HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. — “Buffalo Bob” Smith, the cowboy-suited host of “The Howdy Doody Show” who delighted the baby boom generation in the early years of television, died Thursday of cancer. He was 80.
Smith, who lived in the western North Carolina town of Flat Rock, died at a hospital in nearby Hendersonville, said family publicist Kelly Stitch from New York. She said the family would not release further details.
Smith, who for many years had a home on Big Lake, near Grand Lake Stream in Maine, was remembered in Calais Thursday as “just a regular guy” who owned three small-market radio stations in the state, loved to fish for bass and attended local Rotary meetings.
Fans knew the opening routine of the show by heart. Smith would shout out, “What time is it?” and the Peanut Gallery — the kiddie studio audience — would respond with glee: “It’s Howdy Doody time!”
Even though the TV show went off the air in 1960 after 13 seasons and more than 2,500 shows, Buffalo Bob and the freckle-faced marionette Howdy Doody were more than celebrities to millions of baby boomers across the country.
They became like a member of the family to their young fans — and the young at heart. Columnist Bob Greene wrote in 1987 that the show “may have been the most important cultural landmark for my generation.”
“I always liked kids,” Smith, the father of three sons, said in an interview in 1994. “You can’t kid a kid. They know right away if you like them or not.”
Among the show’s other much-loved characters in the town Doodyville, U.S.A.: Clarabell the Clown, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, Phineas T. Bluster, Dilly Dally, Chief Thunderthud, Trapper John and Flubadub. One of the performers who played Clarabell was Bob Keeshan, later to become TV’s Captain Kangaroo.
“No one knows how hard we worked all those years,” Smith told People magazine in 1987. “Live TV is the most difficult thing to do in the world. You’re on the spot all the time.”
Recovering from a 1954 heart attack that sidelined him for months, he actually did some appearances from a specially built studio in the basement of his home.
After his return to the NBC studio in 1955, he told The Associated Press he drove himself out of “a feeling of pride. You’re happy that people want you to entertain them.” He said the heart attack taught him to “remember your limits.”
Smith was never bitter after the show went off the air, saying: “We had a good run. Besides, how many TV shows ever lasted 13 seasons?”
In the 1960s, Smith retreated from his spot in front of the TV camera and went back into radio — this time as an owner. He bought three radio stations in Maine and dabbled in real estate.
Smith bought WQDY, Calais, in 1964. Three years later, he added WHOU in Houlton, and WMKR in Millinocket.
“He was just a regular guy,” said Dan Hollingdale, who supervised the three stations for Smith and bought WQDY from him in 1978. Smith sold the other two stations in 1970.
Hollingdale, who retired from the station a year ago, said Smith had a lot of friends in the area and loved to go fishing with local folks.
“He showed up at Rotary just about every week when he was in the Calais area,” Hollingdale recalled.
Smith’s talent as an entertainer went beyond his role as host of “The Howdy Doody Show,” Hollingdale said. “He was an excellent musician. He played piano and organ and he could find his way around a ukulele.”
In 1970, Smith got a call out of the blue from a student at the University of Pennsylvania, who asked him to bring along Howdy Doody to the school and do a show.
“I thought he was putting me on,” Smith said.
College students who had grown up watching Howdy Doody felt right at home back in the Peanut Gallery. Over the next six years, Smith and his famous sidekick made hundreds of appearances across the country.
He and Mildred, his wife of more than 57 years, moved to Flat Rock in 1991 to spend more time on his other passion — golf. He still made occasional appearances at nostalgia events, bringing his marionette with the snub nose and perpetual smile with him.
Smith got his start on the radio and his nickname in his hometown, Buffalo, N.Y.
“I did just about everything you could do on the radio when I was 15,” he said. Two years later, singer Kate Smith came to Buffalo.
Smith joined Kate Smith’s vaudeville act, playing the piano at times and other times playing master of ceremonies. He was back working successfully in radio when NBC was looking for someone in 1947 to be host of a children’s television show.
That was the birth of “The Howdy Doody Show.”
Despite his efforts to keep a low profile in later years, Smith’s trademark “Buffalo Bob” voice always seemed to give him away.
“I walk into a supermarket and nobody recognizes me,” he said in the 1994 interview. “Then I open my mouth and somebody always says, `That’s Buffalo Bob!’ ”
In addition to his wife, Smith is survived by sons Robin, Ronald, and Christopher and three grandchildren. A private memorial service is planned but no date was given.