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Howdy Doody puppet tangled up in legal fight over ownership

SHARE Howdy Doody puppet tangled up in legal fight over ownership

NEW YORK -- In a ceremony at Rockefeller Center earlier this month, cameras rolled and an adoring throng applauded as a redheaded, freckle-faced puppet was elevated into the television pantheon.

Surviving cast members, writers and producers of "The Howdy Doody Show" -- most in their 80s and scattered around the country -- gathered once more to see a bronze star uncovered for the beloved cowboy marionette on NBC-TV's "Walk of Fame," beside those of two flesh-and-blood giants of TV's golden age, Sid Caesar and Milton Berle.But Howdy wasn't there. He was locked in a trunk in a bank vault in New London, Conn., where he has been for the last year, and it may take a judge's order to get him out.

Yes, boys and girls, it's a lawsuit and custody battle over a puppet. But not just any puppet: the actual Howdy Doody marionette used on the show, which ran for 2,543 episodes from 1947 to 1960. In short, the eBay artifact of all time.

The lawsuit has summoned the cast and characters of "The Howdy Doody Show," people and puppets alike, from the pastures of television nostalgia and into the land of legalese.

The combatants are the family of the late Rufus Rose, Howdy's puppeteer for most of the show's run, and the Detroit Institute of Arts. The museum, which has one of the country's largest puppet collections, maintains that NBC gave Rose custody of the puppet with the understanding that he would eventually donate it to the museum. The family of Rose, who died in 1975, insists that there was no such deal, and they have a contract with Leland's, the Manhattan auction house, to sell the puppet and others from the show.

Last year, in federal court in Hartford, Conn., the museum sued the Rose estate for possession of the marionette, identified in legal papers as "Original Howdy," to distinguish it from several copies made as stand-ins but rarely used on the show.

Monday, both sides will submit their cases in writing. The judge could deliver a decision in weeks, or call a trial.

Episodes of this off-screen TV drama have been decidedly strange. Lawyers have taken testimony from the show's elderly graduates, now scattered across the country. They even deposed the last Clarabell the Clown -- Lew Anderson, 77, now a band leader who lives in Westchester. Court records include desperate letters from Buffalo Bob Smith, the host of the show, pleading with the Rose family to let him have Howdy, for financial reasons.

At a reunion of the 53-year-old Howdy with his "Mom," an 86-year-old puppet maker named Velma Dawson, she immediately identified him as her creation, though she had not held him in half a century.

From December 1947 to September 1960, in Studio 3-K in the NBC studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Buffalo Bob would open the show by asking the Peanut Gallery, a live audience of 40 children, "Say kids, what time is it?"

"It's Howdy Doody time," they would scream, and then launch into the show's theme song, set to the "Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay" melody. The hourlong afternoon program was first televised at a time when only 20,000 homes in the country had television sets. It was the first network weekday children's show, the first to broadcast more than 1,000 continuous episodes, and, when color came to television, it was NBC's first show in color.

After the show ended, all the puppets, including Original Howdy, stayed with Rose. While the 1950s was a whirlwind of shows and public appearances for Howdy, in the 1960s he went from Doodyville to Dullsville, tucked away in obscurity along with his marionette colleagues -- Phineas T. Bluster, Flub-a-Dub and Dilly Dally -- in the attic of Rose's home in Waterford, Conn.

Then in 1970, Original Howdy was lured out of retirement by Buffalo Bob Smith, who persuaded Rose to lend him the original puppet for public appearances at colleges and shopping centers across the country.

But Smith usually preferred to use a stringless replica he could easily rest on his lap -- often known as Photo Doody -- and Original Howdy has whiled away most of the last two decades in a glass case in Smith's home in Flat Rock, N.C.

After Smith's death in 1998, Original Howdy was returned to the Rose family. When the Detroit Institute sued, the family put him into the bank vault for safekeeping, along with two replicas Rose made for the show.

Legal ownership of the puppet, however, is not so straightforward. In 1970, Rose sent Smith a letter with the puppet confirming it as the "one and only original Howdy." Rose also pointed out that NBC had "conveyed ownership" of the show's puppets to him with the provisions "that I not use them in a commercial manner as the characters from 'The Howdy Doody Show' and that Howdy himself eventually be placed in the care of the Detroit Institute of Arts."

In the years after Rose died, Smith, claiming financial hardship, asked both the museum and the Rose family whether he could keep the puppet. Both said no.

When Smith turned over the puppet in 1998 to Christopher Rose, one of the puppeteer's sons and the trustee of his parents' estate, he and Smith agreed in writing to sell the puppet and split the profits between them.

But Smith died a few months later, before Howdy was sold. The puppet remained in Connecticut.

Rose's three sons, James, Rufus and Christopher, insist that their father changed his mind about giving the puppet to the museum. What could have led the father to change his mind? Perhaps the likelihood of making a fortune.

"The Rose collection is as good as it gets," said Joshua Leland Evans, chairman of Leland's auction house, which sold memorabilia belonging to several of the show's former members for about $350,000 in 1998. Photo Doody sold for $123,000. "It's a monster. It's in the pantheon with Dorothy's red shoes, the piano from 'Casablanca' and Vivien Leigh's Oscar from 'Gone With the Wind.'