'Buffalo Bob' remembered as 'the real star of the show'

HENDERSONVILLE, North Carolina (CNN) -- "Buffalo Bob" Smith, the man who brought Howdy Doody to millions of baby-boomers in the 1950s, is being remembered as a good-natured TV cowboy who helped carve out a unique niche in television during the medium's formative days.

"You were an encouragement to a very large number of kids," posted "Vince," the creator of "The Friends of Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob" Web site. "You, Bob, brought Howdy to life for me. You were the real star of the show."

"Howdy Doody was my mom's favorite show," posted "Steph" on a Web message board dedicated to paying condolences to celebrities who have passed away. "It's going to break her heart."

Buffalo Bob with Clarabell the clown

'What time is it?'

Born Robert Schmidt on November 27, 1917 -- in Buffalo, New York, of course -- Smith started his entertainment career in radio at the age of 15 and later went on to star in a vaudeville act and as a piano player.

But he gained acclaim when he won the job to develop a children's show on NBC in 1947. As Buffalo Bob, the host of "The Howdy Doody Show," he created the foundation of children's television and a symbol of post-war America and baby boomer upbringing that seemed to reflect the innocence of the decade.

Smith and Howdy Doody, the wooden, freckle-faced, big-eared puppet Smith created, came into living rooms across the country every weekday at 5:30 p.m., from 1947 to 1960. "The Howdy Doody Show" was the first daily show NBC produced in color and the first to have live music.

Smith would start the show with a now-famous call. "Say kids, what time is it?" he would shout.

'It's Howdy Doody time!'

"It's Howdy Doody Time!" his young audience would respond. And then they'd all sing the Howdy Doody theme song. The show featured a cast of characters that played along with Smith and his puppet: Clarabell the clown, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, Phineas T. Bluster, Dilly Dally, Chief Thunderthud, Trapper John and Flubadub. One of the performers who played Clarabell was Bob Keeshan, who would later become TV's Captain Kangaroo.

"The Howdy Doody Show" lasted 13 seasons and more than 2,500 shows, producing a grueling rate of three live shows a day, five days a week. It even survived after Smith suffered a heart attack in 1954, sidelining him for months.

Smith was never bitter after the show went off the air, saying: "We had a good run. Besides, how many TV shows ever lasted 13 seasons?"

'It always took him back'

In the 1960s, Smith retreated from his spot in front of the TV camera and went back to his roots: radio. He bought three radio stations and dabbled in real estate.

But in the 1970s, Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody made a comeback of sorts, touring the country and making live appearances at an estimated 500 college campuses. The tour started when college students at the University of Pennsylvania, who grew up watching Howdy Doody, called Smith and asked him to perform at his school. It was Howdy Doody, the retro phase.

"It always took him back," long-time friend and road manager Bert Dubrow said of the nostalgia. "The truth is he never realized the success and what a role he played in our lives until we went out and did the college tour."