Although the original Bozo the Clown was played by Pinto Colvig (who found greater fame as the voice of Goofy), the character of Bozo was owned and franchised by Larry Harmon, who died last week at the age of 83. He often played the clown himself and was very strict about how Bozo had to look and dress. It was Harmon who established the distinctive orange hair, the big red rose, the blue and red clown suits, and the size 83AAA shoes. During his long reign as Bozo’s guardian, Harmon licensed the character to TV stations all over the country, and the Chicago version of the show was by far the most popular. It ran for over 40 years, from 1960 to 2001, and was a true broadcasting phenomenon. In its heyday, when I was a kid, there was a 10-year-wait to get tickets for the daily hourlong show. One of the rituals among young newlyweds in Chicago during the 1960s was to sign up for tickets at the time of their wedding so that the couple would be able to take any future offspring they may have to see “Bozo’s Circus” before the kids were too old.
My siblings and I were lucky because we did not have to wait that long. My grandfather’s store, Karoll’s Red Hanger Shop, was a sponsor on WGN (mostly for the Cubs games) and my grandfather was able to pull a few strings to get us into the show. I remember walking onto the celebrated circus set like it was yesterday. It seemed so much smaller in real life. We got to meet all the characters: Ringmaster Ned Locke in his red tails and top hat shook my hand so hard I had to stifle a yelp.
Oliver O. Oliver, the country bumpkin clown, was played by the brilliant Ray Rayner, himself a Chicago institution with his own morning show in which he would interact with the talking canine Cuddley Duddley and an actual duck named Chalveston who was constantly attacking him. Rayner would host a series of technically unsophisticated cartoons from Diver Dan to Clutch Cargo to the Funny Company. He wore overalls on his show that were always covered with little square notes that he would consult and then discard. I always thought he should have gotten the patent for the Post-It that was still years away from being invented. The silent Sandy the Clown was played by Don Sandburg with great poignancy and expertise. He would leave the show a few years later and be replaced by Roy Brown’s Cooky the Cook. Brown had been the voice of Cuddley Duddley.
But the star of the show was Bob Bell’s gravelly-voiced irascible Bozo the Clown. With apologies to Larry Harmon and all the other men who played the character, Bell was the “real” Bozo to anyone who grew up in Chicago during the 60s and 70s. Chicago-born actor Dan Castellanata, the voice of Homer Simpson, said he based the voice of Krusty the Clown on Bob Bell's Bozo. Bell played Bozo from 1960 to 1984. He was the perfect vaudevillian, and the frequently ad-libbed antics between Bozo, Oliver, and Sandy were hilarious to kids and adults alike. Like the best children’s programming, there was something for children in every sketch but also plenty of humor for their parents that would sail right over the heads of the little ones. I wish I could see some of those old sketches again, I think the censors today would have a fit. I remember one bit in which Ray Rayner's character was supposed to warn Bozo about some rampaging circus animals. “The elephants are loose! The elephants are loose!” he screamed frantically. Forgetting his line, Bob ad-libbed “Better give them some kaopectate!”
Funny that I loved the clowns on this show since I had such a fear of clowns in other venues. Once as a very young child I was watching a Shriner’s parade marching down State Street. Sitting on the curb with my sister, one of the clowns reached down and picked me up, placing me on a float in the parade. Sounds like an exciting moment for a kid but I was absolutely terrified and burst into tears, thinking I had been kidnapped and would never see my parents again. I found clowns creepy and dangerous, but not Bozo and his friends who seemed like family members, dysfunction and all.
One of the biggest moments in “Bozo’s Circus” was the Grand Prize Game. A boy and girl would be chosen by the magic arrows on the screen and get to play this game in which they would try to toss ping pong balls into six buckets, each one a little farther away. I can still remember the odd prizes the kids would win from the WGN sponsors such as “NuMode hosiery with the no-bind top” and cans of Sanka coffee. I believe the prizes got more kid-friendly if the children kept winning and for the few kids that reached the final bucket all hell would break loose in the studio. Bozo would usually ride out on the fire engine red bicycle that the lucky child would win. I longed to be on the Grand Prize Game but I was also worried, even at that age, that I might be publicly humiliated by missing Buckets #1 or #2. You had to get to at least Bucket #4 to leave the game with any dignity. Alas, I wasn’t chosen, but because we were there on my sister’s 8th birthday, she got to play a mock game during one of the commercial breaks and won some nice prizes including a Bozo mural that hung on our bedroom wall for years.
By the time Bob Bell retired, I was in my twenties and no longer watched the show. Bell was replaced by comedian Joey D’Auria for the next 17 years. Ringmaster Ned left the show in 1976 and was replaced by WGN star Frazier Thomas who also hosted “Garfield Goose & Friends” and “Family Classics,” two more staples of my TV-obsessed childhood. The 13-piece Big Top Band I saw during my visit was eventually replaced by a three-piece combo and then by canned music. I stayed faithful to the show throughout my elementary school years. I remember rushing home from school for lunch to catch the first half-hour of Bozo and then switching to “Let’s Make a Deal.” Somehow we’d make it back to school for afternoon classes.
Does local children’s broadcasting even exist anymore? Chicago had some of the best examples of this genre and I watched them all, from Bozo and Ray Rayner to “Garfield Goose,” “Kiddie-a-Go-Go”, “B.J. and Dirty Dragon,” and the Jewish-themed “Magic Door.”
Kendall and I are on a trip up the California coast with our dog Henry. I’m writing this from the lobby of Doris Day’s dog-friendly Cypress Inn in beautiful downtown Carmel. With Doris's voice being piped in singing "My Buddy," I am surrounded by dogs on all sides, a remarkable sight in this very tony establishment. But all I can think about right now is the whereabouts of the the signed photos I once received from Bozo the Clown and Garfield Goose. And where is that original Cuddley Duddley dog I once owned? I’ll be scouring our house for them tonight when we return.