Dennis O’Neil: Howdy, Chief Thunderthud! Howdy, Princess Summerfall Winterspring!
Our man Thunderthud was called a “chief,” but he wore only a single feather on his head instead of the fully-feathered bonnet we were used to seeing perched atop guys who answered to “chief” in the cowboy pictures I saw before you were born. The (if I may) chief is most notable, not for something he wore, but for something he said. This was “Kowabunga,” sometimes spelled “Cowabunga” and used mostly, if memory serves, as an expletive you could say freely in front of your church-going grandma. Some of you – most of you? – thought that Kowa/Cowabunga originated with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, of movie and comic book fame. Sorry, but no.
Beginning in 1947, Chief Thunderthud dwelt in Doodyville which, in turn, was located in midtown Manhattan in a studio owned and operated by The National Broadcasting Company.
He wasn’t necessarily lonely, there is Studio 3B. Doodyville had other inhabitants, some of them marionettes, such the town mayor, Mr. Bluster, a strange beastie known as Flubadub who seemed to be a mashup of eight different animals and, of course, Howdy himself. Human beings also called Doodyville home. There was the chief, and another member of Thunderthud’s tribe, Princess Summerfall Winterspring who was sometimes called Judy Tyler and who later made a movie with Elvis Presley. (Presley wasn’t a puppet, either.)
And there was Clarabell the Clown, who spoke only three words in the show’s entire run and who communicated by blowing a horn and whose favorite prank was squirting seltzer into somebody’s face. That Clarabell! What a hoot! Though maybe I should mention that he was a male hoot, despite the name.)
We’ve saved the best for last. I refer to none other than Buffalo Bob Smith, who did a lot of things including but not limited to emceeing the proceedings, interacting with the studio audience, and – here comes a surprise – supplying Howdy’s voice. Bob wasn’t a ventriloquist the way, say, Jeff Dunham is a ventriloquist, but who cared if his lips moved when Howdy talked? As long as a camera wasn’t aimed at him during Howdy’s chat, nobody except the kids and other performers and technical people knew exactly where the words were coming from. And did they care?
Why all this Howdy stuff now? Well, Howdy’s coming back! He’ll star in a Fourth of July video marathon that will incorporate old shows and new material, and maybe serve as a pilot for similar excursions into Doodyville. Which prompts us to ask: If Chief Thunderthud and the lovely princess were debuting today, would they run afoul of the defenders of political correctness? Will the antics of the Chief and princess, which could be seen as racist lampoons, be shown on July Fourth? Should they be seen as racist? I don’t know.
Final question: why? Has the world been yearning for a return to Doodyville?