I used to rush home from school at lunch to catch the first half hour of Bozo's Circus on WGN (after the first half hour we switched to Let's Make a Deal). And in honor of my sister Sue's ninth birthday—in 1966, when I was six—we got coveted seats on the set. I got to thinking about that day recently, when I read that Larry Harmon, who owned the licensing rights to the character and was largely responsible for Bozo's iconic look, had died at the age of 83.
Created for a series of records and read-along book sets, Bozo first made it onto TV in Los Angeles in 1949. He was originally voiced and then played by Pinto Colvig (who went on to even greater fame as the voice of Goofy), but in 1956 Harmon, who occasionally played the clown at promotional appearances, bought the rights and started shows elsewhere. Harmon was very strict about how Bozo had to look and dress—the orange hair, the big red rose, the blue-and-red suit, the famous size 83AAA shoes.
Bozo's Circus debuted on WGN on June 20, 1960, with Bob Bell in the role. Featuring circus acts, games, and sketches, the Chicago show was by far the most popular of the bunch. It went national in 1978, by which time the wait for tickets was longer than ten years. Young newlyweds used to sign up so they could get tickets for any future offspring before the kids got too old to care.
My siblings and I didn't have to wait that long. My grandfather's store, Karoll's Red Hanger Shop on State Street, was a WGN sponsor (mostly for Cubs games), and my grandfather was able to pull some strings. I remember walking onto the set, at 2501 W. Bradley Place, like it was yesterday. Of course it seemed much smaller in real life. 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. (Rayner was a local institution with his own morning show, where he'd host cartoons like Clutch Cargo and interact with the canine puppet Cuddley Duddley and an actual duck named Chelveston, which was constantly attacking him.) Don Sandburg was the silent Sandy the Clown. He left the show a few years later and was replaced by Cooky the Cook, played by Roy Brown, who was also the voice of Cuddley Duddley.
But the star of the show was Bell's gravelly voiced, irascible Bozo the Clown—the real Bozo to anyone who grew up in Chicago between 1960 and 1984. Simpsons stalwart Dan Castellaneta, who grew up in Oak Park, has said he based the voice of Krusty on Bell's vaudevillian Bozo. In one bit Oliver was supposed to warn Bozo about some rampaging circus animals. "The elephants are loose! The elephants are loose!" he screamed frantically. "Better give them some Kaopectate!" Bell ad-libbed.
Funny that I loved the clowns on this show, since I was so scared of them otherwise. Once when my sister and I sat on the curb outside my grandfather's store watching a Shriners parade marching down State Street, one of the clowns reached down and picked me up and put me on a float. I was terrified and burst into tears. But Bozo and his friends seemed like family.
One of the big segments on Bozo's Circus was the Grand Prize Game. A boy and a girl would be chosen by magic arrows on the screen to get to play the game: tossing Ping-Pong balls into six buckets, each a little farther away. You had to get to at least bucket number four to leave the game with any dignity. The prizes were loot from WGN sponsors, like NuMode hosiery "with the no-bind top" and cans of Sanka, though I think they got more kid friendly if the kid kept winning. Only a lucky few reached the final bucket. When that happened all hell would break loose. Bozo might even ride out on a fire-engine-red bike for the winner.
My sister got to play a mock game during one of the commercial breaks. Bozo asked if it was anyone's birthday and she raised her hand and got to go down and shake his. She said later it felt like sandpaper. He asked how old she was and she said eight; our mom bellowed from the seats, "Nine!" Her prizes included a Bozo mural that hung on our bedroom wall for 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 other staples of my childhood. When Bell retired in 1984 he was replaced by comedian Joey D'Auria, who had a 17-year run. The 13-piece Big Top Band I saw on my visit was eventually replaced by a three-piece combo and then by canned music.
I learned of Harmon's death while vacationing on the California coast, and all I could think about was where I might've put my autographed photos from Bozo and Garfield Goose. And what about my stuffed Cuddley Duddley?v
Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com.