The Bozo Show
The Bozo Show was a locally produced children's television program that aired on WGN-TV in Chicago and nationally on what is now WGN America. It was based on the children's record book series, Bozo the Clown by Capitol Records. The series is a local version of the internationally franchised Bozo the Clown format and is also the longest-running in the franchise. Recognized as the most popular and successful locally produced children's program in the history of television, it only aired under this title for 14 of its 40+ years: other titles were Bozo, Bozo's Circus, and The Bozo Super Sunday Show.
|The Bozo Show|
Cast of Bozo's Circus, 1967.
From left: Ringmaster Ned (Ned Locke), Mr. Bob (bandleader Bob Trendler), Bozo (Bob Bell), Oliver O. Oliver (Ray Rayner), Sandy (Don Sandburg).
|Based on||Bozo the Clown created|
by Alan W. Livingston
|Directed by||Ron Weiner|
|Starring||Bozo the Clown|
|Opening theme||"The Greatest Show on Earth" (closing theme from film)|
|Country of origin||United States|
|Original release||June 20, 1960 –|
July 14, 2001
WGN-TV's first incarnation of the show was a live half-hour cartoon showcase titled Bozo, hosted by character actor and staff announcer Bob Bell in the title role performing comedy bits between cartoons, weekdays at noon for six-and-a-half months beginning June 20, 1960. After a short hiatus to facilitate WGN-TV's move from Tribune Tower in downtown Chicago to the city’s northwest side, the show was relaunched in an expanded one-hour format as Bozo's Circus, which premiered at noon on September 11, 1961. The live show featured Bell as Bozo (although he did not perform on the first telecast), host Ned Locke as "Ringmaster Ned," a 13-piece orchestra, comedy sketches, circus acts, cartoons, games and prizes before a 200+ member studio audience. In the early months of the series, a respected English acrobatic clown, "Wimpey" (played by Bertram William Hiles) worked on the show, providing some legitimate circus background and performing opposite Bell's Bozo in comedy sketches. Hiles continued to make periodic guest appearances on the show into the mid-1960s.
In October 1961, Don Sandburg joined the show as producer and principal sketch writer, and also appeared as the mute clown "Sandy the Tramp," a character partly inspired by Harpo Marx. By November 1961, another eventual Chicago television legend joined the show's cast, actor Ray Rayner, as "Oliver O. Oliver," a country bumpkin from Puff Bluff, Kentucky. Rayner was hosting WGN-TV's Dick Tracy Show (which also premiered the same day as Bozo's Circus) and later replaced Dick Coughlan as host of Breakfast with Bugs Bunny, later retitled Ray Rayner and His Friends. WGN musical director Bob Trendler led the WGN Orchestra, dubbed the "Big Top Band."
Games on the show included the "Grand Prize Game" created by Sandburg, wherein a boy and girl were selected from the studio audience by the Magic Arrows, and later the Bozoputer (a random number generator), to toss a ping-pong ball into a series of successively numbered buckets until they missed. If they made the winning toss into the sixth bucket, they (and an "at-home player") received a cash prize, a bike and, in later years, a trip. For many years, the cash prize for Bucket #6 was a progressive jackpot growing by one "silver dollar" each day "until someone wins them all." The Grand Prize Game became so popular, Larry Harmon, who purchased the rights to the Bozo the Clown character, later adapted it for other Bozo shows (as "Bozo Buckets" to some and "Bucket Bonanza" to others) and also licensed home and coin-operated versions.
By 1963, the show welcomed its 100,000th visitor and reached the 250,000 mark in 1966. The show was so popular locally, that seven hours after the Chicago Blizzard of 1967 began, there were 193 people standing in line, waiting to use their Bozo show tickets; it was one of the few times the live show was canceled and the tape of an older show was run instead.
