Baby boomers may have fond memories of various television icons.  Black and white television, that is.  Mighty Mouse, Mickey Mouse, Popeye and Howdy Doody, to name a few.  Then everyone grew up.

On Sept. 26, 2007, at 4:47 a.m. the Riverside County Sheriff-Coroner’s office received a call from a deputy sheriff reporting the death of Velma Dawson.  Nothing suspicious, but what stood out was that the deputy stated that Howdy Doody, Madame, Braer Snake and Braer Rabbit were hanging in a closet.  Since there were no immediate family members present, the deputy coroner responded to the location to document the marionettes and obtain more information as to their authenticity in order to make sure that they would be secured in a safe place with the proper person.  Upon arrival, Iris Beach, Velma’s close friend and caregiver, stated that Howdy was created by Velma back in the late 1940s and was indeed authentic.  Subsequently, the deputy coroner met with Iris several times after and learned that it was Velma’s desire to keep Howdy and Madame together and be donated to the McCallum Theatre to be put on display.

Six years passed when the deputy coroner, now retired, decided to fulfill a dream to obtain a degree.  He enrolled at College of the Desert (COD) with a degree in journalism as his goal.  There he met Professor Ted Grofer, faculty adviser at The Chaparral Newspaper at COD in 2014 when he discovered that Howdy and Madame still had not been put on display at the McCallum.  He inquired into the possibility of one of the student writers doing a story.  One of the problems was that a college student of 2014 possibly didn’t know who Howdy Doody was.  In the Fall of 2015 the retired deputy coroner enrolled to be on staff at The Chaparral, since the class was required.  He was also assigned to be copy editor and production manager.  While distributing the September 2015 issue around the campus, he learned that a little-known building on campus was named after Velma Dawson.  This discovery brought back earlier thoughts of a story about Howdy Doody and being able to connect it to the Velma Dawson House and the McCallum Theatre.

In the October 2015 issue a feature story was written about Velma and Howdy titled, “What time is it?  It’s Howdy Doody time!”.The Howdy Doody show ran on NBC 2,343 times going off the air in 1960, according to Wikipedia.  Questions that still remained included, “Where and what happened to Howdy and Madame?”  After all, it was nearly eight years after Velma’s death and still no display cases for Howdy and Madame at the McCallum.

In October 2015 Thomas Head, senior manager for planned gifts and grants of the McCallum Theatre, confirmed that both marionettes had been donated, but a suitable display location had yet to be determined. He was hopeful that visitors would be able to view Howdy and Madame at the theatre.

A year later the CEO of the McCallum Theatre was contacted, however he stated that he would, “only talk to a McCallum board member or McCallum benefactor regarding Howdy.”  Ted Giatas, former CEO of the McCallum and friend of Iris Beach, was then contacted.  Beach had delivered Howdy and Madame to Giatas, according to three of Beach’s friends, Tessa Goss, Stanley (Rex) Bonaccorso and Cindy Anderholt.  Goss, Bonaccorso and Anderholt stated that Giatas received Howdy and Madame with the condition that during the reconstruction of the McCallum, a display case would be built under a staircase where Howdy and Madame would be on display with a picture of Dawson.

On Oct. 24, 2016, Giatas revealed a spark of hope. He stated that he would contact Harold Matzner, then the current Chairman of the Board of the McCallum, and discuss the future of Howdy and Madame and the possibility of a proper display case at the McCallum, or transferring them to the Palm Springs Art Museum. In November, Giatas called and confirmed that he had been in touch with Matzner.  Giatas had visited the McCallum and personally observed Howdy and Madame in a secure location.

Howdy Doody: Unanswered Questions ResolvedGiatas said that he had discussed the plans for the two marionettes and learned that display cases would be built in the near future and that the cases would be placed in an area at the McCallum so that the general public would be able to see them. The exact location had yet to be determined but they would be in an area that would maintain a proper temperature, humidity and exposure to light appropriate to protect this type of art, possibly near the area of the Founder’s Room, on the second floor, as it provides a better controlled environment.

Larry Baranski, curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), was contacted in November 2016.  Baranski expressed concern regarding any display case. Due to the materials used to create Howdy and Madame: paper, cloth, leather, and the control strings; deterioration will occur unless the proper environment is kept within the case. Temperature, humidity and light will affect the marionettes.  According to Baranski, 10 foot candles is the maximum light that the marionettes should be exposed to.  Art products, such as Howdy, should be only on display for approximately six months at a time, and periodically should be taken off display for up to two years.  It should be noted that there are several Howdy marionettes that were created by Velma, possibly as many as four.  Howdy #1 is on display at the DIA.  Which Howdy at the McCallum is not known for sure.  According to Baranski, there is a small trap door at the top of the head where the control string goes through.  Although the trap door is sealed during final construction of Howdy, there may be a number printed on the inside that may indicate which Howdy is in the possession of the McCallum.

Howdy Doody: Unanswered Questions Resolved

Howdy head sculpture by Velma at Velma’s house.

