Regular readers know I’m into old children’s television, because I’m an old child (rimshot). I grew up with Sheriff John, Hobo Kelly, Billy Barty, and Bob McAllister. Thus, it is with a heavy heart that I report the death of Velma Wayne Dawson.
Who? You ask.
Velma Wayne Dawson is the woman that created the Howdy Doody puppet. She died Wednesday at the age of 94 in Palm Desert. Quoting from an article on Ms. Dawson:
Frank Paris had the original puppet show. It was broadcast from NBC’s Radio City headquarters in New York. Frank needed a voice for his character Elmer. That’s how Bob Smith came on the show. Smith already had a NBC talk show for family and kids on the air. As Buffalo Bob Smith did Elmer’s voice.
The show got better and more popular. When NBC asked for dolls and merchandising, Paris wanted a part of the money. It was his show and his puppets. NBC balked at sharing a piece of the show with Paris. (Ultimately Howdy made about $3 billion dollars in merchandising.) Paris had an advisor, a close friend, who insisted he walk from the show. Frank left NBC stranded. He took his puppets with him. His exit made Bob Smith the top gun on the show.
NBC needed a Howdy Doody . The director of NBC, Norm Blackburn, was a caricaturist. He did a few sketches that he sent to Mel Allen, an artist who had worked for Disney. The original sketches for Howdy came from Mel Allen. In the interim, the character of Howdy spoke from a box and, at one point, told the kids he was getting plastic surgery to run for office. Norm Blackburn had come from Hollywood. He remembered seeing a marionette performance of Velma Dawson’s in Toluca Lake. He contacted Dawson. She was the only puppeteer he knew. She had a puppet studio in her Hollywood home near the Wilshire District.
NBC was desperate for the puppet. They rushed Velma. Howdy was made in nine days, a process that Velma wished had taken months. Velma knew Frank Paris in Hollywood. They worked puppets in a picture together. Velma made Howdy for $300, a fact that Frank Paris later turned into a joke. Frank Paris sued NBC for $250,000, a huge sum in those days. After he got his money, he said he made more money off Howdy Doody than Velma Dawson did. Velma acknowledges that was true. She adds, “Good thing I was good. It could have been a lousy puppet.”
And other piece of history joins the historical peanut gallery.