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TV REVIEW : A Flawed Tribute to 'Howdy Doody Time'

December 04, 1987|CHARLES SOLOMON

Learning that Howdy Doody had strings was one of childhood's most disillusioning moments for baby-boomers. Discovering that the puppet turns 40 this year is almost as distressing to adults.

"It's Howdy Doody Time: A 40-Year Celebration" (8-10 tonight on Channel 11) trafficks in childhood nostalgia but delivers far too little of the original material. Buffalo Bob Smith--looking gray, but fit--hosts this very silly tribute to one of the most popular children's shows in the history of television.

"Howdy Doody Time" debuted Dec. 17, 1947, on NBC (as "The Puppet Playhouse/Puppet Television Theater") and was an immediate hit. Getting into "The Peanut Gallery" was the dream of millions of children who grew up during the early '50s.

If the "Celebration" had focused on how the program evolved during its 13-year run, it could have provided a fascinating chronicle of changes in American taste. Instead, a succession of "B"-list celebrities--Gary Coleman, Monty Hall, Diana Canova--stop by to say happy birthday to Howdy in a blatant attempt to cash in on the puppet's renewed fame. Bob Keeshan, the original Clarabell (before he became "Captain Kangaroo") is curiously absent.

Bits and pieces taken from the black-and-white shows reveal just how crude the original "Howdy Doody Time" was. The program relied heavily on old vaudeville routines: Clarabell squirting someone with a seltzer bottle was the big laugh-getter. Attempts to re-create these old shticks fall flat. Chief Thunderthud may have been funny in 1950, but in 1987 an Indian who declares "Me wantum big orchestra . . . heap violins" is an embarrassment. If you could go home again, you might not want to.

The cast and puppets from "Howdy Doody" can still evoke the nostalgic tug that vaudeville stars like Sophie Tucker and George M. Cohan held for an earlier generation. But this show feels more like an exploitation than a celebration, and fails to capture the magic it pretends to honor.

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