In October 1968, Bell was hospitalized for a brain aneurysm and was absent from the show for several months. Meanwhile, Sandburg resolved to leave the show for the West Coast but stayed longer while Bell recuperated. To pick up the slack, WGN-TV floor manager Richard Shiloh Lubbers appeared as "Monty Melvin," named after a schoolmate of Sandburg's, while WGN Garfield Goose and Friends and Ray Rayner and His Friends puppeteer Roy Brown created a new character, "Cooky the Cook." Sandburg left the show in January 1969 and Bell returned in March. Lubbers left as well with Brown staying on as a permanent cast member. Magician Marshall Brodien, who had been making semi-regular guest appearances in which he frequently interacted with the clowns, also began appearing as a wizard character in an Arabian Nights-inspired costume in 1968 and by the early 1970s evolved into "Wizzo the Wizard." From the beginning of the show until 1970, Bozo appeared in a red costume; Larry Harmon, owner of the character's license, insisted Bozo wear blue. Harmon did not have his way regarding the costume's color in Chicago until after Don Sandburg, who was also the show's producer, left for California.
Ray Rayner left Bozo's Circus in 1971 and was briefly replaced by actor Pat Tobin as Oliver's cousin "Elrod T. Potter" and then by magician John Thompson (an acquaintance of Roy Brown's and Marshall Brodien's) as "Clod Hopper." (Tobin previously had played Bozo on KSOO-TV in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Thompson has appeared on A&E's Criss Angel Mindfreak.) Rayner periodically returned to guest-host as himself in his morning show's jumpsuit as "Mr. Ray" when Ned Locke was absent. The show had its 500,000th visitor in the same year. By 1973, WGN gave up on Thompson, and increased Brodien's appearances as Wizzo. That same year, the National Association of Broadcasters issued an edict forbidding the practice of children's TV show hosts doubling as pitchmen for products. This resulted in major cutbacks to children's show production budgets. In 1975, Bob Trendler retired from television and his Big Top Band was reduced to a three-piece band led by Tom Fitzsimmons. Locke also retired from television in 1976 and was replaced by Frazier Thomas, host of WGN's Family Classics and Garfield Goose and Friends, at which point Garfield Goose and Friends ended its 24-year run on Chicago television with the puppets moving to a segment on Bozo's Circus. As the storyline went, Gar "bought" Bozo's Circus from the retiring Ringmaster Ned and appointed "Prime Minister" Thomas as the new Circus Manager. In 1978 when WGN-TV became a national superstation on cable and satellite through what is now WGN America, the show gained more of a national following. In 1979, Bozo's Circus added "TV Powww!", where those at home could play a video game by phone.
By 1980, Chicago's public schools stopped allowing students to go home for lunch and Ray Rayner announced his imminent retirement from his morning show and Chicago television. The show stopped issuing tickets; the wait to be part of the audience was eight years long. Beginning a summer hiatus and airing taped shows the next year pushed the wait back to ten years. On August 11, 1980, Bozo’s Circus was renamed The Bozo Show and moved to weekdays at 8:00 a.m., on tape, immediately following Ray Rayner and His Friends. On January 26, 1981, The Bozo Show replaced Ray Rayner and His Friends at 7:00 a.m. The program expanded to 90 minutes, the circus acts and Garfield Goose and Friends puppets were dropped, and Cuddly Dudley (a puppet on Ray Rayner and His Friends voiced and operated by Roy Brown) and more cartoons were added. In 1983, Pat Hurley from ABC-TV's Kids Are People Too joined the cast as himself, interviewing kids in the studio audience and periodically participating in sketches.
The biggest change occurred in 1984 with the retirement of Bob Bell, with the show still the most-watched in its timeslot and a ten-year wait for studio audience reservations. After a nationwide search, Bell was replaced by actor Joey D'Auria, who would play the role of Bozo for the next 17 years.
In 1985, Frazier Thomas died and Hurley filled in as host for the final six shows that season, stepping into a semi-authority character. In 1987, Hurley was dropped and the show's timeslot returned to 60 minutes. In 1987, a synthesizer, played by "Professor Andy" (actor Andy Mitran), replaced the three-piece Big Top Band.
