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Friday, December 18, 2009
[NOTE: This interview originally appeared in October 2007.)
If you're a Howdy Doody fan, you might know her better as Marilyn Patch, who played Doodyville schoolteacher "Happy Harmony" on "The New Howdy Doody Show" for 130 episodes back in '76. Dr. Marilyn Arnone has been doing her part to educate kids in entertaining ways ever since she hosted her own children's show called "Marilyn and Calico" at the age of eleven. (Hmm...I think I built a birdhouse out of a milk carton when I was eleven, but then I blew it up with some firecrackers.)
Dr. Arnone is a Harvard grad with a PHd who is currently the director of educational media for Syracuse University's Center for Digital Literacy, in addition to being co-founder and president of Creative Media Solutions. I had such a blast recently watching the DVD set "Say Kids, What Time Is It? It's Howdy Doody Time: The Lost Episodes" that I was compelled to hurl a few pertinent interrogatives at her, which she was nice enough to answer--after all, she's "Happy Harmony"!--and you can enjoy the results right here, right now. So, come on, Peanuts! To Doodyville...and beyond!
porfle: How in the world did you manage to land your very own Saturday morning children's show at age 11?
Marilyn: I used to go around the neighborhood asking neighbors if I could show them my puppet act. When they invited me in, I'd get behind a big chair and pull out my brown sock puppet (Calico, the Texican Donkey) and start talking to it. They probably thought I was a little weird but harmless. Then, finally, I got my parents to take me to meet some people at WHDH-TV in Boston, the CBS affiliate at the time. We did a pilot and then the show.
porfle: Is this what first interested you in the potential of using television to help kids learn?
Marilyn: Not at that point, but after I graduated from high school and contemplated college, I knew that's what I wanted to do. Now, I am involved more in digital media and learning doing more with the Web but it still uses some of my old skills with television. I love kids. I feel I am doing something I like and making some kind of contribution at the same time.
porfle: Didn't you appear as a contestant on "What's My Line?"
Marilyn: Yes, but Dorothy Kilgallen was the the first one to interview me and she guessed me without too much problem (that I was the youngest person in Boston to have her own TV show). I recently saw the clip and you should have seen the expression on my face, total amazement and disbelief. Guess Mr. Daly felt badly for me and flipped over all the cards anyway which meant I won all the money. A whopping $50.00! With the extra time left, they asked me to sing a verse from a song. I chose my parents' original song "We Wish We Had It But We Ain't"--a song they wrote during the Depression!
porfle: Your talent for ventriloquism is impressive. Can you tell us a little something about this art and how you happened to pick it up?
Marilyn: Well, when I was 8 or 9, Shari Lewis had her own show. She became one of my idols. I thought she was so beautiful and talented. I watched her carefully and the rest was self-taught.
porfle: What did you do between "Marilyn and Calico" and "Howdy Doody"?
Marilyn: I graduated junior high school and high school. Got married. Had a baby boy, Sean. Went to college and got a bachelor's degree from Emerson College.
porfle: How did you come to join the cast of "The New Howdy Doody Show"? Did you create the "Happy Harmony" character or had it already been established?
Marilyn: The character of Happy Harmony was already written up in the prospectus for "The New Howdy Doody Show." I heard about the auditions in NYC and went for the try-outs. I was able to do a little of everything, sing, dance, play the guitar, puppeteer, and act so I think that helped me a bit.
porfle: What was it like working with Buffalo Bob and Clarabell?
Marilyn: It was some of the most fun times I've had! They always kept things interesting. They taught me this funny gibberish-type language so we could communicate anywhere and no one would know what we were saying. They swore me to secrecy but my daughter, Alexis, actually figured it out after a while. Buffalo Bob used cue cards but I never did. He was a master of cue cards, I was not. So, I memorized everything and went into rehearsals prepared. Bob didn't have much patience for re-takes.
Lew Anderson who played Clarabell was so nice, with a dry sense of humor. He always kept me laughing. And he was so very talented as a musician, writer, and arranger. He loved his Big Band! I loved going to work at the studio because we had such a tight cast and crew. Everyday was interesting and different.
porfle: Wasn't some of it pre-taped, especially the backstage scenes?
