SHOW – Bozo’s Circus, also known as Bozo, The Bozo Show, and The Bozo Super Sunday Show
NETWORK – WGN-TV (local Chicago TV and on cable)
RUN: June 20, 1960 to July 14, 2001
When we were in grammar school at St. Ignatius School in the ’60’s, we’d get out for lunch at 11:45 and run home from school so we’d get there and have the TV warmed up in time to hear Ringmaster Ned blow his whistle and announce to the world “BOZO’S CIRCUS IS ON THE AIR!”
You weren’t a kid in Chicago in the 1960’s if you didn’t watch Bozo’s Circus. Dan Castelanetta, the voice of Homer Simpson and Krusty The Clown in the long-running animated show The Simpsons, based his portrayal of Krusty on Bob Bell, for many years Chicago’s Bozo.
Chicago’s Bozo’s Circus was one of many franchises sold by Larry Harmon in the late ’50’s. It started as a half-hour noontime cartoon show in 1960, with station announcer Bob Bell donning the suit and pancake makeup to provide comedy routines between the cartoons and commercials. That show took a hiatus after a few months while WGN built its studios about two miles west of Wrigley Field. When it returned, it was the hourlong Bozo’s Circus that we remember best.
This time, Bell was accompanied by Ned Locke, a veteran of Chicago children’s TV, as Ringmaster Ned, who acted as the master of ceremonies and tried to keep the clowns in line; Ray Rayner, who hosted several WGN children’s shows, as Oliver O. Oliver, a country bumpkin clown from Puff Bluff, Kentucky; and Don Sandburg, producer and head writer of the show, as Sandy The Tramp (later Sandy The Sadfaced Clown because of the negative connotations of “tramp”), a mute clown based on Emmet Kelly and Harpo Marx. Music was provided by “Mr. Bob” Trendler and his “Big Top Band,” members of the WGN Orchestra. A host of local acrobatic and other family-oriented performers provided real circus-like entertainment. One of those local performers, magician Marshall Brodein, was eventually cast as Wizzo, a magician and fortuneteller dressed in an Arabic costume.
A crowd of roughly 200 spectators would witness this daily madness, and several of the children got the opportunity to play in one of the games played during the show. The big one was the Grand Prize Game: two kids, a boy and a girl (chosen by “the magic arrows,” two animated arrows overlayed on a live image of the crowd), stood in front of a row of buckets, numbered 1 to 6. The object was for the player to toss a ping-pong ball into each bucket sequentially. Prizes were awarded for each bucket, which got better as the player got further. Bucket Number 6 was the big one. Each day, they would put a silver dollar in it, and the money would accumulate until someone sank the ball into #6, winning them all the money, plus a Schwinn bicycle. (The joke was that, when Bozo died, they’d cremate him and put his ashes in Bucket #6.) I never saw two kids win on the same day, though it was possible. One of the Bucket Number 1 prizes was always stockings for the kid’s mother (“Nu-Mode Hosiery with the No-Bind Top”). The second game was always a team event, like carrying tablespoons full of water to the other end of the tent and emptying it into a jug, the winning team getting a slightly better prize than the losing team (but all got a prize).
At the peak of its popularity, there was a ten-year wait for tickets, so upon hearing that someone in the family was pregnant, families would order the tickets to Bozo so that maybe they’d be able to go before the kid went off to college.
The show changed over the years, naturally: Bell retired, touching off a nationwide search for a new Bozo, eventually going to a comedian and actor named Joey D’Auria. When Locke retired, they asked Frazier Thomas, who had created the character of Garfield Goose, a delusional bird who thought he was King of the United States, to take his place, the story being that Garfield bought the circus. When Sandburg and Rayner left, they were replaced by puppeteer and set designer Roy Brown as Cooky, “our kooky cook.”
By 1981, kids stopped going home for lunch, and the show moved from noon to 8:00 AM as The Bozo Show. Bob Bell retired in 1984, as noted above, and in 1985, Frazier Thomas had a massive stroke at work and died a couple of days later. In 1991, for the 30th anniversary show, Locke and Sandburg helped Bozo celebrate its 30th anniversary, with Adrian Zmed (from T. J. Hooker, who was also born and raised in Chicago) briefly joining the cast as an apprentice clown. After that, the show dwindled away, being an early Sunday morning show in 1994 and an educational program following the FCC’s mandate in 1997. Bozo breathed its last in July 2001.
For people who grew up in Chicago in the ’60’s and ’70’s, Bozo’s Circus was a must-see. As corny as it was, it was good entertainment while eating one’s peanut butter sandwiches…