OK, Bozos, stand up and be counted: Your country needs a whole lot more of you

January 10, 1993|By Michael PreckerMichael Precker | Michael PreckerMichael Precker,Dallas Morning News

This may be hard to believe if you watch the news, ponder the state of the nation or dispassionately look over your own family and friends:

America doesn't have enough Bozos.

"The need is approaching rather quickly," says Larry Harmon, the man who brought a clown to the world and a special four-letter word to many of its languages. "I'm looking for a few good Bozos."

Sure, there's a cheap laugh here, and Mr. Harmon, 67, who never met a shaving-cream pie he didn't like, is happy to go for it.

But there also is a serious, proud and perhaps unappreciated side to one of the world's most famous characters, and he submits that for your consideration as well.

"Think of it. After you and I are long gone, wherever there will be a need to reach out to people, there'll be Bozo. The world will long remember the day that Larry Harmon planted his size 83AAA shoes on this earth."

First, the news: No matter who you are or how much of a Bozo you may be, there could be croquet-wicket eyebrows and gravity-defying hair in your future.

Every two or three years, Larry Harmon Pictures tries to beef up its stock of authentic, authorized Bozos -- there are currently 76 -- by holding open auditions. Send a picture and a resume, get to Hollywood on Wednesday, and you've got a shot.

Can't 76 versions of the same clown handle the job? After all, although a few TV Bozos remain, the era when every town had its own kid-show clown has passed. Anti-clown humor, perhaps best embodied by the smoking, drinking, child-exploiting Krusty the Clown on "The Simpsons," seems to get bigger laughs these days.

The answers may surprise you. There are Bozo shows around the world, including a six-hour, six-day-a-week Bozothon on Brazilian TV.

A Bozo renaissance

Here at home, several Bozo stage productions tour the country. Bozo frequently turns up at parades, fairs and shopping malls and plenty of charity events.

And Mr. Harmon is certain we are on the verge of a renaissance of local Bozo TV shows. He says negotiations are going on for a big-budget Bozo movie.

Clearly, even nearing age 50, Bozo is still a clown for the '90s.

Although hundreds of wannabe Bozos are slated to audition, Mr. Harmon already despairs that he won't find enough.

"If I got three or five, I'd be so happy," he says. "It's really hard to find Bozos."

The roots of Bozoism are obscured behind the white greasepaint and big red nose of history. The gargantuan Oxford English Dictionary, among its 290,500 entries, defines "bozo" as "a person, fellow," but concedes in brackets, "Origin unknown."

Begetting of Bozo

The dictionary tracks the word to a 1920 magazine article, then to a 1924 book by the English humorist P. G. Wodehouse. The following year marked the birth of Larry Harmon in Toledo, Ohio, and the genesis of a new Bozoan Era.

But there is a bit of disagreement over the begetting of Bozo.

Mr. Harmon, who was a band leader and entertainer while still in his teens, says he thought up the name and began perfecting his clown shtick to keep audiences happy during intermissions.

"I had to find a great name, a name anybody can say in any language," he says. In his research into clown history, Mr. Harmon says, he has run across references to a 13th-century Italian monk humorist known as Bozzo and a gypsy band named Bozolowski, but these may be coincidence.

A more curious coincidence came in the mid-1940s, when Capitol Records put out a children's album and read-along book starring Bozo the Capitol Clown. A circus clown named Pinto Colvig played the part.

Capitol executives from that period have claimed that they designed the basic Bozo look and put on a Bozo show in the early days of television. Mr. Harmon disputes both points.

What is clear is that in the early 1950s, Mr. Harmon, who was portraying Commander Comet on NBC-TV, was hired as the new Bozo. After making several successful records and a half-hour TV show that never aired, Bozo decided to become his own boss.

Mr. Harmon bought all the rights. End of dispute.

"It doesn't really make any difference what the origin was," Mr. Harmon says. "The fact is that I had the foresight. I achieved a dream of making one person so famous around the world. Anyplace you go in the world, you say the name Bozo and a big smile comes on everybody's face."

The first smiles came from Bozo cartoons that Mr. Harmon

produced.

In 1959 he starred in a Los Angeles TV show that pioneered the basic Bozo concept of taped cartoons, live fun and games and an audience of giddy children.

Then he hit on the idea to do for clowns what McDonald's did for hamburgers: franchises.

Mr. Harmon sold himself to nearly every TV market in the country, crafted hometown Bozos in his own image -- and collected royalties on the package.

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