Marilyn: Yes, all the backstage scenes were taped at a different time than when the live audience was there.
porfle: Did any unfortunate or embarrassing mishaps ever occur during taping that didn't end up on the air? I'd love to see a "Howdy Doody" blooper reel.
Marilyn: All the time. So much fun. I'd love to see the blooper reel myself again. This wasn't exactly a blooper because the crew planned this trick on me but for me, it was a blooper because I wasn't expecting what happened...OK, the director, Errol Falcon, and the crew had planned this scene where everyone was getting squirted by Clarabell and they got to me and I said something like "I always like it when somebody else gets squirted by Clarabell!" at which point someone on the catwalk dropped a bucket of water on my head.
Ok, I was expecting that. What I was NOT expecting was that on the heels of the bucket of water dropping on my head, I was pounded with a pie in the face. Now, that expression was priceless! Guess they thought that if I knew it was coming, it wouldn't have looked as funny! Good thing I'm a good sport!
porfle: Aren't you skilled with marionettes yourself? How much of this did you get to do on the show?
Marilyn: I was a puppeteer (hand and rod puppets) before the show but had never done marionettes. They sent me to New London, Connecticut, to work with Margo Rose to learn to operate marionettes. I loved it! It took a lot of practice because these were long-stringed marionettes that had to be operated from a high puppet bridge. It was an honor to have Margo Rose work with me like that.
porfle: How much input did you have in the "Happy Harmony" character, regarding songs, storylines, etc.?
Marilyn: None for the most part. However, they did let me do a little ventriloquist bit using one of my own puppets sitting in the audience one time. That was fun.
porfle: By the 70s, weren't some of the kids in the Peanut Gallery a little jaded toward something as simple and innocent as "Howdy Doody"? Sometimes it looks like their baby-boomer parents are having the most fun.
porfle: What's the story on the show's bandleader, Jackie Davis? Not only was he funny, but he played a mean Hammond organ.
Marilyn: He was super-talented and a pleasure to work with. Always upbeat and funny.
porfle: During a show, was it easy to find yourself relating to the marionettes as actual performers?
Marilyn: It was easy for me because I could get into character and forget about the fact that
Pady Blackwood, the master puppeteer, was doing all the magic above!
porfle: Mayor Phineas T. Bluster cracks me up. Can a marionette's performance be so funny that you lose it during a scene?
Marilyn: Oh yes, especially when Nick Nicholson or Bob would ad-lib with the puppets but that was mostly during rehearsals. Bluster used to say things to me sometimes and I'd blush. Like he was a dirty old man. Pady Blackwood was quick enough to make the puppet look like it was coming right out of his mouth. Mr. Bluster used to be the one that cracked us up the most during rehearsals--you just never knew what he was going to say.
porfle: There's no getting around it--"Happy Harmony" was very cute. Did she ever get any "fan mail" from older male viewers?
porfle: How was "The New Howdy Doody Show" received by audiences and critics at the time?
Marilyn: Unfortunately, it didn't have a long run.
porfle: You went on to do the "Pappyland" series in the 90s. The IMDb page for it shows that it still has quite a few devoted fans. Was it a good experience?
Marilyn: It was also a very good experience. My former business partner, MariRae Dopke, and I ran the production company that produced and edited the show. We were co-producers. Mike Cariglio, who played Pappy, is immensely talented as an artist and he learned to make puppets, too. I love working in the studio and miss the fun we had on that show.
porfle: How are the requirements for an effective children's television show different now than they were in the 70s? Or the 50s, for that matter?
Marilyn: You still have to gain and sustain attention but today, programs have to have more
educational value and funders are looking for outcome-based evaluation, a plan for assessing whether kids have actually changed in knowledge, skills, attitude as a result of regular viewing. There is also the Children's Television Act which makes providing quality children's programming a condition of license renewal so that's good.
porfle: What's wrong with some of the children's programming you've seen? "Barney", for example.
Marilyn: Some of it is good but there's room for improvement, of course. Let's save this for
another interview. This could take a while!
Buy "Say Kids What Time Is It? It's Howdy Doody Time:The Lost Episodes" at Amazon.com