NEW YORK—When it comes to Ronald McDonald, McDonald's doesn't clown around. It won't even admit that there is more than one Ronald.
For four months now, McDonald's Corp. executives have been meeting at headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., trying to decide just how to script a Ronald revival. The Golden Arches is mostly mum on the matter, saying only that the 40-year-old character will start showing up more -- and in unexpected places. Maybe he'll even perform his new dance "Do the Ronald."
In 1999, McDonald's ad agency, Leo Burnett, hired a Los Angeles stylist to refashion Ronald's wavy red hair, and it spent months studying whether to increase the width of the red stripes on his socks.
So protective is McDonald's of the character's mystique that men who play Ronald are never to admit that they do. Ronalds in costume aren't to say who they are in civilian life.
That rather annoyed Craig A. Oatten, a police chief in Michigan, when a Ronald, in full red-and-yellow regalia, got into a fender bender near Saginaw a few years ago. Asked several times, the Ronald steadfastly refused to give his name for the police report.
"If we get someone who refuses to identify themselves, we'll take them to the local jail," Oatten said. But, because there were no injuries involved, he said, he spared the clown a trip downtown.
McDonald's keeps a roster of about 250 Ronalds worldwide, according to marketing experts familiar with the program, and franchisees, with some support from the company, pay for Ronalds as an advertising expense. Each major market in the U.S. has at least one Ronald, with large cities employing several.
Ronalds often have schedulers, chauffeurs and bodyguards. Thanks to McDonald's franchisees, a Ronald in Nevada got a motor home so he could travel more easily.
"Kids would throw rocks from the parking lot. Sometimes you would get protesters," explained Jeff McMullen, a former Ronald, of Appleton, Wis. "Ronald can't handle that."
Typically actors, or ex-Ringling Bros. clowns or teachers, Ronalds make about $40,000 a year on average. A Ronald busy handling 400 shows a year can make close to $100,000, while the highest-paying Ronald, who appears in national commercials, earns more than $300,000, according to former Ronalds.
Asked about Ronald's salary, McDonald's ducks the question. "Ronald doesn't go out to work," said Amy Murray, a director in U.S. marketing. "He goes out to have fun."
McDonald's trains and recruits many Ronalds through CW & Co. Productions, a company based in Clayton, Calif. One of its methods is to place ads in clown magazines. One reads: "Clowns Wanted! We are looking for clowns to fit high profile, permanent positions. Must be willing to relocate."
Many amateur clowns covet the gig. "To be a Ronald is a lifelong career," said Janet Tucker, past president of the World Clown Association.
To preserve the illusion that there is only one Ronald, the chain forbids two Ronalds from ever appearing together except at a secret biennial convention McDonald's holds -- but won't talk about -- in which Ronalds brush up on their skills.
McDonald's own Web site seems to intimate that there is more than one Ronald. On World Children's Day last November, according to the site, Ronald was everywhere. He posed for pictures in Austria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, New York and Russia.
Asked about that, Larry Light, McDonald's global chief marketing officer, stood pat. "There is only one," he said.
After repeated grilling on the multi-Ronald question, McDonald's officials released a statement, attributable, they said, to Ronald: "If I told you all my secrets, they wouldn't be secrets anymore. Let's just say that between you, me and Santa, it's magic."
In the beginning, Ronald was so tightly controlled that McDonald's wouldn't even let him take the costume home with him. He had to change clothes at an advertising agency. When McDonald's first introduced Ronald in 1963, he visited many restaurants. Now he may appear at a restaurant twice a year and spend the rest of the time on the road visiting schools, hospitals and nursing homes. He's often booked a year in advance.
Franchisee Luther Mack, who owns 10 restaurants in Nevada, said he routinely uses Ronald more than his allotment and pays out-of-pocket -- $400 to $600 per appearance -- to get more face time. But not too much. "We make sure he's not overused," said Mack, a 30-year franchisee.
Ronald McDonald was the brain-clown of two people: Washington advertising executive Barry Klein and renowned Ringling Bros. clown Michael "Coco" Polakovs. At the time, Klein's clients included a McDonald's franchisee and a local "Bozo the Clown" television show.
Klein persuaded the franchisee to run commercials on the Bozo show to reach out to children. After the kiddie show was canceled in 1963, Klein regrouped with Bozo, then played by Willard Scott, who gave the McDonald's clown his name: Ronald McDonald.
Scott, the longtime weatherman for NBC's "Today" show, donned the first Ronald get-up that year, using a paper cup as a nose and a cardboard tray as a hat. When McDonald's executives wanted to introduce Ronald nationally in commercials, they hired Polakovs to give Ronald a makeover. He designed the white-face clown features and, to represent the Golden Arches, chose a canary-yellow jumpsuit. The red shoes and striped socks reflected the colors of the restaurant.
And that fire-engine-red hair? "It was a ladies wig, actually," recalled the 80-year-old Polakovs, who pulled it off a mannequin in a women's clothing store.
When McDonald's decided to make Ronald a national figure in 1966, the company dumped Scott, fearing it would be hard to find people in each market with Scott's big build, Klein recalled.
"That was a heartbreaker," said NBC's Scott. "I was too fat."
To mass-produce Ronald like its burgers and fries, McDonald's created a guide in 1972 called "Ronald and How." The book, by longtime McDonald's hands Roy Bergold and Aye Jaye, details everything from how to apply makeup to how to behave around children. According to someone close to the company, the book advises Ronalds "never to initiate a hug" with a child.
Instead, Ronalds are to turn slightly to the left and pat the child on the back.
Ronald trainers enforce the rules. At the Ronald conventions, sometimes held in Oak Brook, they inspect Ronalds, according to people who have been in attendance. "You had to pass, and, if you didn't, you would go home without a job," said Earl Chaney of Las Vegas, who played the clown for 20 years. Some simply got Ronald probation.
McDonald's conducts extensive background checks on Ronald candidates, but that hasn't always prevented mishaps. One former Ronald is a vegetarian who has since joined forces with animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to chide the chain.
"I feel badly about what I've done with young people," said Geoffrey Giuliano, who played Ronald in Canada in the early 1980s. "I was the happy face on something that was horrendous."
Joe Maggard, another former Ronald, pleaded guilty in 1998 to a charge of carrying a concealed weapon in New Hanover County, N.C., and the next year was convicted in county court of making harassing telephone calls posing as a Ronald. The judge ordered him to take anger-management classes.
"I'm one of the bad-boy Ronalds," said Maggard, an actor who portrayed Ronald in the mid-'90s. "Am I a bad guy? No, I'm not a bad guy. Did Ronald get in a little trouble down there? Yes."
McDonald's said that Maggard was a stand-in for Ronald for one commercial shoot, adding that "he is definitely not Ronald McDonald."