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Lost UPA Cartoon: Howdy Doody and his Magic Hat

Gene Deitch has written this plea before, but he’s not ready to give up hope. The first cartoon he ever directed – for UPA no less – is apparently a lost film. Writes Gene:

“The short animated film that I consider my seminal work appears to be lost and gone forever. It is not listed on any roster of animated films. Technically, it does not exist. The only evidence that it ever did, beside my word and a very few living witnesses, is a magazine article in the also vanished Colliers magazine, with one barely representative illustration (above, click to see it larger).”

The name of this hopelessly obscure little film is also weirdly surrealistic: HOWDY DOODY AND HIS MAGIC HAT. Surrealistic because the film had nothing to do —really — with the grotesque television puppet Howdy Doody. So what is the origin of this artistic tragedy? Here’s the story: The Howdy Doody production organization, Kagran Corp, paid us at UPA-New York, in 1952, to make the film, hoping to establish their string puppet star into a movie star. We disappointed them. They felt we screwed them, and they got the ultimate revenge: They destroyed the negative. They destroyed my seminal work of animation art! I ultimately got that information from a most reliable source: my best friend, and the one-time voice of Howdy Doody and his entire gang, Allen Swift. Allen told me that Bob Smith, the creator of Howdy Doody, hated my film so vehemently that he ordered it wiped it off the face of the earth!

What had we done, and why? We, the then masters of modern animation — the purveyors of progressive design, got it into our eggy heads to influence Kagran to transform Howdy Doody with elegant graphics; to give children something better than the schlocky look of their immensely popular TV show. To this day I don’t know what made us think we could get away with it. We were delighted to take Kagran’s money, and the opportunity it gave us to show our stuff.

When I claim my so-called HOWDY DOODY film is a work of art, I don’t mean that it was all my art. Cliff Roberts was the graphic designer, and Duane Crowther the animator, and I can’t even remember the name of the great young avant garde composer. We were all proud of our film, feeling it was a landmark, that would not only rejuvinate the ugly H.D. but would become a classic film for us.

My personal contribution was partly the storywritten in collaboration with my long-time friend, William Bernal, ( a cowboy rough-rider variation on the magic talisman that endows victory, but that is lost and forces the hero to win without it), plus my visual conception, layout and direction. Coping with the low budget, I decided to do it as paper cut-out animation with special camera effects of my own invention, which became the basis of my filming technique throughout my career and to this day. That’s why the ‘HOWDY DOODY AND HIS MAGIC HAT film is still so important to me. Others have since done these same multiple exposure depth effects, overlapping dissolves and backlit glows since those early days before computers existed, but without a copy of this simple little 1952 bag of tricks filmette, how can I prove I did it first?

When I left UPA New York to pursue other glories, I did manage to get a 16mm print, and I eventually brought that print with me on my first trip to Prague, 50 years ago in 1959 — to impress the communist-repressed locals my skills. It worked, and I won my incredible wife in the process. But in that first trip, nothing like that was assured. I had only a few days to stay here, and according to US Customs regulations at the time, I could not carry films to America in my luggage, so the Czechoslovak Air Cargo outfit shipped my film back to Bill Snyder’s office. It arrived. It was not confiscated by the Czechs, yet when I returned, Snyder could not find it. I had my mind set on more urgent matters, and assumed it would turn up. It never did.

Snyder and his assistant repeatedly told me the print could not be found. I had returned to Prague and had no chance to get to New York during that time – the early 1960s. When I did get there, I could not find it in the Rembrandt Film’s store room. Later, after Snyder died and his company was taken over by his son Adam, our close friend, neither he could find it.

So this possibly lone 16mm film print slipped from my grasp. Many colleagues tried to locate a print, but to this day, nearly 50 years later, it appears to be hopeless. So my first UPA film, “Directed by Gene Deitch,” seems to be lost forever.

Only the Kagran Corporation, now also defunct, could have derived satisfaction, that this brazen little animated movie, which dared to meddle with the design and name of their beloved character, has been erased from history! – Gene Deitch

If one 16mm print existed, surely others were struck from the negative. And what of the negative, or any original art? If anyone has any clues as to the existence of anything related to the film (not the Little Golden Book), please contact us.

  • Mike Kazaleh

    What an amazing but sad tale. I first heard of this film over thirty years ago in some book or article and I always hoped to see it some day. Unless one of you other readers can find it, I guess I won’t. Big thanks to Gene for sending in this story.

