There is an entire era of children’s entertainment that is alien to today’s youngsters. This was the era of Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Wizard, and Mr. Rogers. These were extremely gentle shows that are beloved by those who remember them, specifically because they never talked down to children. But Bozo’s Circus was the best of them all, because it brought the young audience up to the level of its adult stars.
So much of the show was based on ad-libbing and real life humor. If one of the clowns forgot a line, the others made him pay for it. If a prop failed or a piece of the set fell down, the clowns would laugh nervously as they tried to get through the skit. Often, they would simply make snide comments about the low budget of the show. Half the fun of this show was watching how these silly men would get out of a tough jam when the bit wouldn’t go as planned.
So, what does this have to do with animation? Well, unless I spend a lot of time talking about the Larry Harmon produced Bozo cartoons, not a heck of a lot. On the other hand, Bozo provided a healthy context for the many classic cartoons shown on the program. Old Looney Tunes shorts had so much in common with the comedy of Jackie Gleason and Jack Benny, from whom The Bozo Show had taken so many cues.
Beyond that, you’re going to forgive me for this one, because as much of a real life cartoon as Bozo was, this is obviously going to be a gushfest over what I consider to be the very live-action children’s show every produced. We here at Animation Aficionados have been known to stretch the rules from time to time.
The Bozo Show was truly the last vestige of classic comedy to ever air on TV. The show debuted on September 11, 1961, and when it finally went off the air in 2001, it took a legacy with it. And the saddest part is that so much of it is now lost, and what remains is very difficult to come by. As tapes were reused, lost, or destroyed, much of the show’s rich history now resides in the memories of its viewers. Whatever remains in the WGN library is indefinitely locked away from the public, and the only glimpse of it that we’re allowed to see is a yearly “news special” hosted by WGN news anchor Dean Richards.The Bozo Show began in the 60s, hit its stride in the 70s, and peaked in the 80s. For the vast majority of this time, staff announcer Bob Bell played the role of Bozo, practically reinventing the character from its humble origins at Capital Records. Bozo was a franchise show that had a different actor playing the part in different markets nationwide, but as WGN became a cable network, the Bob Bell version became recognized as the best and it gradually became the standard, until there was only one Bozo nationwide.
In 1984, Bob Bell retired, and a new Bozo, played by Joey D’Auria, took over the role until the show was canceled in 2001. Joey was MY Bozo. Like Bob Bell before him, he practically created the character for his own and never once imitated Bell, which I believe to be to Joey’s credit.
Bozo shared the stage with many colorful characters. The early leader of the show was Ringmaster Ned Locke, the program’s straight man. Eventually replacing him would be Frazier Thomas, a studio personality, famous for his “Family Classics” series and creating Garfield Goose. Another popular Chicago personality, Ray Rayner, portrayed Oliver O. Oliver, an early foil to Bozo’s antics. Show producer Don Sandberg also joined the show as the mute Sandy The Tramp, an homage to Harpo Marx.
As the 60s came to a close and Sandy was leaving the show, new clowns were introduced. Not many stayed long. One notable exception was Wizzo, the wacky wizard clown from the land of Arobia played by TV magician Marshall Brodien. Marshall’s character was so weird and yet such a vital part of the show throughout the 70s and 80s. Though Brodien was a talented personality, some of the greatest gaffs of all time could be attributed to Wizzo.But by far, the most beloved character on the show is almost certainly Cooky the Clown, played to perfection by Roy Brown. Brown was a graphic artist who worked at WGN from the 60s all the way to the mid 90s. As an artist, he is one of my heroes. He did paintings, designed puppets (including Garfield Goose and the beloved Cuddly Dudley), and was a master of comedic timing as Cooky. Nobody broke up audiences like Cooky.
Cooky’s biggest goal at the end of every show was to lead the grand march (a march leading the audience out of the studio), which he only did a handful of times. In fact, the first time he did it was a famous gaff in which Bob Bell inadvertently misspelled the word “alphabet” during a “Fair and Square” contest. Another time was one in which producer Al Hall told a viewer that he would only let Cooky lead the grand march if she brought in a petition of 10,000 signatures. Months later, said petition emerged, which included a signature from then-president Ronald Reagan. Cooky would again lead the march when he was inducted into the Clown Hall Of Fame in the 90s and again on the show’s final regular taping in late 2000, shortly before Roy Brown’s death.
Roy Brown had retired years earlier but made cameos on the show from time to time. Roy’s official replacement on the show was Rusty the comedic Handyman, played by Robin Eurich.
You see, every clown on the show had a role in the fictitious circus, which is why, as you can see, there’s a handyman, a cook, a magician, and so on and so forth. There were a few generic clowns from time to time (Spiffy the Clown comes to mind), but they usually didn’t last more than a year.A 40th anniversary special was produced in early 2001. Wizzo and Sandy returned to the show to say goodbye. The show finished with Billy Corgan, a Chicago native, singing Neil Young’s “Forever Young”. I believe it aired some time in the summer.
The regular program remained in reruns until… well… this very day ten years ago.
I’m really saddened that this is now a lost era. A show that had such life, originality, and human spirit has been replaced by children’s programming that is rigorously controlled, heavily scripted by humorless automatons, and dull as a fence post. I honestly don’t understand shows such as iCarly or Drake & Josh, which are basically just dumbed-down television sitcoms, a form of programming I’m not very fond of to begin with.
But Bozo was wonderful, because they could do the same skit seven or eight times, and it would always be funny and different, because they would invariably screw up at some point and try to ad lib their way out of it. It was natural comedy at its best, and I’m disappointed that there’s nothing like this on TV anymore.
Every year at Christmas time, WGN re-airs a two-hour special called “Bozo, Gar, & Ray,” which commemorates the best of Bozo and other children’s shows from the station’s rich history. If you have the means to see it, I strongly recommend that you do so.
Below: Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon visits the Bozo set, plus as many Bozo-related clips as I could find on YouTube. (There aren’t many!)