Bandleader Lew Anderson upheld the traditions of the swing era in the modern age, but his success as a jazz musician pales in comparison to his fame as Clarabell the Clown, the beloved sidekick on the landmark children's television series The Howdy Doody Show. Born May 7, 1922, in Kirkman, IA, Anderson inherited his older sister's clarinet when she tired of it, and formed his first band while in his teens; after attending Drake University, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II, regularly gigging with military bands while stationed in the Pacific theater. After the war Anderson toured the Midwest with the Carlos Molinas Latin Orchestra, emerging as a gifted composer and arranger. During the late '40s, he joined the Honey Dreamers, a vocal group that was a fixture on the fledgling television medium thanks to appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Garroway at Large, and other variety programs. Eventually Anderson befriended Buffalo Bob Smith, star and creator of NBC's phenomenally popular children's series The Howdy Doody Show. Launched in late 1947, the program's mix of puppets and human characters included Clarabell the Clown, a mischievous jester outfitted in a baggy striped costume who communicated solely by honking his horn. Bob Keeshan (later another television icon, Captain Kangaroo) originated the role, which he later ceded to Bobby Nicholson, who went on to play another Howdy Doody Show regular, J. Cornelius Cobb. Anderson assumed the role of Clarabell in 1954, and he remained with the program until its end on September 24, 1960. Fittingly, the finale afforded him his first words, which also proved the show's last: as the camera closed in, Anderson -- with tears in his eyes and lips quivering -- whispered "Goodbye, kids," cementing the moment as a watershed in the collective consciousness of the baby-boom generation. After The Howdy Doody Show ended its network run, Anderson returned to music, earning a living by writing advertising jingles for brands including Pepsi Cola, Colgate, and Buick. He also served for over a decade as vocal arranger for NBC's annual broadcast of The Miss America Pageant. In the early '70s Anderson began work on a history of the big band era, ultimately forming his own All-American Big Band, a sprawling group that featured the best New York City session musicians and Broadway pit players. At the recommendation of WNEW radio personality Al "Jazzbeaux" Collins, in 1989 the All-American Big Band launched a residency at the Big Apple jazz venue the Red Blazer that continued for more than eight years; that same year, the group also inaugurated its record deal with the Sovereign label with Feelin' Good, Yeah, the first in a series of LPs including Fired Up and Live at the Blazer! In the summer of 1997 the All-American Big Band began a Friday night engagement at the legendary Birdland that continued past Anderson's death. After a lengthy battle with prostate cancer, he passed away on May 14, 2006, just a week past his 84th birthday.
Share this page