    There’s another lost, or maybe semi lost Gene Deitch film from UPA: The original “Dusty of the Circus” cartoon. Herb Klynn used to have a print sitting in a film can on top of a filing cabinet. There was a beautiful three-dimensional cardboard model of the circus train sitting on top of the film can. I asked Herb about it, and he told me that Gene Deitch had built the model train, and a print of the film was in the can. He went on to explain that the film was for the “Omnibus” show on CBS, but it was in black and white, so it was left out of the package of shorts made for “The Boing Boing Show”. Being somewhat shy, I said something like, “Boy, I’d really love to see that film sometime.” What I should’ve said was, “You must let me make a transfer of the film right now!” As it was, I never did get to see it.

  • AJ Marvin

    Did the NYC Technicolor lab strike those 16mm reduction prints? Did they keep anything at all? Buffalo Bob Smith also destroyed nearly all photos of the original Howdy Doody marionette, which was one ghastly specimen to behold. He only cared about his vision of the H.D. character and loathed everything else on earth.

  • Billboard magazine of Dec. 3, 1953 refers to it. It says the film was to open at the Paris Theatre in NYC in Jan. 1954. The short cost $15,000 to make. Apparently, it was supposed to be the first in a series.

    The Doodys were eventually going to be released by Castle for the home market.

  • Ultra Fem

    Watching old Howdy films as an adult, you can kind’a tell how much of a jerk Bob was. It’s pretty obvious he didn’t like kids. This story doesn’t surprise me.

  • Pedro Nakama

    The artwork on this one frame makes want to see this.

  • uncle wayne

    That IZ a sad story! And I’d of loved to SEE this lush piece of UPA-ness! And, while we’re here….how come I can never (ever) find any clips from the tv show, “Gerald McBoing Boing Show”?? Does THAT exist, in any form, any where???

  • A very sad story indeed. Artists have the responsibility to preserve their own work because nobody else will.

    Years ago, I would actually sneak film out of a Hollywood studio at lunch time so I could make a “quick and dirty” dupe at a local film lab. I knew the studio would never give me copies, so this was my only option. Of course, this was long before video and digital media.

  • Bob

    I have heard stories regarding Buffalo Bob Smith, so I don’t doubt Mr. Deitch’s contention about his Howdy Doody cartoon.

    But speaking as a fan of Mr. Deitch’s work since the Tom Terrific days, I hope he finds a copy of that lost cartoon.

    And like Uncle Wayne, I would love to see anything from the 1956 Made for TV Gerald McBoing Boing series, but nothing seems to be extant.

  • David Breneman

    I don’t understand how “the film had nothing to do –really – with the grotesque television puppet Howdy Doody.” The film was about Howdy Doody, and paid for by Howdy Doody’s producers, wasn’t it?

    • Ted

      Yeah, I would tend to agree. The film was about Howdy Doody, no matter how UPA and Deitch stylized his image.

      Maybe on an animation site Howdy Doody the puppet is beneath contempt, but I imagine, maybe not in an alternate universe, but perhaps on an alternate website – I’m sure there’s some marionette fan site – Howdy Doody is probably beloved and or celebrated for all his grotesqueness.

  • I’m not sure how much help this will be but here’s a starting point for any film detectives to try to track this project.
    If they don’t have any actual materials on hand, someone might be able to point you in the right direction. Maybe there’s an old timer still on staff that might even have come across the film during their career. Just a thought.

  • What a g o r g e o u s drawing/painting … thank you for publishing this story and the artwork.

  • Speaking of “lost and gone forever” – Floyd, did you happen to get a dupe of that 1969 Fat Albert special?

    Sorry to go off topic but I’m still searching.

  • EricW

    This might not be anything, but c. April 1954 it shared the bill (at least in New York City) with La Minute de Verite (The Moment of Truth), a film starring Jean Gabin. And yes, as Don mentioned further up the page, that was at the Paris. Assuming the Billboard date is correct as an opening date, could a short have lingered that long as a free-floater?

  • Mike Kazaleh , DUSTY OF THE CIRCUS was released as a VHS tape called” Gerald McBoing Boing Presents Dusty of the Circus.” It includes several other Dusty shorts. Used copies can be purchased via Amazon:

  • amid

    Michael: There was indeed an earlier Dusty short that was made prior to the ones on the VHS you mention. UPA production records show that it was made in 1949 and listed as a “pilot for 20th Century Fox” whatever that means.

  • Bill Cross

    Amidst all this dumping on Buffalo Bob Smith, I would like offer at least one tiny dissenting voice.

    Deitch’s notion that Allen Swift was the “voice of Howdy” and “the entire gang” is patently false.

