By Jeff Stein
They were not deterred, despite a steady snow that fell on downtown Des Moines on a Saturday morning in early February 2014.
After shaking the snowflakes from their coats, they entered the lobby of the Iowa Hall of Pride and when their eyes locked on the exhibit case near the auditorium door, the expression on each of their faces showed that decades had instantly melted away. Their eyes got a far-off look, and a small smile crossed every face.
There he was, a lasting image of their childhood. Complete with trademark red sweater and an always-eager expression — there was Floppy, co-host of the television show they watched as children dating back to the 1950s. Some remembered telling Floppy riddles, while others recalled the day they beeped Floppy’s nose for luck.
They posed for pictures next to their idol, and in a nod to today’s technology, many of these baby boomers then posted the pictures to Twitter and Facebook before taking one last, fond look at Floppy before entering the auditorium.
Although it has been more than 27 years since he left the central Iowa television airwaves, last winter’s “Duane & Floppy Film Festival” event in Des Moines proved that Floppy was still “top dog” for thousands of fans.
After serving in the United States Army during World War II, Des Moines native Duane Ellett began attending Drake University with the intention of becoming a lawyer. In a 1987 interview, Ellett said he took a course in radio broadcasting because he thought it would be easy.
That course changed his life … and the lives of thousands of Iowa children.
Ellett found he was a natural behind a microphone and soon got a part-time job at WHO Radio. Plans for law school were quickly forgotten as Ellett became a staff announcer at WHO following graduation. He appeared weekly on the radio station’s popular “Iowa Barn Dance Frolic” program, wearing a white western outfit and black mask in the spirit of the Lone Ranger. In the early 1950s, he was known as one of “WHO’s Music Men” who played records on the station.
When WHO-TV went on the air in 1954, the versatile Ellett added television to his radio duties. Channel 13 aired a program called “Pet Corner,” sponsored by the Animal Rescue League of Des Moines. ARL director Max Finch would bring stray dogs and cats into the television studio to encourage adoptions. Finch knew that one of Ellett’s hobbies was woodcarving, so he suggested that Ellett create a puppet character for the “Pet Corner” show, to help teach children how to properly care for their dogs.
Ellett carved the head of a puppet out of balsa wood, while his wife, Lois Ellett, made the body out of terry-cloth. Floppy’s well-known red sweater came in the 1970s, knitted by Lois’ mother.
In the spring of 1957, what was originally called “Mr. Dog” made his television debut. He got the name “Floppy” when Finch commented on air one day about Mr. Dog’s floppy ears.
When asked what breed of dog Floppy was, Ellett invariably replied that while he looked like a beagle, he had such a loud mouth that he was a special breed — a “bugle.”
Floppy quickly became a favorite of children and soon had his own show, with Duane providing Floppy’s “personality” and high-pitched voice as an unseen performer, behind a wall. Children were part of the in-studio audience, and cartoons were shown in between the live segments. The on-air foils for Floppy’s jokes were a series of young female co-hosts, many of whom appeared on the show while attending Drake University.
A total of five women served as “Floppy Girls” during the first half of the 30-year run of “The Floppy Show.” The first was Clinton, Iowa-native Patty Whalen, the 1961 Miss Iowa. She was followed by Sally Wilson, who was in turn followed by Sandy Johnson, who was on the show at the time the classic holiday special “Floppy’s Christmas Adventure” was produced in 1966. Then came Connie Foster, who went on to appearances on network television shows and commercials. The fifth and final co-host was Cheryl Ray.
Soon, Ellett taught himself ventriloquism and he and Floppy made personal appearances together in cities and towns large and small across the state. Before long, Duane and Floppy were back on camera together and became one of Iowa’s great two-man standup acts, with very little change in format over the decades.
“I gave it about two years when we started,” Ellett remembered in a 1985 interview. “But it has picked up momentum and kept growing.”
Some thought that doing a daily children’s program in front of a live audience would get old after a while. Ellett disagreed.
“It’s not the same to me, because with each group of young people that enters the studio down there, I see a lot of new faces and new little individuals,” he said at the time of the show’s 20th anniversary in 1977. “Just the idea of meeting all the new kids that come, and meeting the parents also, it’s something I look forward to.”