The year was 1947 and a WWII veteran named Bob Keeshan was working on the set as an assistant to Bob Smith. His role consisted mainly of keeping the “Peanut Gallery,” (the rowdy live audience of small hyper children,) quiet enough for anyone to hear the host. Sensing a need for a clown on the show, Keeshan was approached with the idea of donning makeup and rubber nose. He accepted and was soon transformed into Clarabell Hornblower, a clown who never spoke. Clarabell carried a box with two bicycle horns mounted on it. The horns were used to communicate – one toot for “no”, two for “yes”. Inside the box was a seltzer bottle, used for less-wholesome purposes, namely to torment the other cast members, especially Buffalo Bob, whom Clarabell would chase mercilessly around the set.
Surprisingly, parents complained that Clarabell was hyping up the little ones a little too much, especially before supper – and as a result, Keeshan was canned and replaced by Gil Lamb. The kids would have none of it, however, demanding the return of their old buddy Clarabell, the real Clarabell. The producers relented and Keeshan was back to his floppy shoes. He played the tooting clown until 1952 when he was fired (or quit, depending on whose story you believe.) His childrens television days were far from over, however, as he would go on to become one of the most beloved characters to ever host a kid’s show, Captain Kangaroo.
Two other actors would briefly take over the role of horn-honking Clarabell, Henry McLaughlin and Bobby Nicholson, before it was passed on to Lew Anderson who portrayed the clown for the final six years of the show. When The Howdy Doody Show finally ended in 1960, Clarabell had a most shocking surprise to share with the television audience – it turned out he really could speak! With teary eyes and a cracking voice, he uttered the only two words ever spoken by the character, “Goodbye Kids.” Seconds later, the show faded to black. He would reprise the role in 1977 for one year on the short-lived The New Howdy Doody Show.
Pop culture legend has it that only one person ever saw Clarabell without his makeup, although many tried and failed. That person was none other than Ritchie Cunningham, the budding journalist on the sitcom, Happy Days. It was up to Buffalo Bob and Clarabell to convince Ritchie that printing the picture would do more harm than good and, in the end, Ritchie opted to protect Clarabell’s identity. Peanut Gallery attendees could breath a sigh of relief, for it never much mattered anyway what the actor under the makeup looked like. It was Clarabell that everyone loved – a clown of few words and endless laughs.
If you grew up watching Clarabelle the Clown in your youth, or just remember the Happy Days episode, we welcome your memories in our comments section as we pay tribute to this classic television icon for generations of kids.