    Bob Smith himself provided the voice of Howdy – as is obvious in surviving kinescopes of the very early years of the show when Bob did the voice live.

    Frequently, the camera would cut back to Bob instead of holding on a close-up of Howdy and you can plainly see Bob doing the Howdy voice. Of course, as recording technology advanced, Bob went to pre-recording Howdy’s lines.

    As for the rest of the Doodyville puppets, Dayton Allen provided the voice for the series’ villain, Phineas T. Bluster. Swift may have provided the voices for some characters, but he defnitely wasn’t Howdy nor was he the voice of the entire cast of puppets.

    With such a glaring inaccuracy as that, I will take some of the rest of Deitch’s assertions with a few grains of salt.

    To me, his comments ring of a certain elitism or snobbism. Howdy Doody was wildly succesful. Yet, he feels that he & his team can “improve” on it. They were not asked to improve on it. He goes so far as to allege that his version “had nothing to do” with the TV version. That is artistic conceit that is hard to stomach, even from this distance.

    Bob Smith’s concern for the Howdy character is no different than Walt Disney’s concerns for Mickey Mouse. Both men can be said to be the primary creators of these characters that went on to enjoy huge popular successes. As the primary creators and owners of these characters they have every right to control how these characters are translated in other media.

    Imagine if someone thought they could “improve” Mickey Mouse when translating him into, say, a children’s book. Say this self-absorbed artist “improved” the characters design and had Mickey behaving in a way that was way out of character.

    Walt Disney would have every right to surpress publication of that book (especially as it was paid for on his nickel).

    I also have little patience for those who think they know what’s “best” for children and yet, show disdain for something that children clearly loved, yet didn’t meet their personal artistic standards.

    For the record, I not only met Bob Smith, but spent the better part of a day with him, as he reminisced about the TV series. He seemed to me to be a very warm individual. He also seemed to speak of the kids who attended the show with affection.

    I have also read two other accounts of the behind the scenes activities around that show neither written by Smith and neither painted Smith as anything evil or bad. Just a talented guy coping with the demands of success and the stress producing a live television show. That he had faults like any other human being should come as no surprise.

    I am sorry that we don’t have a copy of Dietch’s first cartoon, but it was “work for hire” so I think some of this character assassination is a little out of line.

  • DJ Jazzy Horton

    Buffalo Bob Smith brought his beloved little wooden boy Howdy Doody on a college tour in the 1970’s. He seemed most fully alive only when talking about that sad marionette. When Bob opened up his lecture to audience questions on my campus and someone asked if Howdy Doody had been circumcised with a pencil sharpener, it wasn’t too long before ol’ Bob’s presentation ended. There’s a lot of truth to that Cliff Robertson episode of The Twilight Zone.

  • gd0

    I hope this film surfaces. Deitch really deserves more acclaim than he’s generally given in animation history.

    Buffalo Bob was certainly within his rights to dispose of the film if he was funding the project. And it’s perfectly understandable if he wanted to preserve his carefully-crafted – and immensely successful – intellectual property.

    But none of that changes the basic truth: Howdy Doody was one ugly m***********.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    I guess I feel some sadness for Deitch not having even his own copy of the film at hand to prove the world what he did. I hope it will turn up someday so we can see what his team had done to make Buffalo Bob rather PO’d at the results.

  • Ross W

    I can understand Buffalo Bob’s reaction based on this: as a kid I loved the original Hanna-Barbera Tom and Jerry’s on TV. When the local station expanded their collection to include Mr. Deitch’s I thought they were crap, with weird animation and sound effects. Now, being older and wiser, I see them as quirky and amusing, but back then it was change the channel time.

    But I also remember Tom Terrific being my favorite part of Captain Kangaroo, go figure.

    Best of luck finding this film. I would love to see it.

  • David Breneman

    DJ Jazzy Horton writes: “When Bob opened up his lecture to audience questions on my campus and someone asked if Howdy Doody had been circumcised with a pencil sharpener, it wasn’t too long before ol’ Bob’s presentation ended”

    I’ve never met Mr. Smith, nor anyone who has firsthand experience of him.
    And Howdy Doody was before my time. However, it strikes me that such a question would be rightfully interpreted by a man of his generation as heckling. “Just another spoiled college smartass” as it were. It’s not hard to see how he might feel he’d lost his audience and decided to call it a night. And that’s what’s sad about that story.

