Guest Commentary: There ought to be Bozo, but try telling Tribune

Jun 18, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Send out the clown. The last joke’s been told. The last pie has been thrown. It’s bedtime for Bozo. The Tribune Co. has given him and his size 1841/2 shoes their walking papers.
A landmark figure both within Chicago and in the fast-vanishing world of locally produced children’s television is gone.
This city’s favorite clown wore black-decked out in bow tie and tails-June 12 as he taped his final show, marking his 40th
anniversary on Chicago’s WGN-TV. The superstation will run the retrospective July 14.
There is a little sadness, said Joey Dauria, the second and last man to wear this town’s Bozo’s famously floppy shoes, wild red hair and rubber nose, his having replaced the late Bob Bell 17 years ago.
But after 7,200 shows, there were no tears from the clown, a local icon to rival the Sears Tower, Mike Ditka, the Picasso statue in Daley Plaza, Michael Jordan and Wrigley Field.
During the taping, about the only reference to the this celebration being in fact a wake came when Bozo, looking to empty the show’s prize vault because there were no more shows to come, shrugged off his largesse. “What are they gonna do?” he asked. “Fire me?”
The bittersweet finale combines vintage clips and genuinely entertaining-thoroughly old-fashioned-new material, performed by regulars Bozo, Rusty the Handyman (Robin Eurich) and Professor Andy (Andy Mitran), whose solo synthesizer work stands in for what was a 13-piece band in the show’s glory days. Former cast members Wizzo the Wizard (Marshall Brodien) and Sandy the Tramp (Don Sandburg) swung by to join in the magic tricks, skits, songs and an errant pie or two.
“Bozo’s Circus” once was a lunchtime tradition for more than a generation of Chicago school kids-a show that had a waiting list for tickets that extended up to 10 years and had parents writing in for seats on behalf of children not yet born. Ultimately, it was brushed aside by unsentimental station owner Tribune Co., which had greased the show’s decline.
To make room for a noon newscast, “Bozo’s Circus” was moved in 1980 from lunchtime, where it had prospered, to weekday mornings. Then as humor-heavy local morning newscasts became the rage, in 1994 “Bozo” was downgraded again to once a week and exiled to early Sunday mornings, lost among the infomercials.
Its audience there would dwindle to the point where station management could cite the many other available viewing options available for kids and how changing children’s tastes favored “Pokemon” and “Power Rangers” over the low-tech hodgepodge of Vaudevillelike acts, skits, cartoons and games, such as the Grand Prize Game, which had devotees forever practicing for the challenge of throwing a Ping-Pong ball into a series of six buckets.
Never mind the way Bozo brightened every charity event or parade to which Tribune Co. dispatched him as its goodwill ambassador over the years. Never mind the looks on the faces of the wide-eyed kids and beaming parents lucky enough to get tickets to the very last taping.
By March, WGN Vice President and General Manager John Vitanovec, who himself as a child rushed home from school to watch the program, had decided to become, in the words of Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Feder, “The Man Who Killed Bozo.”
The show by then was nothing more than a budget item that could be tossed away like so much shaving cream in a pie fight. Cram it, clownie.
Such was the cachet of the show among its fans-even as it was becoming a memory-that singer Billy Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, formerly of the Smashing Pumpkins, and ex-Urge Overkill bassist Eddie Roeser-all of whom grew up watching the show-volunteered to play Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” for the finale, guitarist Chris Holmes happily taking a pie to the face when it was over.
“In an overhyped world, it’s easy to go `The best of this’ or, `He’s the greatest of that,’ but I think this show is really a landmark show,” said Corgan, 34, who recalled visiting the show on his 11th birthday and as an adult occasionally still seeing the program around dawn on Sundays after a Saturday all-nighter. “I mean, 40 years. I’d never talked about Bozo with my dad [who’s 57], and yet we have the same memory … which is running home from school and watching the show. I’ve talked to 20 people, and they all have the same memory. You’d run home at noon and watch the show and run back as soon as the Grand Prize Game was over.
“There’s something good about that. There’s something good, cheesy about just a nice show. Your kids were not going to get hurt, and there was nothing dark or sinister about it. It was just fun-and bad juggling. I miss that world. I’m not overly sentimental, but when we lose stuff like this, we lose a lot.”
At one point, there were many “Bozo” TV shows in other U.S. cities, seizing upon the popularity of the character created in 1946 by Capitol Records’ Alan Livingston, who attended the final WGN taping. Among those who played Bozo were Muppets creator Jim Henson, Carroll Spinney, who would become the voice of Big Bird on “Sesame Street,” Willard Scott and Larry Harmon, who continues to hold the rights to the character.
There were many clown clones with shows too. None, however, could rival the popularity or longevity of the WGN version. Dan Castellaneta has said he modeled the voice of Krusty the Clown on “The Simpsons” in part on Mr. Bell. Since 1999, when the Bozo in Grand Rapids, Mich., left the air, Chicago’s had been the sole survivor.
While WGN’s Bell made his debut in the big shoes on June 20, 1960, the first stripped-down Chicago “Bozo” show went away that January when WGN moved from Tribune Tower to the facility in West Bradley Place.
That’s where “Bozo’s Circus” would take up residence from Sept. 11, 1961, until last week. The last rerun of what was renamed “The Bozo Show” is set to air Aug. 26 on the cable superstation.
Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications had dibs on the props and costumes, opening its Bozo exhibit within 72 hours. The display displaced the museum’s prized WBBM-TV camera from the first 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate.
As the studio cleared after the last taping, WGN crew people folded up the bleachers and rolled in the garish set for that night’s official state lottery drawings. The circus had folded its tent for the last time, and WGN’s Studio 1 was just another well-lit windowless room.