No Strings Attached
No Strings Attached: A Survivor’s Memoir
By Daniel Radosh
“Howdy was so successful that Mr. Smith commissioned a stand-in, whom he called Double Doody, and a third puppet with no strings attached who posed for photos. He was called Photo Doody.” — From the New York Times obituary of Howdy Doody creator “Buffalo Bob” Smith
There are some stories you can’t tell at the time. Too many reputations are at stake. But now I’m the only one left. Me? You’ve probably never heard my name. You’d know my face in a second, though. I was called Photo Doody.
Howdy was my big brother, and whatever happened, I never forgot that. Between us was Double Doody—or Double Trouble, as they called him in the tabloids. Both were strong personalities, so I played the role of peacemaker—messaging egos, negotiating truces and always, always putting on a happy front for the public.
We all worked for Mr. Smith. (We never called him Bob or Buffalo Bob off camera. It was always Mr. Smith, and it couldn’t hurt to follow up with a “sir.”) But Howdy was the star. People loved him, and on TV he was lovable. What didn’t come across on the screen was his complexity. Howdy Doody was, I believe, the most complicated puppet who ever lived—and yes, I’m including Alf. Howdy was a visionary whose ideas couldn’t always be shoehorned into easy entertainment. I still recall his reaction when Mr. Smith nixed his modern dance interpretation of Eugene Onegin in favor of another “Iggly Wiggly Spaghetti” sing-a-long. “They’re always jerking my strings!” he cried. And it was true.
Yet Howdy’s self-importance sometimes made him insensitive. Fishing for gratitude once, I remarked to Howdy what a pain some of those still photographers could be—believe me, I felt for the Princess. Howdy just snorted, “Try lip-synching sometime.” I learned to shrug off his imperiousness, but poor Double Doody took it hard. Howdy never showed any appreciation for Double’s work, sweating before the peanut gallery so Howdy could hit the links with Bogey and the rest of the original Rat Pack. Yes, Double resented Howdy, plain and simple.
The common belief is that Mr. Smith named him Double Doody because he did double duty for Howdy. In fact, Mr. Smith originally christened him Stand-In Doody, a moniker that generated much snickering among the potty-minded. “Double” came about from those Fridays after taping, when the whole crew would convene across the street at Marionette’s, a dive bar that catered to “dummies.” This was before the days when people of ventriloquism mingled with mainstream society. Every week, Stand-In would be the first through the door. “Whiskey, Mac!” he’d roar to the bartender. “Double, Doody?” the knowing Mac would ask.
Double could slam ‘em back, that’s for sure. He had that Irish sap in him. He was a bitter drunk, but a funny one. We’d laugh ourselves silly at his impressions of Chief Thunderthud, Princess Summerfall Winterspring and Benito Mussolini. Then we’d giggle when, completely sloshed, he would stumble out to pick up a whore on Tenth Avenue warbling his familiar, sardonic refrain:
It’s Howdy Doody time
It’s Howdy Doody time
It only costs a dime
To get your booty shined.
Howdy loathed Double’s coarse behavior, but the more he tried to curb it, the more fiercely Double lashed back. As Howdy’s fame and Double’s shame grew in tandem, my attempts at conciliation became more and more futile.
Double’s worst rupture with Howdy took place in ‘48, when Howdy was running for president of all the boys and girls. Walter Winchell ran into Double at a pub one night at the tail end of the election, when it was beginning to look like Howdy had a shot. The next day, Winchell famously reported that Double had said to him, “I don’t know about the girls, but he’d sure like to be president of the boys.” Howdy’s poll numbers dropped precipitously and editors of the Chicago Daily Tribune scrambled to change their front page headline—DOODY DEFEATS TRUMAN—though in hindsight they didn’t scramble enough.
Finally I gave up trying to mend fences, partly because I had my own falling-out with Double. Ah yes, it was over a woman. Neither of us ever lacked for female companionship. Groupies flocked to the puppet scene in a way that makes the NBA look like a kiddie show. But Double didn’t believe in true love, and when I told him that I had met my soul mate, my Lamb Chop, he scoffed in a way I could never forgive. “Do you have to get a woody for every slab of meat you see?” he hissed cruelly.
By the end, Double’s boozing lost its charm. One night at Marionette’s, Clarabell the Clown snuck up on Double and got off an epic blast with his seltzer bottle. We all laughed except for Double, who spat, “Anyone ever tell you you got a girlie name?” and smashed his fist into the clown’s solar plexus, dropping him to the sawdust. Back then no one understood the disease that is alcoholism.
Shortly after that, I left the show. I suspect that Howdy and Double both ached to follow me, but they could never break free. They were bound too tightly by their strings.
Originally appeared in GQ, February, 1999