Bozo the Clown died this week.
Well, sort of, but not really.
Frank Avruch, whose portrayal of Bozo for the Boston television market led to him becoming the first Bozo in syndication, died last week at the age of 89. He portrayed the “World’s Most Famous Clown” from 1959 – 1970.
Avruch was one of more than 200 men trained to play the white-faced wonder of a clown. Bozo lit up the television airwaves for 47 consecutive years, the longest running family show in history, and appeared on small screens in every market in the United States, Mexico, Greece, Australia, Thailand, and Brazil. At one time, there were 183 individual live Bozo Shows on at one time in the United States. It is estimated that at one point, one in every ten Americans had attended a live Bozo studio show, and it took ten years to get tickets for the Chicago show.
As Bozo, Avruch was in good company. Willard Scott, the jolly Today show weatherman of many years, was Bozo from 1959- 1962 in the Washington DC market. Bob Bell was probably the most well-known Bozo. He played the clown in the Chicago market, which went national via cable and satellite in 1978.
What – or who – was behind to ubiquitous moxie of Bozo? A few insights:
Money is the root of all moxie
Well, maybe not all moxie, but a lot of it anyway. And there’s no shame in it. Many great ideas are born not of idealism, but of a desire to make some money. Pursuit of a little profit was likely a significant driver in how Bozo became an internationally beloved figure.
Bozo was born in the 1940s, the product of Capital Records executive Alan W. Livingston and clown and voice actor Pinto Colvig. Colvig voiced Bozo for a popular series of children’s read-a-long albums and brought the character to television in 1949. Bozo became a mascot of sorts for Capitol.
Larry Harmon was among several actors hired by Livingston and Capitol to play Bozo at events. Harmon fell in love with the character, and a few years later he gathered some investors and bought the licensing rights. His plan was to develop a cartoon based on the character, and use actors dressed as Bozo to introduce the cartoon in local markets, using a franchise model rather than syndication.
“His main purpose… was to sell product,” said Avruch in an interview. “Because he owned the name Bozo and then there was every kind of [merchandise]: Bozo toys, Bozo dolls, Bozo sheets, Bozo everything. Moreover, he was using the television show as a marketing tool to promote the thing.”
The franchise approach worked. Thousands of Bozo products flooded into the market, everything from plush toys to costumes to lunch boxes and more. The products were available at Wal-Mart and Sharper Image and everywhere in between. Vintage Bozo products are hot collector’s items today, and you can still find a number of new Bozo the Clown products (including the bop bag!) on Amazon.
Moxie inspires imitators
Children around the world fell in love with Bozo, and others took notice. Willard Scott, who once played Bozo, also played a key role in the development of Ronald McDonald, the beloved symbol of McDonald’s Restaurants.
“At the time, Bozo was the hottest children’s show on the air. … There was something about the combination of hamburgers and Bozo that was irresistible to kids … That is why when Bozo went off the air a few years later, the local McDonald’s people asked me to come up with a new character to take Bozo’s place. So, I sat down and created Ronald McDonald,” Scott wrote in his book Joy of Living.
Rather poetic that a clown made famous through franchising would inspire the mascot of the world’s most successful restaurant franchise, isn’t it? Ronald McDonald has arguably surpassed Bozo as the World’s Most Famous Clown.
Moxie is timeless
Would Bozo work today? The idea of using a character to sell children’s merchandise still clearly works. If you doubt me, take a stroll through the children’s clothing section at your local department store. Disney has character merchandising down to a highly-lucrative science.
But would Bozo’s innocent, schlocky schtick still work? I would like to think so. I also love the idea that Bozo was a local guy, with a little bit of freedom to localize the character. In our hyperconnected world, I rather like that idea that local still matters, and there’s something special about a particular place and the people who live there.
I love the idea that for so many kids, Bozo was physically present, and not simply an image flickering on the screen. They had the opportunity to occupy the same space and breathe the same air as their hero, to hear his laugh echoing across the soundstage, to look into his sparkling eyes, to feel the warm clasp of his hand on theirs. And they shared that experience with “their” Bozo with other children who had their own Bozo across the country. I cannot think of a similar experience today, and I’m a little sad for that. I think that was part of Bozo’s moxie; he was global and local and the same time, in the best possible way.
“I felt if I could plant my size 83AAA shoes on this planet, people would never be able to forget those footprints,” said Larry Harmon. He was right. Bozo has indeed left his mark.
Do you have any favorite memories of Bozo? Share your story in the comments below.