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Meet the clown who dominated Chicago’s airwaves for generations of kids

Screenshot: Bozo's Circus, circa 1968
Screenshot: Bozo's Circus, circa 1968

With more than 5.3 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or reassuring yourself that the creepy clown sightings were a 2016 thing and they’re not coming back, and they’re definitely not in your backyard right now, peering in the window, waiting until you fall asleep. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,374,793-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: The Bozo Show

What it’s about: If you only know one clown by name, it’s almost certainly Bozo. Created in 1946 for a series of read-along record albums for kids, Bozo’s ubiquity owed to two things: After Pinto Colvig (also the original voice of Goofy) portrayed Bozo for a decade, the role was passed on to not one, but several actors, so every city could have its own Bozo. Which brings us to the second thing: Chicago’s Bozo (played by Bob Bell for 24 years and then Joey D’Auria for another 17) hosted what would become “the most successful locally produced children’s program in the history of television.”

Bozo almost certainly didn’t smoke on air. (Screenshot: The Simpsons)

Strangest fact: Krusty The Clown is based almost entirely on Chicago’s Bozo. Dan Castellaneta based his voice on Bob Bell’s signature rasp, Sideshow Bob seems to be an analogue to co-host Ringmaster Ned, and the show was a similar cavalcade of sketches, gags, and cartoons, with a live studio audience of kids.

Biggest controversy: There seems to have been a little backstage drama at Bozo, and when supporting cast members left, it tended to be for health reasons or retirement. The show’s name changed a few times, with The Bozo Show and Bozo’s Circus the longest-running titles, but both the cast and format remained remarkably stable through the show‘s long run. By the time Bell retired from the title role, the show was routinely winning its time slot, and there was a 10-year wait for studio audience tickets (which is remarkable for a show whose target audience is well under the age of 10). But a nationwide talent search found D’Auria, (whose prior TV experience was limited to a series of Gong Show appearances as “Doctor Flamo,” although he has since gone on to a career in voice work) and the show kept on running without a hitch.

The hottest ticket in town. (Photo: Public domain)

Thing we were happiest to learn: There was a community of Chicago-based kids’ shows, with Bozo at its center. When puppet show Garfield Goose And Friends went off the air after 24 years, Bozo’s Circus adopted the puppets for a recurring segment. Original cast member Ray Rayner played country bumpkin Oliver O. Oliver, while also hosting Breakfast With Bugs Bunny elsewhere on the schedule. Like Bozo, Rayner introduced cartoons with jokes, puppet shows, arts and crafts, and even a live duck named Chelveston. Rayner was a hit, and the show was quickly renamed Ray Rayner And His Friends, becoming another kids’ TV institution until Rayner retired in 1980.

Rayner (L) with Chelveston. (Screenshot: Ray Rayner And His Friends)

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The ’90s brought a slow death by attrition to Bozo. The show had been a beloved local institution for decades, and from its debut in 1960 until the late ’90s had largely the same format it took on when it expanded from a half hour of cartoons and comedy bits in its first year, to a full hour every weekday that included a live band, circus acts, games, and prizes for the studio audience in 1961.

The show’s sturdy formula remained intact until mid-1994, when WGN cut back on its children’s programming and replaced Bozo with a morning news program, downgrading its signature clown to the once-a-week Bozo Super Sunday Show. Then in 1997, the FCC began requiring stations to air an onerous three hours a week of educational programming. As a result, Wikipedia dolefully reports that, “the show suffered another blow in 1997, when its format became educational.” Surely, there is no worse fate than enlightening and educating children.

With cast members leaving after repeated budget cuts, WGN finally axed Bozo in 2001. It was the longest-running and last Bozo show still on TV. The finale special, Bozo: 40 Years Of Fun! aired on July 14, 2001, and featured a guest performance by Billy Corgan. The show returned for a prime-time retrospective in 2005, which topped the ratings in Chicago and is now rebroadcast as a holiday tradition.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: A “show must go on” attitude prevailed, with Bozo unfailingly taping new episodes even when Bob Bell took a leave of several months in 1968 after being hospitalized with a brain aneurysm (the supporting cast filled in until his return, and a few new characters were introduced). A rare exception was Chicago’s blizzard of ’67, the worst in the city’s history, with snow drifting as high as 15 feet. As the storm hit following an unseasonably warm day, no one was expecting snow, and Chicagoans were caught off-guard. Seven hours after the snow began falling, nearly 200 people were still in line for Bozo, but they canceled the show and threw on a rerun before their audience got frostbite.

The blizzard paralyzed Chicago, down to the last clown. (Photo: User 58follow/Wikipedia)

Further down the Wormhole: 1970s Bozo was at the cutting edge of technology. In 1979, the show incorporated a segment called TV Powww, a syndicated game show in which one lucky caller would control a video game over the phone. Most local markets aired Powww during commercial breaks, but Bozo incorporated it into the show, and as WGN had become a basic cable “superstation” the year before, most of TV Powww’s viewers were watching via Bozo.

The technology involved was decidedly dated. While Powww’s producers claimed to have voice-activation technology, it’s more likely a TV station employee simply manipulated the controller by hand per the child on the phone’s instructions. Generally, the caller would shout “Pow!” (or sometimes a more specific phrase, like “Pix” for WPIX), and shoot at a target in the video game. This was made difficult by both the delay between the phone call and TV broadcast, and the fact that most stations used a seven-second delay in case callers cursed on-air.

While Powww eventually used the then-popular Intellivision game console, and tried to coax Nintendo or Sega into offering an upgrade, the feature started with the Fairchild Channel F, a late-’70s system killed by the success of Atari. We’ll look at “the system nobody knows” next week.