Roy Brown began suffering heart-related problems and was absent from the show for an extended period during the 1991–92 season. This coincided with the show's 30th anniversary and a reunion special that included Don Sandburg as Sandy, who also filled in for Cooky for the first two weeks that season. Actor Adrian Zmed (best known from ABC-TV's T.J. Hooker), who was a childhood fan of Bozo's Circus and former Grand Prize Game contestant, also appeared on the special and portrayed himself as a "Rookie Clown" for the following two weeks. Actor Michael Immel then joined the show as "Spiffy" (Spifford Q. Fahrquahrrr). Brown returned in January 1992, initially on a part-time basis but suffered additional health setbacks and took another extended leave of absence in the fall of 1993. Brown's presence on the show remained, though, as previously aired segments as Cooky and Cuddly Dudley were incorporated until 1994, when he and Marshall Brodien retired from television. Later that year, WGN management decided to get out of the weekday children's television business and buried The Bozo Show in an early Sunday timeslot as The Bozo Super Sunday Show on September 11, 1994; WGN's decision to relegate the program to Sundays coincided with the launch of the WGN Morning News (which debuted five days earlier), a weekday morning newscast that originally launched as an hour-long program (the move of Bozo effectively resulted in the cancellation of the station's then 2-year-old Sunday morning newscast, whose 8 a.m. timeslot Bozo took over).
Immel was replaced by Robin Eurich as "Rusty the Handyman," Michele Gregory as "Tunia" and Cathy Shenkelberg as "Pepper." In 1996, Shenkelberg was dropped and the show suffered another blow in 1997, when its format became educational following a Federal Communications Commission mandate requiring broadcast television stations to air a minimum three hours of educational children's programs per week. In 1998, Michele Gregory left the cast following more budget cuts.
In 2001, station management controversially ended production citing increased competition from newer children's cable channels. The final taping, a 90-minute primetime special titled Bozo: 40 Years of Fun!, was taped on June 12, 2001, and aired July 14, 2001. By this time, it was the only Bozo show that remained on television. The special featured Joey D'Auria as Bozo, Robin Eurich as Rusty, Andy Mitran as Professor Andy, Marshall Brodien as Wizzo and Don Sandburg as Sandy. Also present at the last show were Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins, who performed, and Bob Bell's family. Many of the costumes and props are on display at The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Reruns of The Bozo Super Sunday Show aired until August 26, 2001. Bozo returned to television on December 24, 2005 in a two-hour retrospective titled Bozo, Gar & Ray: WGN TV Classics. The primetime premiere was #1 in the Chicago market and continues to be rebroadcast and streamed live online annually during the holiday season.
Bozo also returned to Chicago's parade scene and the WGN-TV float in 2008 as the station celebrated its 60th anniversary. He also appeared in a 2008 public service announcement alerting WGN-TV analog viewers about the upcoming switch to digital television. Bozo was played by WGN-TV staff member George Pappas. Since then, Bozo continues to appear annually in Chicago's biggest parades.
Few episodes from the show’s first two decades survive; although some were recorded to videotape for delayed broadcasts, the tapes were reused and eventually discarded. In 2012, a vintage tape was located on the Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection website archive list by Rick Klein of The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, containing material from two 1971 episodes. WGN reacquired the tape and put together a new special entitled Bozo's Circus: The Lost Tape, which aired in December 2012.
On October 6, 2018, Don Sandburg, Bozo's Circus producer, writer and the last surviving original cast member, died at the age of 87. Four months later, WGN-TV paid tribute to Sandburg and the rest of the original cast with a two-hour special titled Bozo's Circus: The 1960s.
|Bozo||Bob Bell ^||1960–1984|
|Oliver O. Oliver||Ray Rayner ^||1961–1971|
|Sandy||Don Sandburg ^||1961–1969|
|Ringmaster Ned||Ned Locke ^||1961–1976|
|Mr. Bob||Bob Trendler||1961–1975|
|Cooky||Roy Brown ^||1968–1994|
|Wizzo||Marshall Brodien ^||1968–1994|
|Elrod T. Potter||Pat Tobin||1971–1972|
|Clod Hopper||John Thompson||1972–1973|
|Bozo||Joey D'Auria ^||1984–2001|
|Professor Andy||Andy Mitran ^||1987–2001|
|Rusty||Robin Eurich ^||1994–2001|
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