In 1968, one of the most awful years in the history of America, Dick Richards donned a red nose and red hair. He became Bozo. In Michigan. Well, in Grand Rapids.
"It is a bit of a dinosaur," says Richards, "something whose time has passed. But when I go out there like I did the other day and entertain hundreds and hundreds of people, you realize you can still do the same things you did 20 years ago. Pratfalls. Giggles. Bad jokes. They still laugh."
"The other day" was the day that Richards's show, Bozo's Big Top, was taped (in the local baseball stadium) for the last time. Last Saturday WZZM in Grand Rapids aired the final show, and WGN's Bozo Super Sunday Show became the one and only surviving vestige of the most prolific children's franchising effort of our time. Created as a cartoon by Capitol Records' Alan Livingston in 1946, Bozo gained serious fame after Larry Harmon bought television rights to the clown in 1956 and began to franchise him to stations across the country. The result was more than 100 locally produced variety shows that mixed in-studio antics with old cartoons.
WGN first aired Bozo in 1960. Its Bozo's Circus ran five days a week in varying time slots from 1961 to 1994, when it was cut back to Sunday at 8 AM. Though certainly the brand's flagship (Bozo's Circus was the number one show in its 7 AM time slot when Bob Bell, WGN's longtime Bozo, retired in 1984; The Simpsons' Dan Castellaneta says Bell inspired Krusty the Clown), our Bozo was just one of many. Dick Richards, who was WZZM's Bozo for almost 31 years, says at one time there were three Bozos in Michigan alone.
Richards, who's now 60, joined Bozo's Big Top as ringmaster in 1967 and took over the lead role in December 1968. WZZM, which is the ABC affiliate in Grand Rapids, had him on the air five afternoons a week, opposite a kiddie host on the local NBC affiliate who vanished in 1971. "After a couple of years," Richards says, "Bozo pretty much knocked him out of the saddle. And he was a cowboy. No pun intended."
Richards and the other Bozos used to get together each Labor Day in Los Angeles or Las Vegas for the Jerry Lewis telethon. "You'd have children's hosts from all over the country," he says. "A couple hundred of these wonderfully wacky people--clowns and cowboys--all these characters, and we'd meet because we were all doing the same thing. Now there aren't any left. Most stations across the country dropped local children's programming or decided it just didn't pay to do that. They have the Cartoon Network now, a whole network. I just see it as the evolution of television, the evolution of life."
After 1973, which is when the National Association of Broadcasters barred kiddie hosts from doubling as commercial pitchmen, the species began to go the way of the carrier pigeon. Richards moved to weekday mornings in the late 70s, and the emergence of Good Morning America later forced him to Saturdays. At its peak, Richards's show boasted a studio-audience waiting list you'd be stuck on for two or two and a half years. But production manager Jay Lowe says seats became harder and harder to fill, while the TV viewership shrank so much Nielsen eventually couldn't find it.
"It requires a lot of people," Lowe says, "to send out the tickets, to fill the goodie bags, to get the studio set up, and all that. It just seemed like it was time to end it."
Richards will continue to play the part in appearances for the station until next August. He says he's not bitter, that he saw the end coming, though he attributes the free fall to revolving management at WZZM and a failure to promote the show.
"Most people when they saw us used to say, 'Are you still doing the show?' Or 'I remember when you used to be Bozo. Are you still doing it?' Or they'd say, 'We watch you every Sunday morning.' In other words, they'd be watching the Chicago Bozo on cable without realizing they had their own Bozo here in Grand Rapids.
"I would rather think of the show back in the days when it was fun, when it was more enjoyable and had more viewers and was great for me. It just hasn't been that way for years."
Apparently Chicago's Bozo is fine. Last week's Bozo Super Sunday Show scored a 1.5 Nielsen rating (about 48,000 households), decent enough for its present 7 AM time slot, and on September 11 Bozo begins his 38th season here. When the FCC mandated a certain amount of educational programming a couple of years ago, WGN--like WZZM--dropped the cartoons so its Bozo show would qualify.
"We have good backing from our management here," says the Chicago show's producer, Allen Hall. "They feel it's important to cultivate the Bozo image because it's part of WGN. So we're on solid ground."