To millions of rug rats in the '50s, Buffalo Bob Smith was a surrogate father—the chummy, cheerful host of The Howdy Doody Show (1947-60), costarring a freckle-faced marionette. But to his three sons Ronald, Robin and Christopher, he was the real McCoy: a devoted dad who coached them in Little League and took them to church. Yet even as Smith, 80, lay dying of bone cancer on July 30 in a hospital near his home in Flat Rock, N.C., with Mildred, his wife of 57 years, and the boys at his side, he still seemed to be playing to the Peanut Gallery (the kids in Howdy's live studio audience). "His exact words to me," says Ronald, now 55 and a retired bond trader, "were, 'No, slugger, you can't go yet. You've got to give me a kiss—and don't worry, it's not contagious!' "
Certainly Smith's enthusiasm was. Born Robert Schmidt in Buffalo, N.Y., he was a 29-year-old New York City radio deejay when NBC tapped him to create a kids' TV show overnight. "He loved to perform. He never was down," says Lew Anderson, 76, one of three actors to play Howdy's Harpo-like clown Clarabell. Not even a 1954 heart attack could keep Buffalo Bob off the air for long. Last March, despite his failing health, Smith (a fixture on the nostalgia circuit since the '70s) sang for 45 minutes at a friend's restaurant. And when he did "It's Howdy Doody Time," a peanut gallery of 300 misty-eyed baby boomers chimed in.
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