Boomers Were the “Peanut Gallery”

This week, Mister Boomer was thinking about the idioms spoken by our parents, and how we don’t hear many of them any more. Our parents would say phrases such as, “that’s the cat’s meow,” or “keep your shirt on.” It makes sense that so many of these common idioms we heard as kids have disappeared since they originated in the 1930s and 40s, or even earlier; as children grow, they hear and internalize the slang and catchphrases spoken by their parents, until they reach their teens and adopt the phrases of their own generation. (Mister Boomer has explored two slang words of our own generation that have, to some extent, survived to the present: Oh Man, Now That’s Cool!)

The phrase that sprang to mind this week was, “no comments from the peanut gallery.” As Mister B swirled the words around in his skull, like examining aged wine in a glass, he immediately thought the phrase had to originate in the Boomer Era with the Howdy Doody Show (1947-60). This TV show combined live actors with puppets, including the show’s namesake, a puppet-boy dressed in cowboy garb. Each show had a live audience of kids who sat on school-style bleachers that was labeled as the “Peanut Gallery.” Since “peanut” was a common slang term for “small” (like “shrimp”), it seemed logical that the Peanut Gallery would seat the little ones.

In 1943, Howdy Doody was a children’s radio program. “Peanut Gallery” was a phrase used on the show to represent the listening audience of kids. When the program became a TV show in 1947, the term came with it, only then it was the literal representation of the kids in the audience. (Incidentally, Clarabell, one of the characters on the show, was a clown who spoke only by honking a horn. He was played by Bob Keeshan, who boomers will recall later became Captain Kangaroo.)

Mister Boomer’s earliest memories of watching TV was the Howdy Doody Show. The TV program, considered pioneering educational children’s programming at the time, was credited with helping sell more TVs in the 1950s than any previous program. As more boomer families bought TVs and watched, the show’s audience grew — and with it, their ability to sell advertising sponsorship to national brands like Kellogg’s cereal.

After a little investigation, however, Mister B found that “peanut gallery” did not originate with Howdy Doody. Au contraire, mon ami! Peanut gallery has been around for many decades. At the turn of the century, vaudeville theaters called the most affordable seats — usually the top rows of the upper balcony — the peanut gallery because the cheapest snack available for purchase there was peanuts. Since this echelon of theater-goers was considered the mostly uneducated and unruly, “comments from the peanut gallery” referred to the physically tossed peanuts and the verbal heckling that were hurled to the stage to express disapproval with the performers. So, if we boomers were riding in the car with our parents and one turned around to say, “Hey, I don’t want any comments from the peanut gallery,” they weren’t referring to the Howdy Doody Show, they were telling us to behave.

Howdy Doody’s Peanut Gallery did influence another player on the stage of boomer experience, though. The cartoonist Charles Schulz was about to syndicate his comic strip, Li’l Folks to newspapers in 1948. The comic syndicators thought the title of his comic strip would be confusing to readers since Little Folks and Li’l Abner already existed, so they suggested he change the strip’s title. Faced with a name change, Schulz chose Peanuts, a reference to both the Howdy Doody Show and the unruly commenters of vaudeville. His characters would be kids who made their comments on the cultural stage of the Boomer Era, without any adults present.

On rare occasion the term still pops up on the national stage, but one has to wonder if  Millennials, let alone their kids, have any idea what it means.

Did your parents use the idiom on you and your siblings, boomers? What are your recollections about the Peanut Gallery?