew up and could get to New York to work for the Muppets, Sesame would be off the air! But that’s another story.