Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Of Clowns and Puppets

My pillow mate thinks clowns and puppets are creepy. So does my daughter. Apparently so do a lot of people. I happen to like clowns and puppets. Clown college didn’t seem far-fetched as a career ambition.

Howdy DoodyMy view is shaped by an early childhood fascination with Howdy Doody and Clarabell. Gap-toothed, freckled and homely, Howdy Doody was the perfect daily companion for a young kid. Clarabell’s spritz-bottle, horn-honking antics served as a harmless, voiceless “bad boy.” As an only child, I felt no need for siblings with TV buds like this.

The Howdy Doody Show aired originally in 1947, so it is the same vintage as me. By the time I could join the Peanut Gallery in front the TV, the show had matured. In the early years, Howdy Dood’s puppeteer absconded with the star of the show just before it went on live. That led to development of a back-up named, naturally, Double Doody. Both had 48 freckles, representing the then 48 states.

The plots on the show were ridiculous. The appeal came from the seamless interaction between people and puppets. Buffalo Bob was as comfortable talking to mindless nitwits Mayor Phineas T. Bluster  and Chief Thunderthud, who coined the popular phrase of the day, “Kowabonga!” Nobody differentiated between humans and stooge. It was often hard to tell the difference.

There also was no missing link. The gap in looks between Clarabell the clown and Flub-a-Dub the puppet wasn’t that great. Their IQ didn’t seem that much different, either.

For me, it was an enchanted world, which as best as I could tell was created pretty much for my pleasure.

pr_kukla_mugHowdy Doody wasn’t alone on screen as a puppet master. There also was Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Fran Allison acted more or less as screen filler as the puppets stole the show, led by Kukla, who was half puppet and half clown.

The show, which at one point was squeezed into 15 minutes, a shorter time than many contemporary infomercials, took place in the kind of set you might see in a backyard carnival. Ollie, aka Oliver J. Dragon, often had the audience in the palm of his protruding tooth when he slammed his chin on the stage in frustration, a gesture that siphoned off the frustration of the show’s viewers and which kids like me imitated to our chin’s peril.

howdydoodyoldBob Keeshan, the original Clarabell, drifted off to create Captain Kangaroo, the alter ego of Clarabell, but with just about the same number of pockets. He reprised his bromance with Howdy Doody with a sly relationship with Mister Moose, a super-sized puppet who specialized in lame knock-knock jokes.

The era of live television had an immediacy that made characters, whether they had strings or red noses, seem very real and natural. As I surveyed the world of my childhood, the puppets and clowns struck me as more desirable and lovable than many of my “real-life” friends and family.

Thinking back, I’m sure I knew that puppets weren’t alive and clowns were just actors. But I didn’t care. They made me laugh. And they still do.

Which is why I can’t understand why anyone would see clowns and puppets as scary figures. They were created to make me happy, not alarmed. They could act unconventionally in ways we never could, but their purpose was laughter, not fear.

Popular psychology and slasher movies bequeathed a more sinister dimension to clowns and puppets. They became perpetrators of horror, hiding behind grease paint. Pulling strings became a remote control way to commit violence without getting bloody. I barely recognized today’s clowns and puppets. They are some foreign species from what I remember and cherish.

My Howdy Doody puppet long ago slipped into the dustbin of history, but I still have a Howdy Doody hand puppet as one of the few remaining mementos of my childhood. I also retained a monkey with a clown hat named Lee Bosco. My wife has banished both hand puppets to the bottom of a dresser drawer. She finds them creepy and imagines they were tools of youthful indiscretion (not true).

In deference, I leave them at peace under old sweatshirts and musty underwear. But when I can, I reach down to the bottom of the drawer and pull up my old friends and say hello. It reminds me of a sweet time when clowns and puppets walked among humans almost as equals and almost always loved.


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