PAPER CUTS: It's Howdy Greedy Time

Yes, kiddies, there was life before television. An Eden in which cars the color of Necco wafers roamed the land, children practiced hiding under their school desks from simulated atomic bomb attacks, and families spent evenings together in such wholesome activities as pick-up-sticks, Parcheesi, and Uncle Wiggly.Into that paradise, a world as ingenuous as any cave painting, my dad brought forth from his basement workshop the forbidden fruit, a secret do-it-yourself project. From within a gleaming cabinet roughly the size of a Buick, he unveiled a tiny porthole to the dark side, the first television set in the neighborhood.From that moment on, when my friends came over, we didn't go out to play hide-and-seek, or jump rope, or jungle warfare in the vacant lot behind the gas station. No more trips to the candy store to replace a lost skate key, no more hopscotch or stickball, no more endless hours of make-believe in the summer dusk. Mom didn't have to stand at the front door, calling me for dinner until she was hoarse, because she knew right where I was. I was planted in the living room. I was watching Howdy Doody.The original Howdy was as unsophisticated as a sock puppet on a string, a kind of pets.com dog with freckles and a bandanna. He was clearly the kind of toy a kid could relate to, and in fact, replicate at home out of papier-mache, shoe polish, and a little duct tape. Considering my red hair and freckles, not to mention my mom's penchant for dressing me in plaid shirts and jeans, it wasn't surprising that I identified with Howdy Doody.Howdy was still in his first incarnation then, later designated as the "Ugly Doody". Before you could say Flub-A-Dub, Howdy disappeared for a brief hiatus, and came back with what kindly old Buffalo Bob called a "face-lift". Imagine the denouement, the sense of betrayal, finding out that your favorite TV pal didn't look good enough. What a harbinger of airbrushed size 0 Vogue models yet to come. The Doody face-lift was the first televised image spin, the progenitor of our collective loss sense of self worth, and the desperate attempts to retrieve it. It's probably responsible for such subsequent tripe as "Chicken Soup For The Soul","I'm OK, You're OK", "Oprah", and other leaky lifeboats on the national Ship of Fools.The new Howdy, while still anatomically incorrect, was more refined, more relentlessly perky, an evil twin to the disarmingly dilapidated original. It turned out he had been hastily reconfigured to take his place as the first promotional tie-in of the modern age.Kids from coast to coast threatened to hold their breath until they turned blue if they didn't get a Howdy Doody doll for Christmas. The barrage of Howdy merchandise, pitched to a guileless audience, was the beachhead of an assault that continues unabated today, culminating in the dreaded Teletubbies, Peanuts, and Pokemon tchotchkes.The Howdy Doody Show was the first weekday children's show, and the first color television program broadcast on NBC. Beginning at a time when there were only about 20,000 TV sets in the whole country, it ran for 2,543 episodes, until most of the original fans were old enough to move to the woods and kill their TVs. Clarabell the Clown grew up to became Captain Kangaroo, and Buffalo Bob Smith, went on the nostalgia circuit, schlepping the stringless Photo Doody from fairgrounds to shopping malls. Howdy went to Waterford, Connecticut, to live with Rufus Rose, the man who pulled his strings. And that should have been the end of the story.But last month, according to The New York Times, when a bronze star for Howdy Doody was unveiled on the NBC-TV "Walk of Fame," the famed cowboy was nowhere to be seen. He was "locked in a bank vault in New London, Connecticut". An ugly custody battle is forthcoming, and it will take a court order to set Howdy free.In legal papers filed in Hartford federal court, the Detroit Museum of Arts", which houses one of the country's largest puppet collections, maintains that "NBC gave Rufus Rose custody of the puppet with the understanding that he would eventually donate it to the museum". Mr. Rose reiterated that agreement in a letter to Buffalo Bob in 1970, stating that NBC had "conveyed ownership of the show's puppets to him with the provision that "they not be used in a commercial manner as characters from 'The Howdy Doody Show,' and that Howdy himself be placed in the care of the Detroit Museum of Arts".Mr.Rose died in 1975, and his heirs are vehemently denying such an arrangement. They plan to auction the puppet at Leland's, a New York auction house, where memorabilia belonging to several of the show's former members (have already sold) for about $350,000, in 1998.Too bad for all the believers in the Peanut Gallery, the millions of kids like me, who gave up afternoons of playtime to sit glassy eyed in front of the TV, who emptied their parents' wallets to pay for the promotional tie-ins, and who sacrificed their imaginations to packaged entertainment. What time is it? It's Howdy Greedy Time.

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