Kowabunga! Staging a '50s-Style Freckled Face-Off, Milwaukee Tells America It's Howdy Doody Time Again

updated 07/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/20/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Long before there was Pee-wee Herman, Big Bird or Captain Kangaroo, there was Howdy Doody, the perennially optimistic, jug-eared, freckle-faced marionette star of TV's first hugely successful program for kids. Howdy Doody may have gone off the air in 1960 after 13 years and 2,343 performances, but its reruns are still playing in the collective memory of baby-boomers. Howdy's lasting appeal, according to the show's ringmaster, Buffalo Bob Smith, 69, "is something like Peter Pan's. For the kids who once saw him, Howdy has never died."

Nor has he died for their kids. Marking the show's 40th anniversary (Howdy debuted Dec. 27, 1947, on NBC), King Features is releasing a slew of new merchandise, including Doody jeans, radios and lamps. Joining in the celebration, Milwaukee recently staged a throwback to the '50s—a Howdy Doody look-alike contest. With Buffalo Bob in attendance, the affair drew a Peanut Gallery's worth of contestants, who competed in two categories, child and adult. Timmy Dobrinska, 6, vanquished the rest of the small-fry division, winning a Howdy doll and an outsize chocolate-chip cookie. In the absence of Ted Koppel, Gary Wallendal, 37, was the victor among the putative grown-ups, winning a doll and a framed photo of the puppet inscribed with the Doody byword, "Kowabunga." A policeman in nearby Waukesha, the ruddy-faced Wallendal is always being ribbed by other cops for his resemblance to Howdy. "Now," he said after his victory, "I'm going to pay for this dearly."

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