don’t be a bozo.

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Bozo the Clown

The famous clown passed away, but he was only one player in the character’s comically complicated backstory

while waiting in traffic,
i was motivated to find the very detailed article below about bozo the clown and his history.
so much clown drama!
In 2018, Frank Avruch, an 89-year-old entertainer best known for portraying Bozo the Clown, died. When I saw tributes to Bozo online, I felt sad–but also confused. I could’ve sworn that the guy who played Bozo the Clown had already passed away. After a Google search, I confirmed that, yes, several other Bozos had already died. I’d grown up watching The Bozo Show, and my parents had too, and so it made sense that more than one person had portrayed the friendly, bucket-loving clown over the years that the children’s variety show aired. But what stood out was the sheer volume of Bozos, and the surprising geographic variety. I’d always assumed that the Bozo I saw growing up, watching on WGN in Chicago, was the same Bozo people saw all over the country, that it was a local program syndicated nationally. But something much weirder was going on. An astounding number of people played Bozo over the years, in city-specific versions of the same show, creating enough confusion to provoke a clowning scandal and intra-Bozo beefs.

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.

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. 

You don’t want to engage in road rage when the person in the next car

might be your child’s future teacher or your dentist’s father.

-kim edwards

(or a creepy clown – bk)

credits: The Ringer, Kate Nibbs, ABC News

80 responses »

  1. A deep dive into the mystery of Bozo. Well researched and written, Beth! I, like you, had thought for all these years that Bozo was a syndicated national broadcast. That my Bozo was everybody’s Bozo. But the idea of franchising the show is definitely more sustainable. At first, you would think that people who make a living as clowns would be a little more innately jovial But clowns are artists, and like all artists, all are a little protective of their creations. It is a shame that Harmon felt the need to embellish his accomplishments. Just telling the truth about his popularization and marketing of the character would be enough for a little respect and praise for his accomplishments. Wonder if Jim Borden played him in his early years in Philly?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. honestly these clowns always freaked me out a little. we live in sarasota fl. which has the Ringling museum and a huge circus community, so it is kinda revered here. my wife is a big circus history fan. she has an affinity for old European style circus’s in particular. having said that, there are very cool historical documents of clowns in the collection here.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Harmon also ended up with the rights to Laurel and Hardy and was equally as protective of them.

    Bob Bell was also a station announcer at WGN. He played Bozo in his spare time, for which, no doubt, he was handsomely compensated. I’ve decided that there’s a special place in Heaven for the hosts and characters of children’s TV shows. There had to have been a lot of love that went into that job.

    Liked by 2 people

      • When I was in 4th grade, we visited WGN studios and got to see the studios and control rooms (but none of the celebs, sadly). I was in heaven. I always wanted to work in TV, and the more I think about it, the more I wish I had. One of my uncles worked for WLS-TV; I should have asked him about it….

        Like

  4. Wow. This is a lot to process. What about poor military kids who had to acclimate to new Bozos every two years when they moved? They’re probably still in therapy. And Pinto Colvig is a sweet Contender for the blog of funny names.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I was thinking the same thing. What? Bozo can’t be alive. (well, until recently) I smiled when I saw the reference to WGN in Chicago because I think that’s where I was introduced to Bozo too. My parents grew up in the Chicago suburbs.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The funny thing is, I never really wanted to consider anything other than his clown immortality, kind of like Santa, I never wanted to question any of it, just accepted things to keep the dream going. Glad you experienced bozo too

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Being a Brit, I was only vaguely aware of Bozo and most of that is through Krusty the Clown from The Simpsons, who is partly based on Bozo. I don’t think Bozo really made it to the UK, at least not when I was growing up the 80s and 90s.

    A fascinating story though! 183 different shows is insane!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I guess I’m in the minority of being a fan of clowns, perhaps because I used to perform as one on rare occasions.

    I enjoyed reading the back story about Bozo; so maybe it’s not clowns themselves who gave them a bad name, but Larry Harmon…

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Fascinating story, Beth. Didn’t everyone grow up with Bozo on TV? It never occurred to me that there was more than one. I think the greatest homage to Bozo is Ronald MacDonald, as they look much the same (except the red ‘ears’).

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I’m gobsmacked – I had no idea there was so much history surrounding Bozo. It’s a shame that the connotation today has taken on an insulting tone; after all those laughs you’d think we could remember the upside. Thanks for the reminder, and the trip down memory lane.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. This has been very enlightening and entertaining. Like you, I’m not a fan of clowns for exactly the same reason. You can’t see the real person. I had no idea there were so many Bozo’s but I’m not at all surprised. Lots of bozos out there without the costumes. 😉 I’ve had this post open for over a week and have been terribly distracted. Thank goodness for the quiet moment. I learned something new.

    Liked by 1 person

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