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Cowboy Eddie
by Jay Rath

The last time I saw him, Eddie'd been folded double and stuffed into a big green suitcase in a basement. There he was, his big brown eyes looking up at me. He might as well have been carved from wood, which, of course, he was: oak.

When I was a kid, after the almighty, there were exactly three living gods: Santa Claus, Walt Disney, and Howie Olson. Olson was the star of "Circus 3," the after-school show on WISC TV, along with his puppet, our pal, grinning, impish Cowboy Eddie.

Eddie has been missing since Olson's death, on June 26, 1992. He was to have been given to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, but officials there have no idea where Cowboy Eddie might be.

These days there are few local children's shows, but once upon a time the airwaves were flooded with honorary uncles, aunts, and their puppet pals.

An estimated 13,000 children appeared on "Circus 3" during Olson's 11-year tenure. At 4 p.m. each weekday, he sat down at the "Circus 3" desk, flanked by galleries of children who had arranged to be on the show six months in advance.They were ready for cartoons, viewers' jokes, and the Question of the Day. Greetings were issued to the temporary members of the Get Well Quick Club. Drawings sent in to the program were displayed and commented upon by Cowboy Eddie, preceding their incorporation into the mammoth (and unseen) Paper City.

In 1972 "Circus 3" was canceled after a change of management at the station. Afterward, Olson was bitter but philosophical; he'd enjoyed a rich and long entertainment career.

Howard Olson was born in Chicago in 1910. So was Cowboy Eddie. The puppet had been carved for Olson's father, a vaudeville ventriloquist billed as The Great Chesterfield. Howie went into show business himself at the age of five, travelling the country in the final days of vaudeville. During World War II he joined the Air Force, where he and "Corporal Eddie" entertained troops. After the war, Olson married Vera Hammersley, a Madison woman. In 1961 Olson replaced Bozo as host of "Circus 3."

When I interviewed him in 1984, Olson told me that he had decided to leave all his memorabilia and puppets to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. "That way, maybe people will remember the old buzzard, Howie Olson," he said. It was a nice way to end the story. I used it again when I happened to be in the Capital Times newsroom the night Olson passed away, when I wrote his obituary. But a year ago I wondered: how was my friend, my pal, Cowboy Eddie?

I asked George Vogt, director of the Historical Society. His staff checked and rechecked; they had never received Cowboy Eddie. It was now a missing persons case -- sort of -- but there were a few clues. Besides performing, Olson was well-known professionally as a builder of fine ventriloquist figures, and as a teacher.

I found one of his former students, and through him I found another, Jacki Manna Read. A Des Moines native, she had come to Madison in 1988 to study with Olson and assist in his workshop. Olson, who had never had children, came to view Read as an unofficial niece. Before he passed away, Olson decided instead to leave everything to Read. Today she lives near Orlando, where Olson spent the last months of his life.

And Cowboy Eddie?

"He's great," says Read. "I just had him refurbished by some very well-known puppet makers, and they do work with antique figures." Polished and painted, Eddie's not in retirement -- far from it. Read is a busy ventriloquist who often performs at Disneyworld. Eddie is an occasional star once again, though primarily for gatherings of other ventriloquists, who are often goggle-eyed at seeing the puppet. He was as famous in professional circles as he was adored by generations of Madison kids.

I'm glad. Even in the finest museum, unheld and mute, he would be truly lifeless. And I hope sometime to go see him in Florida, and see him perform in person, and thereby fulfill a last childhood ambition of mine; I never did get to be on "Circus 3."

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