Monday, October 1, 2007

I think we’re all Bozos on this bus

If you’ve ever seen Poltergeist (1982), I’m guessing you haven’t forgotten one of the most terrifying scenes in that horror flick, where the little kid’s clown doll turns evil and goes medieval on his ass.  I certainly won’t forget it, because I had a dream like that once when I was little—that my talking Bozo had me trapped in my room and wouldn’t let me out, and I couldn’t contact my parents.

I’ve known some people who claim to be freaked out by clowns.  I can’t honestly say that I share that phobia, because I dealt with the Bozo dream in a perfectly calm and rational manner: I threw that goddamned doll into the back of my closet.  (Mom: “Why don’t you ever play with Bozo anymore?”  Six-year-old me: “I don’t feel like it.”)  Mom says I was a pretty big Bozo fan as a kid—I even had this little tchotchke in the basement—but outside of the toys and maybe an occasional Bozo cartoon, it’s faded out of my childhood memory for good.

The entity billed as “The World’s Greatest Clown” was created by Alan W. Livingston in 1946 as a character for Capitol Records, offering children what was then the innovative idea of allowing them to read stories while listening along on 78 r.p.m. records (dubbed “Record Readers”).  Vocal actor Pinto Colvig (the voice of Goofy and so many others) was the man behind the clown’s voice, and he also became the first television Bozo when a TV program based on the character appeared in 1949 in the Los Angeles area.

The cathode ray tube began to cut into Bozo’s record sales, and an associate of Livingston’s, a gynecologist-turned-actor-comedian named Larry Harmon, had the foresight to see what a money-making machine the Boz could turn out to be on TV by buying the rights to various Bozo products and knock-offs.  (The jewel of the clown…er, crown, the rights to the character, were finally purchased by Harmon from Capitol in 1957.)  Harmon then started his own cartoon studio (in association with Jaywark) not long after, and eventually cranked out 156 cartoons that were so dismal in their animation they made the King Features Trilogy material look like it came out of Disney.  Armed with this “wealth” of cartoon riches, Harmon began to actively promote sales of the new cartoon series, and decided to copy the success of TV’s Romper Room by franchising his animated output: the cartoons would be sold to local stations, who in turn would produce their own kiddie-show series featuring their own Bozos—after having purchased the costume and “training” from Mr. Harmon, who became a staggeringly rich tycoon in the process.  One of the more famous individuals to don the Bozo duds was a young man named Willard Scott (on Washington’s WRC-TV from 1959-62), who a meaner person might say pretty much stayed a Bozo the rest of his life, even while doing the weather for The Today Show.  (I’m glad I didn’t disappoint you.)  WJCL-TV in Savannah even had a Bozo show, though I don’t know too much of the backstory behind that…Sam Johnson probably does, when he’s not out being the Six Million Dollar Man.

I mention Bozo’s background only because I entertained myself over the weekend watching the DVD box set Larry Harmon’s Bozo, the World’s Most Famous Clown: Volume 1, a collection of thirty shows originally broadcast over WHDH-TV in Boston between 1965-67 (the program, Bozo’s Big Top, actually ran on WHDH from 1959-70; Harmon took one hundred-and-thirty episodes from 1965-67 and syndicated them to stations who couldn’t afford their own local Bozo).  Maybe I’m just a strange person, but I’ve really been enjoying this jaw-droppingly awful collection of live shows that feature Frank Avruch as the Boz himself and future Sesame Street performer Carroll Spinney as various characters under the circus’ big top.

I say “jaw-droppingly awful” only because Bozo’s Big Top (produced and written by Harmon) can’t hold a candle to the Cadillac of Bozo shows, Bozo’s Circus, which ran on WGN-TV in Chicago from 1960 to 2001.  Having been blessed with getting WGN on our cable service in Ravenswood while I was still toiling away in high school, I got to enjoy the antics of Bob “Bozo” Bell, Frazier Thomas, Roy Brown (as Cooky), Marshall Brodien (“Wizzo the Wizard”) and the rest in an incredibly well-produced show that may have been targeted at kids but had equal appeal for adults as well.  (Actor Dan Castellaneta once revealed in an interview that he modeled the voice of The Simpsons’ Krusty the Clown character after Bell’s Bozo.)

Big Top is like a traffic accident from which you can’t quite turn away.  The ninth show on the DVD set will give you an example of its so-awful-it’s-great appeal: two of the regular performers, Carl Carlsson (who played Professor Tweetiefoofer) and Ruth Carlsson (who played most of the female characters), are doing a juggling act that they apparently rehearsed maybe twenty seconds before the show started.  They keep dropping their pins, and helpful kids from the audience get up from their seats to pick them up and hand them to the jugglers…while they’re still juggling.  When this not-at-all-impressive display is finished, the Carlssons then light torches and start to juggle these—prompting me to cry out: “Wait a minute!  You haven’t mastered the pins yet!”  Even though they turn out the lights in the studio to emphasize that the materials they’re juggling are on fire, they miraculously manage not to drop any of the torches and barbecue any of the tiny tots in the process.

On Bozo’s Big Top, Avruch would choose at random a child who was to be—and I can hear you all getting ready to guffaw—his “Butch for a Day”; Butch being the little kid in the Bozo cartoons that resembled Richie Rich except that he wore a ringmaster’s uniform.  In Show #9, he chooses a defiant little girl who most definitely is not going to wear either the jacket or cap—I sort of halfway expected her to glare at him and say “Aw, cram it, Clownie!”  The main duty of the “Butch of the Day” is to draw a number from a hat to pick a child who spins a Bozo wheel to win a big honkin’ load of toys in “Bozo’s Treasure Chest,” sort of a very-poor relation to WGN’s “Grand Prize Game.”  The “Butch” kid, who’s apparently having a bad day, ignores the clown and several kids start running out of the peanut gallery to volunteer to take over her Butch duties before Avruch manages convince Miss Pissy Moppet to pull a out a number.  The kid who has the winning number eventually wins the chest with a lucky spin; by this time, there were so many freakin’ toys in that chest (I watched eight shows before anyone won) that the winner could have opened a Toys R Us franchise there on the spot.

Once you have children breaching the soundstage perimeter, chaos eventually follows.  Bozo and his circus pals are attempting to convulse the kids with some hoary old vaudeville sketch when you can see one brave little moppet decide to join the festivities, staring at the camera as if she were ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille.  The sketch involves the demolition of a hi-fi set, which produces a ton of paper on the floor that, of course, the tidier-minded kids feel its their job to clean up…but this time they take the paper back to their seats.

If you want to know why a perfectly sane individual like me would find this sort of kitsch fascinating…well, I can’t really tell you.  But Infinity Entertainment, who released the first set, has a second collection following in November.  Somebody besides me has to be watching this stuff.  So remember what your ol’ pal Bozo always says…keep laughin’!

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