Question: Please help me dispel a myth that a cruel friend told me to shatter a last remaining childhood belief. Years ago I dealt with the fact that the men my mom told me were "Santa's helpers" were really guys hired by the mall to talk to kids. Now my sister's bridge partner says there was never one Bozo. There were just a whole bunch of them hired to do the job in different cities. Is that true? (I'm in Los Angeles, by the way.) Thanks. Danny A.
Televisionary: Oh, Danny. Isn't having your illusions blasted away a drag? It's like the time Quaker took my beloved Quake cereal off the shelves even though my brother and I voted for him over the loathesome Quisp, and we were forced to realize our taste didn't amount to a hill of beans as far as big corporations were concerned. (I believe we actually used the phrase "hill of beans," Danny. We were kids, after all.) Then they replaced them with those disgusting Orange Quangaroos and... oh, forget it.
I'm sorry to say your sis's pal is correct. However, Bozo TV macher Larry Harmon who also worked on animated properties like Popeye, Laurel and Hardy, Mr. Magoo and Dick Tracy ain't sorry a bit: The Bozo "franchise" scheme has been very good to him and allowed more kids to enjoy the character, he says. (Personally, I'm a-scared of clowns. But that's just me.)
Harmon, now in his 70s, first sold Bozo to Los Angeles's KTLA in 1958 and launched a clown wave that at its peak saw 183 versions of the show in production. (Capitol Records created the character in the '40s for a series of best-selling children's records, but Harmon licensed it and took it to the next level, as the marketing guys are so fond of saying.) The formula was fairly simple: Any TV show that wanted a local version received cartoons, music and other production material, and Harmon himself helped train a local to don the famous make-up and costume at his Bozo University. Eventually, Harmon trained more than 200 Bozos (and that's meant as a compliment). Today's Willard Scott once donned the hair and nose, in fact.
Not a bad run at all. Harmon, who put in plenty of time in the suit and make-up himself, and his various Bozo clones have helped raise millions of kids and have even met world leaders. (Wee Caroline Kennedy convinced dad JFK to let the clown march in his inaugural parade.)
And just in case you were wondering, that urban legend about the disgruntled tot who mouthed off to Bozo on the air is true, but the friend who swears he or she saw it personally only did so if they grew up in Boston, where it actually happened. Harmon, who was producing the Boston version of the show at the time, told TV Guide that a kid was playing Bozo's Treasure Chest, a game offering a shot at winning a large collection of toys. The lad managed to throw two Ping-Pong balls into a barrel, but missed with the third. Apparently, the Bozo towel he received as a consolation prize didn't quite live up to his standards. "The kid looks at the towel," Harmon recalled. "He looks at the ringmaster, then looks at Bozo and says, 'Cram it, clown!'" All Bozo could manage as a witty reply was: "That's a Bozo no-no."