In a remarkable career that spanned more than a half-century, Disney design artist Mel Shaw earned a spot in animation’s pantheon for his work on a slew of classic films, ranging from Fantasia and Bambi in the early 1940s to The Lion King in the 1990s.
The Brooklyn-born artist, who earned his first accolades at age 12 when a mule and rider that he carved from a bar of soap won second prize in a Procter & Gamble contest, had a genius for translating Disney stories into drawings. His creations included the compelling title sequence of the 1977 Disney movie The Rescuers, in which one of the characters stuffs a plea for help into a bottle and tosses it into the ocean.
But Shaw, who died on Nov. 22 at age 97 in Reseda, Calif., had another even more famous creation, one for which he seldom received attention. As Shaw’s website notes, while on a hiatus from Disney after World War II, he teamed with his then-partner Bob Allen to create the familiar version of Howdy Doody, the freckle-faced marionette who was one of the first big stars of television on the NBC network. Here are five things you probably don’t know about Shaw and the legendary character he helped fashion.
- Shaw and Allen weren’t the first to design Howdy Doody, though they created the familiar version of the character. The original marionette, which debuted on television in December 1947 and was used until the following March, was designed by puppeteer Frank Paris, and had a blonde, wavy, Little Richard-style pompadour hairdo. (Here’s a drawing of him.) When Paris left the show in a pay dispute in 1948, he reportedly took the original Howdy Doody with him, tucked under his arm.
- Faced with having to put on a TV program without his star puppet, the show’s human headliner, “Buffalo Bob” Smith, was compelled to cook up a story line in which Howdy was absent because he was running for president against incumbent Harry Truman. Meanwhile, as a 1948 Time article details, Paris went to a rival TV station and created a competitor for Howdy, named Peter Pixie.
- When a completely new puppet had to be created to avoid legal problems, Shaw and his partner, who had a studio in Beverly Hills, were brought in to create sketches of a replacement. As Shaw later recalled, they re-imagined Howdy Doody as a “hayseed” dressed in a cowboy costume.
- Allen dreamed up the freckled face, but it was Shaw who built the actual model for Howdy Doody’s head.
- Shaw and Allen didn’t get a public nod from the network for their role in designing Howdy Doody, and some sources, such as this 1993 New York Times article, instead credit dollmaker Velma Dawson, who built the puppet, as the designer who came up with the freckles and other distinctive features. But Shaw and Allen documented their roles in Howdy Doody’s origin myth by obtaining U.S. Patent D156687, for a “new, original, and ornamental design” for the puppet, which included detailed drawings. In his later years, Shaw displayed a copy of the patent in his studio in Lodi, Calif., according to this 2008 newspaper profile.
Here’s a classic video clip of Shaw’s wooden progeny in action.