BOZO THE CLOWNOriginal medium: Children's book and record set
Produced by: Capitol Records
First Appeared: 1946
Creator: Alan W. Livingston
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Bozo the Clown didn't start out as a cartoon character. He began in a series of book and record sets, designed so kids could listen to a story and read it at the same time — which was not only fun for
them, it also helped nurture their reading skills. The first of them was Bozo at the Circus, issued in 1946 by Capitol Records. It was highly innovative, very popular and much imitated, and it made a good deal of money for the character's creator, writer/producer Alan W. Livingston.
No, it wasn't Bozo that was highly innovative. He was just a clown, a guy who dresses funny and acts goofy (in fact, the first actor to do his voice and portray him in promotional appearances was Pinto Colvig, who also played Disney's Goofy), and this particular one was in fact designed as a composite of several previous clowns. The innovation was in the format — no such book and record set had ever been made before.
The clown rode his innovative format to stardom. In 1949, with his first record still on Billboard magazine's best-selling kids' records chart, Los Angeles TV station KTTV launched a half-hour series titled Bozo's Circus. This series lasted only a year, but it was followed immediately by a 13-episode syndicated version. From there, Bozo went on to a sporadic but persistent presence on TV up to the mid-1950s.
Dell Comics experimented with a Bozo the Clown comic book in 1950, devoting Four Color Comics #295 (July) to him. He got a quarterly title of his own a year later, and that series lasted until 1954. Dell ran a second Bozo series 1962-63.
In 1956, Larry Harmon (one of several actors who had played Bozo in one venue or another), along with several partners, bought most rights to the character (excluding the recordings that had originally launched him — he got that, and bought out his partners, in 1971), and used him in another innovative concept. All over America, by that time, TV stations were running kids' shows, broadcast live, in which a local actor would do skits, introduce reruns of old theatrical cartoons, and interact with a live audience of local kids. Harmon franchised the concept, using Bozo. By 1959, several stations were running that sort of show, but with the local actor wearing a "Bozo the Clown" costume. Among the more notable actors to play Bozo that way were Willard Scott (who also portrayed Ronald MacDonald and is now a member of the Today Show cast) and Vance Colvig (son of the man who first played Bozo).
Among the cartoons shown there were 20 five-minute shorts made in 1958 by Jayark Films, in which Bozo was the star. Harmon did his voice in this series. 84 more were added to the mix in 1959, and another 52 in 1962.
By far, the most successful of the franchised Bozos was that of Chicago station WGN, where Bozo was played for more than two decades by Bob Bell. "Bozo" became Bell's nickname, in fact, and he kept it for the rest of his life. It was his version of Bozo that inspired Dan Castellaneta in the creation of Krusty the Clown's voice on The Simpsons. The WGN version introduced several new supporting characters in comedy skits, and some of these found their way into Bozo coloring books in the '60s. The waiting list for seats in the audience grew to ten years, and would have gone higher if the company hadn't stopped accepting them. When it again started taking reservations, five years' worth were snapped up in five hours, with calls being attempted at a peak rate of 120,000 per minute.
Meanwhile, one by one, the other Bozo shows were dropping off. By the 1980s, Chicago's was the only one left. Bell retired in 1984 and was succeeded by Joey D'Auria, who kept the role until the show ended. The last episode, titled "Bozo: 40 Years of Fun!", aired on WGN as a prime-time special on July 14, 2001.
Bozo will be remembered a very long time, and not just as a slang expression for someone with no brains. (That use preceded the clown, but was undoubtedly made more popular by him.) When we think of fictional characters named Bozo, we don't think of Bozo the Bear or Bozo the Robot, both of which enjoyed modest success in their times. The only one we think of today is Bozo the Clown.