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The Essay
Show #352
David Gunn

In the wake of the events of September 11, 2001--and I'm not referring to the events that occurred in the walk-in cooler of the 7-11 in Barstow, California, though they were plenty bizarre and will some day warrant several essays worth of discussion--a "shadow government" of federal officials was sent to covert locations outside Washington DC as a precaution against a catastrophic attack on that city. The secretive operation was based on post-World War II cold war protocols, when the prospect for an annoying nuclear attack on the United States by Communist forces was considered likely. But the shadow government of that era didn't cloister itself in secret bunkers. Instead, it followed the counterintelligence ploy of hiding in plain sight, and beginning in 1949, appeared on television in the guise of a popular children's program. The program was Howdy Doody, and the secret government's base of operations was code-named Doodyville.

To the unaided eye, Howdy Doody was a red-haired, freckle-faced marionette. But upon closer inspection--say, from the first row of the studio audience known as the Peanut Gallery--the Doody character was obviously a government agent in a puppet suit. The marionette "strings" were really thermionic filaments that plugged the agent into a state-of-the-art telecommunications center, allowing him to constantly monitor suspicious activity around the world. Other puppet characters that appeared on the show--Flubadub, Dilly Dally, Phineas T. Bluster, Inspector Fadoozle and Chief Thunderthud--were likewise flesh-and-blood counterintelligent operatives. Only Buffalo Bob was actually an animatronic creation of the Walt Disney studios, the prototype of many of today's TV luminaries.

During the early years of the show, when east-west military rivalries were especially intense, Doodyville was a proving ground for Department of War stratagems. By introducing new characters to the program, the shadow government sought to increase or decrease the degree of political tension around the world. When, in 1953, government operatives concluded that King Ibn Saud of Arabia had become so powerful that destabilization of the Arabian Peninsula could only be prevented by neutralizing him, Doody's cousin Saudi Howdy showed up on the program. Employing horrific voodoo ritual and temporarily replacing the Peanut Gallery with a satanic cult, both puppet and erstwhile omnipotent ruler were dead within three months. Ratings for the program plummeted, as viewers objected to the graphic violence, but spiked again two years later when another cousin, Rowdy Howdy, showed up. Rowdy was the wooden facsimile of rebellious actor James Dean, and his outrageous antics aroused the interest of nearly every teenage girl in America with TV access. The appeal of the actor himself attracted the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who labeled him a Communist Party sympathizer. Under the most suspicious of coincident circumstances, both puppet and actor died in automobile accidents that year. Again, program ratings sharply declined.

Three new characters appeared in 1956--Dowdy Howdy, the caricature of a frumpy Nikita Khrushchev; Cloudy Howdy, a troubled and equivocal Adlai Stevenson; and Pandowdy Howdy, the spitting image of marine restaurateur Benzine Agoba, who was the transitional persona of Zenon A. Bagbee to Beano Bengaze. Dowdy, Cloudy and Pandowdy followed the paths of prior Doodyville visitors and soon disappeared, but the shadow government's power had gone into decline, and was unable to simultaneously liquidate the puppets' likenesses.

Adventures in Doodyville continued to deteriorate. The gentle escapades of the early years were supplanted by angst-ridden allegories. Oil Well Willie turned cannibalistic; Ugly Sam pimped for Princess Summerfall Winterspring; in one unforgettable episode, Howdy's sister Heidi Doody spontaneously combusted. It was too much for the show's sponsors. Poll-Parrot Shoes, Ovaltine, Blue Bonnet Margarine and Royal Pudding pulled out. And when in 1957 covert governmental funding likewise dried up, Doodyville finally closed down.

The show wasn't entirely forgotten. A year later, when the US Import Tax on Informal Salutations was wending its way through the House of Representatives, one wag branded it the "Howdy Duty."

It's worth noting--at least to someone whose essay fell three score shy in the Word Count Department--that CNN published a story about the shadow government yesterday morning at 8:41. At 3:56 p.m., the article reappeared with every reference to the word "shadow" stricken and replaced by "backup" or "bunker." Ever so clandestine, the shadow government was in print scarcely seven hours.

"Shadowy" is a particularly apt description of today's 352nd episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar--not that the show is lacking in substance, or even that it's dark with shadow. Rather ... oh, never mind; I was thinking of something else, something far removed from this show, this day, this Kalvos.