Bozo the Clown is one of the most beloved characters in America’s history. Unbeknownst to many, though, Bozo was originally a character in a read-along book.
In 1946, Capitol Records’ Alan Livingston came up with the idea to market a book with a record included. The idea was that children would read along and listen to the record as the narrator, Bozo the Clown, read the book out loud. On these records, the voice of Bozo was provided by Pinto Colvig, a former circus clown who had been doing character voices for Walt Disney. He was best known for the voice of Goofy, but he also did Pluto’s bark and the voice of two of Snow White’s dwarfs – Sleepy and Grumpy.
The read-along books were a hugely successful venture, and over a million copies of the book, Bozo at the Circus, were sold. Fifteen more books were published over the years with similar success.
In 1949, Colvig became the first person to appear on television as Bozo The Clown. He appeared on KTTV in Los Angeles on Bozo’s Circus, with a tamer version of Bozo’s now-famous look of red hair, white face, and blue suit.
Due to the growing popularity of Bozo, there was a huge demand for personal appearances, so Livingston hired more actors to do promotional appearances in different cities across the country. One of the actors, Larry Harmon, was interested in much more than just playing Bozo. In the late 1950s, with a group of investors, he bought the licensing rights to the Bozo the Clown character. And so began the process that made Bozo a household name and brought the clown into living rooms across the country, and the world.
Harmon started his clever marketing strategy by changing the name from “Bozo the Capitol Clown” to “Bozo, The World’s Most Famous Clown”. Next, he altered Bozo’s appearance by creating the orange-red shock of hair that stuck out from both sides of the clown’s head. He also started an animation studio that produced Bozo, The World’s Most Famous Clown cartoons, for which he did the voice-over.
In the early 1960s, Harmon sought to sell Bozo franchises to local television shows across the country. This allowed each station to choose its own Bozo the Clown, and to tailor the show to fit its unique audience. There were even custom shows in Mexico and Brazil! Then, in the mid- to late-1960s, Harmon bought out his partners and used Boston’s WHDH-TV studio to produce Bozo’s Big Top. The show was created for syndication to local markets not already producing their own shows. Bozo’s Big Top was not as successful a venture, especially since so many stations preferred producing their own show.
The most successful Bozo show was based in Chicago at WGN-TV. Bozo’s Circus debuted on June 20, 1960, featuring Bob Bell as Bozo. It was a live, half-hour show running every weekday at noon. Bozo’s Circus became so popular that it became an hour long and moved into an early morning slot. In 1978, the show went national via cable and satellite, where it lasted until 1994. (Joey D’Auria replaced Bell in 1984.) Mid-90s competition from national and syndicated children’s shows caused WGN to move Bozo to Sunday, and the title was changed to The Bozo Super Sunday Show. The last episode taped was the “Bozo: 40 Years of Fun!” special, which ran in July of 2001.
Like many successful retro characters, Bozo was inspiration for a great deal of merchandise, including bop bags, Bozo-in-the-box, figures, dolls, coin banks and more. There was even a brand of Bozo bread (by Awrey in the 1960s). As he’s introduced to today’s younger ones, many reproductions have surfaced, and newer merchandise produced.
Although Bozo the Clown is only seen today on re-runs, specials, and DVDs, he will forever be a part of American television history. His laugh, his face, and especially, his hair, are immediately recognizable by generations of children who grew up watching the funny clown.
And now, a rare treat. A YouTuber shares an 8mm home video recording that her grandfather filmed in 1977. He was in the audience for a taping of Bozo’s Circus. Take a look:
Did you look forward to watching Bozo on TV when you were a kid? What were your favorite moments?