Before the drama, the backstory! Bozo was created by a man named Alan W. Livingston back in the 1940s. Livingston, who worked for Capitol Records, released a storybook and children’s entertainment record called Bozo at the Circus. He teamed up with a vaudeville actor named Pinto Colvig, who played Bozo for his original 1949 television appearance on Los Angeles’s KTTV.
In 1956, a man named Larry Harmon, who had been hired by Livingston to play Bozo at promotional appearances, bought the licensing rights to the character. He fiddled with the look and voice, and then released an animated cartoon series, voicing Bozo himself. He also sold franchise rights to the character to local stations, which meant that different actors portraying different versions of Bozo popped up on different local television shows around the country, and eventually in Brazil and Mexico. While every actor was different, the show’s through line was a mixture of circus performances, games, comedy sketches, and local entertainment, all overseen by Bozo and his friends.
According to the Larry Harmon Pictures Corporation, at one point there were 183 different Bozo shows airing at the same time period in the United States alone. People complain about “Peak TV” and how there are too many television shows on now, but at least there aren’t literally hundreds of different versions of the exact same clown show on. There were almost as many names for the show as there were men filling the enormous shoes. Sometimes it was The Bozo Show. Others, Bozo’s Circus or The Bozo Super Sunday Show or just Bozo. (The last version, based in Chicago, was canceled in 2001.) Nobody seems to have a comprehensive list of exactly how many Bozo shows there were altogether. “I believe that nobody really knows the answer. The truth is that it would be a larger number than most people realize,” clown historian Bruce “Charlie” Johnson said.
The Chicago Bozos, Bob Bell and Joey D’Auria, were the best known, because WGN spun into a national cable network in the 1990s. But there were unique Bozos all over the place, from Moline, Illinois, to Miami. Detroit alone had four different Bozos over the years. Windsor, Canada, had its own Canadian Bozo. One of the Washington, D.C., Bozos in the 1960s, Willard Scott, went on to have a long and successful career as the original portrayer of the McDonald’s mascot Ronald McDonald, the only non-evil clown more famous than Bozo. Avruch, portrayed Bozo from 1959 to 1970 in Boston, and his version was also the one that appeared in the first nationally syndicated episodes of the show, which meant he was an Elite Bozo.
Ready for the drama? So Harmon, the man who owned all the licensing rights, had a habit of telling reporters that he invented Bozo, even though technically he only popularized Bozo. His tales of spreading the gospel of Bozo internationally were very entertaining and very fake sounding. “I have been in the jungles of New Guinea with the cannibals, I’ve been down in the Amazon with the head-hunters, because I was trying to see one thing: Can I relate to the world, can I survive in the jungle, dressed as Bozo?” he told The Chicago Tribune in 1993, claiming that he had survived two weeks with cannibals in the 1970s by greeting them with “Howdy, this is your pal Bozo.”
Harmon’s yarn spinning caused conflict. “Larry Harmon was just an out-of-work actor when I hired him to do some promotional work,” Alan Livingston told ABC News. “He’s been misleading everyone — and taking credit for [original Bozo] Pinto’s work.” Harmon also had a reportedly frosty relationship with Bob Bell, the long-running Chicago Bozo. “Harmon’s problem is that he can’t bear another clown getting any credit,” Joan Roy, Bell’s daughter, told ABC News, claiming that Harmon had refused to let Bell wear his Bozo costume during his International Clown Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Milwaukee. The International Clown Hall of Fame actually took down Harmon’s plaque in 2004, deciding to honor Colvig instead. Harmon was reinstated in 2008 and died that same year, insisting to the end that he had not misrepresented his Bozo connection. Whether he exaggerated or not, he is definitely the person responsible for taking Bozo global and should be remembered as such.
It seems clown competition made even the most jovial men foolish, but the excess of Bozos wasn’t all bad blood. After all, not only does Bozo live on as a cherished childhood memory for many adults, he also lives on because there were countless entertainers playing him, and many are literally still alive.
this is the car i was sitting behind in traffic, (with a BOZOCLN plate), triggering all of my bozo memories and leading me to finally solve what has long been a personal mystery. i have met bozo twice just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and my brother was once on his show and did not win ‘the big prize.’ i’ve never been a fan of clowns, and in fact they terrify me, but for some reason he keeps popping up in my life, and now i finally know why.