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Does Motor City really need Howdy Doody?

By Lee Howard

Publication: The Day

Published July 20. 2013 4:00AM   Updated July 20. 2013 12:41PM

"Say, kids, what time is it?"

In Detroit, it may be time to sell Howdy Doody.

The iconic marionette, created by the late Waterford puppeteers Margo and Rufus Rose and seen by millions of kids in the early days of television on "The Howdy Doody Show," has been part of the collection at the Detroit Institute of Art since 2001.

But now that Detroit has filed a bankruptcy petition noting $18.5 billion in long-term debt, creditors are clamoring for the city to sell off the museum's collection, estimated to be worth billions of dollars.

"Do we really need Howdy Doody?" Detroit News columnist Laura Berman quoted Bill Nowling, spokesman for Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, as saying. "I'm not so sure."

The puppet, estimated to be worth between $500,000 and $1 million, was promised to the Detroit museum for three decades, according to court documents. But Rose's family and the show's host, Buffalo Bob Smith, fought handing over the freckle-faced marionette after Rose's death in 1975.

Complicating the situation were the existence of various Howdy Doody replicas, two of which were used in a Canadian version of the children's show. Another, dubbed "Double Doody," was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Shortly before Smith's death in 1998, another replica known as Photo Doody - used in publicity shots and personal appearances - got a high bid at auction of $113,000, according to reports at the time.

A federal judge in Hartford ruled in 2001 that Howdy Doody had been promised to the museum. The marionette, previously kept in a bank vault, was subsequently turned over to the Detroit institution.

Howdy Doody is one of several popular puppets owned by the Detroit museum as part of its Paul McPharlin Collection of Puppetry and Theater Arts. Other important puppets include Punch and Judy and Kermit the Frog.

An opinion in June by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette stated his belief that Detroit cannot sell off the museum's collection to pay off debts, even though the city is the legal owner of the assets.

Schuette, responding to the public's concerns after Emergency Manager Orr requested an inventory of the museum's collection, said he viewed the city as holding the items in "charitable trust for the people of Michigan" and that "no piece in the collection may thus be sold, conveyed, or transferred to satisfy city debts or obligations."

Legal experts noted, however, that the opinion could easily be challenged in court and overturned.

"Right now there's nothing for sale," Michigan Gov. Ricky Snyder said at a press conference this week.

And so far, the city's emergency manager has made no move to sell off items to compensate creditors, saying his priority is to restore essential services. But his spokesman has acknowledged that creditors are asking about the museum's assets - loudly.

Christopher Rose of Mystic, Rufus' son and one of the family members who had fought turning over the marionette to the Detroit museum, said Friday that it is unfortunate Howdy Doody is in danger of being auctioned off to help pay down the city's debt. He wasn't sure of the puppet's value, but said it likely has started diminishing as the generation of people with fond memories of the Howdy Doody Show ages and diminishes.

"I hope they get the most for it they can," he said.

His greatest hope, Rose said, would be for a philanthropist to buy the original Howdy Doody and give it to a nonprofit such as the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut that has an extensive collection of historic puppets.

Rufus Rose, a five-term Republican member of the General Assembly during the 1960s and '70s who helped build submarines at Electric Boat during World War II, has received much of the credit for Howdy Doody over the years since he built the marionette and manipulated its strings during all but the earliest shows. But his wife, Margo, who died in 1997, did the initial design and modeling of the puppet, according to the UConn museum.

The couple would put on frequent shows at their Waterford home, which was built around a stage perfect for puppet performances.

As for Detroit, a $1 million puppet that hasn't been exhibited since 2009 would seem like a natural target in tough times, even if museum supporters raise a ruckus.

"Say, kids, what time is it?" as announcers said more than 2,000 times near the start of most every TV show between 1947 and 1960.

"It's Howdy Doody time."

l.howard@theday.com

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