To clarify some proper storage procedures, Larry Baranski was again contacted on Aug. 26, 2019.  Baranski had referred to the American Association of Museums (AAM) as having developed standards when it comes to proper storage of museum artifacts and art pieces.  Several issues were discussed relating to the proper storage of Howdy and Madame.  At the DIA, Howdy is stored suspended in a case with a glass front that is large enough for a human to go inside at the same time.  These cases have small holes in them to allow for air to circulate through them in order to slowly acclimate to the temperature and humidity.  Approximately 50% humidity is desired.  If the temperature is changed radically, then thermal shock is a concern.  Physical damage is always a problem, but what may not seem so obvious is light.  Due to particular light sources they too can be damaging and permanent.  Baranski noted that if Howdy and Madame are in the administrative offices, they are probably subjected to florescent lighting above 10 foot candles and just as important is the light spectrum, ultraviolet, that can cause damage to light sensitive paper and cloth, both materials that are used with Howdy and Madame.  The type of plexiglass used could have a UV coating which would help prevent excessive UV light from permanently damaging Howdy and Madame, but is not known.  Off-gassing was a term Baranski also used that could affect art pieces.  When DIA uses paint for their displays, they generally must wait weeks since the paint itself off-gasses and could potentially harm the materials.  In the plexiglass cases used for Howdy and Madame, three issues were noted:

First, there does not appear to be any ventilation holes to allow for acclimation.

Second, whatever glue was used may have vapors trapped inside which may affect both marionettes.  Consultation with AAM by the McCallum would clarify if the glue was approved by AAM standards.

Third, Howdy and Madame have been placed in a sitting position.  Depending on the condition of the materials, this position may not be in their best interest.  These  marionettes weren’t made last year, but 70 years ago.  When found in Velma’s closet, they were suspended.  A qualified curator should be able to determine if they can be left in a sitting position, or not.

Properly preserved, artworks such as these can actually last for centuries.  According to Baranski, the DIA currently has in their care Venetian puppets that are approximately 300 years old.

Vice President of Communications & Public Affairs Jeff Norman and Senior Vice President of Operations Alan De Zon were contacted at the McCallum.  In addition to the above concerns that were expressed to De Zon and Norman, they were able to provide some information previously unknown.  De Zon and Norman stated that this particular Howdy is not believed to have been used in any television production which would have added to its value.  There was an interest by the McCallum staff to check into the history of Howdy.


Howdy Doody: Unanswered Questions Resolved

Velma with Howdy

Interestingly enough during an examination of the head and neck, it was discovered that at the base of the neck, in the back, there was a signature.  The name was, and is still unknown as to who it was.  It was thought that Velma may have had another person construct the head and neck, which was then used to create Howdy for her personal collection, according to De Zon.  Howdy and Madame were originally bequeathed to a close friend of Velma’s, Henry Bellerose.  The marionettes were unable to be delivered to Bellerose for reasons that are not clear.  The marionettes were then delivered to Beach who then gave them to Giatas, possibly in 2007 or 2008.  At one point, the marionettes were offered to the Palm Springs Art Museum, but they declined to take them.  Although Howdy and Madame were briefly on display in the Founder’s Room, on the second floor from approximately 2016 – 2017, they were ultimately put in an administrative office during additional renovation due to concerns of security and the level of lighting, which was less than the first floor.

The McCallum is not considered a museum.  It is a performing arts theatre.  As such Howdy had been taken out several times and used by a puppeteer to entertain kids during an annual family funday at the McCallum.  According to Norman and De Zon, there was negative feedback and the kids were apparently scared.  Howdy has not been used since then.  As a side note, De Zon and Norman stated that they were aware of a Howdy at the COD Foundation.  The foundation was contacted and they too advised that there had been visitors at the foundation that had expressed that they too were scared of Howdy even though it was not a handmade marionette, but rather a commercially made plastic Howdy.  The plexiglass cases used to house Howdy Doody and Madame.  The plexiglass itself is not UV proof but is in an office with low lighting.  The cases were not completely glued shut since the marionettes have been taken out several times and thus any off-gassing would have been negligible while the cases were open.  Finally, the McCallum was not aware of the condition that a photo of Velma was to be displayed with Howdy and Madame.  They have since been given a photo of Velma and Howdy and hopefully will have that photo available with the marionettes.

Howdy Doody: Unanswered Questions Resolved

Velma with Howdy at COD Foundation

Tessa Goss, a long time friend of Velma, was again contacted for her thoughts on the final resting place of Howdy Doody and Madame.  Goss advised that she was present at the time when Beach gave the marionettes to Giatas.  She stated, “Velma was a most special and talented woman.  Her collection was ahead of her time.”  Goss was also disappointed that Howdy and Madame were not being displayed as was promised.

Although Howdy and Madame are currently available for viewing, by appointment only, some are disappointed that they are not displayed as originally discussed.

Whether you are a baby boomer or a millennial, Howdy Doody is a part of Americana. If given the opportunity, take the kids to see something that will always be a part of American history.











Image Sources

  • Howdy Doody: McCallum Theatre