  • There is nothing more frustrating than creating a work of art that you are proud of, thinking it’s the best work you have ever done, and have it skewered and hated by those you created it for in the first place. It must add further insult to injury that it was destroyed. I hope, for Mr. Deitch’s sake, that someone finds this film.

  • Gerard de Souza

    This looks like a job for PBS’ History Detectives!

  • Answering David Breneman: Yes, David, I readily admit that we took a long chance, on the lcient’s money, to present in our film a better looking model for Howdy Doody. In that sense, our film had “nothing to do” with Howdy as he actually (yeck!) looked.

    Answering Bill Cross: You may not know two things about the Howdy Doody Show. One, the miserably paid original voice actor cast walked out, and Allen Swift was able to perfectly capture each and every voice. Secondly, Bob Smith had a heart attack, and was off the show for over a year. He had alway proclaimed that “no one could do Howdy!” Allen took a transcript disc home for the weekend, and came back and did Howdy’s voice for the entire period of Smith’s absence. No one ever noticed the difference. So Bill, I did not lie!

    Gene Deitch

  • Tom

    Why not check with the Bob Smith estate? For all we know, they have a copy in their archives.

  • Greg Ehrbar

    One person who might know is producer Burt Dubrow, a leading expert in all things Doody.

    Perhaps the point here is more about the ongoing dilemma of any of us in creative roles who, carrying the responsibility and accountability but little of the authority, sees their work either mutated, eliminated or misappropriated. Clearly Mr. Deitch has not allowed this to deter him from moving on his career and further visions.

    I do not think it’s about neither whether or not Bob Smith was a cad nor whether Howdy Doody was a masterpiece. I have read “Say Kids, What Time is It?” (which combines the bitter with the sweet and by the way, supports Mr. Swift’s performances) and “Howdy and Me” (Bob Smith’s brief bio which hints at his disdain for the earlier, not-completely-flattering book). Both are fascinating, and when you combine them with a good heavy dose of actual Howdy Doody episodes on DVD, you can separate today’s expectations of television quality and realize that “The Howdy Doody Show” was a huge part of pop culture (and dare I say, American history), regardless of how cheesy is may seem now.

    Animation usually does not date itself the way vintage TV does, so it is likely that Mr. Deitch’s version shines far and above the series, which is a product of its time, along with Milton Berle and Pinky Lee. I would love to see the Howdy Doody cartoon — just as I would love to buy a DVD collection of Mr. Deitch’s Nudnik cartoons to share with my kids (they love the department store cartoon that’s a bonus feature on the “Winky Dink & You” DVD).

    Anyway, just want to speak to the historic importance of Howdy Doody and the fact that there are any number of ways to remember Bob Smith just as there are about Walt Disney, Joe Barbera or Bob Keeshan (who also does not come across very nicely in “Say Kids”). You can’t deny how they each changed the world, at least for many of us.

    It’s also ironic to read, in a forum that so often bemoans much of the “yucky new stuff,” comments picking on something from the “good old days” (depending on one’s decade of childhood).

    And that’s my two cents tossed into the Doody discourse.

  • FP

    —Buffalo Bob Smith brought his beloved little wooden boy Howdy Doody on a college tour in the 1970’s—

    HOWDY was before my time by a generation or four, but I know Bob. As a tot in the 70s, I watched something new called “HBO”. The network itself broadcast 12 hours a day or so. The rest of the day, something else was supposed to be on whatever channel it occupied. My local cable company often fed whatever the hell was on the transponder during the day. One week, it was a trade show of sorts for the cable industry. There were featured “celebrities”, among them a jowly and befuddled Buffalo Bob. On an ID, shown more than once, Buffalo Bob sat on a card table chair, looked into the camera, and yelled “Hey Mable, get on the cable!” He was wearing holsters with toy cap guns.

    For this reason, Buffalo Bob is forever cool.

  • Chris J.

    I’m confused. Did the client never ask to see any production stills? Any animation tests? The script? The boards? Did they just hand over 15 grand and let UPA do whatever they wanted?

    Mr. Deitch – you say “they felt we screwed them.” Well, did you? What exactly was promised? Did you promise them one thing and produce something entirely different? Or did they foolishly assume all animation was the same, so they never bothered to check in and see what UPA was all about?

    Here’s hoping it’s not truly lost.

  • Jeffrey Gray

    Howdy Doody and His Magic Hat is listed on IMDB, but it claims that Pete Burness directed the short and that it was done by the UPA Hollywood team. What’s up w/ that?

  • Jeffrey Gray


    The Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television & Radio) in NYC has “Hey Hey Hey, It’s Fat Albert” on file. I was actually able to watch it, too.