BY WARREN HORTON
In a story published Oct. 12, 2015, exclusively by The Chaparral, McCallum Theatre Planned Gifts and Grants Senior Manager Thomas M. Head, confirmed that Howdy Doody and Madame had been donated to the McCallum with the intent of being put on display in a sealed display case for visitors to see.
However, on Oct. 12, 2016, that confirmation came into doubt when McCallum CEO Mitch Gershenfeld, refused to confirm or deny that Howdy and Madame were at the McCallum and stated that he would, “only talk to a McCallum board member or McCallum benefactor regarding Howdy. ”
This is one of several last known photos of Howdy, Madame, Briar Snake and Briar Rabbit created by Velma Dawson, who died on Sept. 26, 2007. To be clear, the picture is not the original Howdy Doody. Howdy #1 is currently in the custody of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Iris Beach, one of Dawson’s close friends, stated that Dawson’s wish was that Howdy remain in the desert. Although Dawson was a gracious benefactor to COD, it had been decided to donate Howdy and Madame to The McCallum Theatre and be put on display.
Shortly after Dawson’s death, Jean Ann Hirschi, Dawson’s attorney, finalized the terms of the estate and handed over Howdy and Madame to an unnamed person, according to the limited data still remaining at Hirschi’s former office. Shortly after, Beach delivered the marionettes to Ted Giatas, a friend of Beach and then CEO of the McCallum, according to three of Beach’s friends, Tessa Goss, Stanley Bonaccorso (aka: Rex) and Cindy Anderholt. (Anderholt’s husband, John, was Beach’s attorney that handled her estate.) Goss, Bonaccorso and Anderholt stated that Giatas received Howdy and Madame with the condition that during the reconstruction of the McCallum, a display case would be built under a staircase where Howdy and Madame, with a picture of Dawson. After the reconstruction was complete, Howdy and Madame continued to be stored somewhere at the McCallum. Giatas had since retired in 2012. Anderholt was familiar with the lack of a display case and wondered why it was never completed. Goss stated that Howdy is a part of Americana, American history and should be on display. Both Goss and Anderholt expressed disappointment in McCallum’s lack of action to preserve history and lack of commitment to honor a promise to the wishes of a COD benefactor. Beach never got to see Howdy and Madame displayed. She died in 2013.
Larry Baranski, curator at the DIA, expressed concern regarding any display case. Due to the materials used to create Howdy and Madame: paper, cloth, leather, and the control strings; deterioration will occur unless the proper environment is kept within the case. Temperature, humidity and light will affect the marionettes. According to Baranski, 10 foot candles is the maximum light that the marionettes should be exposed to. Art products, such as Howdy, should be only on display for approximately six months at a time, and periodically should be taken off display for up to two years.
Some might wonder why CEO Gershenfeld did not want to keep the promise that Giatas made to Beach. There was the trust that Iris placed into the hands of Giatas when she handed him Howdy and Madame, with the promise by Giatas, that a safe place would be built for Howdy and Madame at the McCallum. A promise in which current CEO Gershenfeld failed to keep. Art works, such as Howdy and Madame, need to be placed into an appropriate display case that will protect them from any potential deterioration, according to the DIA.
A conversation with Giatas on Oct. 24, revealed a spark of hope. Giatas stated that he would contact Harold Matzner, current Chairman of the Board of the McCallum, and discuss the future of Howdy and Madame and the possibility of proper display at the McCallum, or transferring them to the Palm Springs Art Museum. On Nov. 10, Giatas confirmed that he had been in touch with Matzner. Giatas had visited the McCallum and was able to personally observe Howdy and Madame in a secure location. Giatas said that he discussed the plans for the two marionettes and learned that display cases would be built in the near future and that the cases would be placed in an area at the McCallum that the general public would be able to see them. The exact location has yet to be determined but they would be in an area that would maintain a proper temperature, humidity and exposure to light appropriate to protect this type of art, possibly near the area of the Founder’s Room as it provides a better controlled environment.
Hopefully in the future, The McCallum will make an announcement as to when Howdy and Madame can be viewed by the public, especially for the children to see a piece of history donated to the McCallum by a talented and generous local resident and benefactor.