recess radio program

08/05/05
"Let's Hear It For the Clown"
    by John Cech

It's International Clown Week, and, in the U.S., one of our most famous clowns is Bozo -- with his electric shock of red hair, his seven-acre shoes, his baggy blue jumpsuit with its pom-pom and a big floppy collar, and his limitless supply of guffaws and good humor. In a way, he's the archetypal American clown, born in the traveling circuses of the early part of the 20th century -- the clown with the white face and the round, red nose. Today, this prototypical character has been kept in the public eye by Ronald MacDonald, the fast food company mascot. He's jolly, endlessly enthusiastic, and always ready to fill your tray with happy meals. No one quite knows where the word, "Bozo," comes from -- it could be slang for a foolish, bumbling fellow -- a derogatory term that circulated in the rough and tumble carnivals and circuses that regularly used to set up in the vacant lots and fields of American towns and cities.

But the Bozo most of us are familiar with was a manufactured character, the brainchild of a Capital Records producer, Alan Livingston. In 1946, Livingston hired an actor named Pinto Colvig, who as a teenager had actually run away to join the circus and became a clown. Colvig ended up on the West Coast, where, in the 1930s, he provided the voices for some of the Disney Studio's early cartoon characters, like Pluto and Goofy, and the dwarves Grumpy and Sleepy. Colvig also helped write the song, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" Colvig's first record with Capital, Bozo and the Circus, was a unique multi-media combination that brought together a story that was to be both read and heard -- there were even audio cues to tell you when to turn the page. The idea became a best-seller, and led to more than a dozen other read-along books and records, and it led to Colvig's playing Bozo at personal appearances and, later, on his own television show. By the 1950s, Larry Harmon had bought the rights to the Bozo character and performed him for years. Because of his popularity, Bozo inevitably became a franchise, and soon there were licensed Bozos with their own television shows in most American cities . In fact, Willard Scott, the Today Show's former weatherman, played one of these Bozos in the Washington, D.C. area and was even invited, in full clown regalia, to march in J. F. K.'s innaugural parade. One of the other meanings of the word, "Bozo,"some experts say, is "a regular guy."

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Copyright 2005 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."