CHICAGO—History will note that the last airborne pie made contact with its human target at 7:29 p.m. Tuesday.
Except for the Grand March, it was the very last scene to be shot in the last taping of the last Bozo show in America, a fittingly creamy farewell to a TV phenomenon that even thick greasepaint and a shock of red hair couldn't hide as an anachronism.
In Studio One at WGN-Ch. 9's Northwest Side headquarters, some 250 people gathered Tuesday to send off the clown in a prime-time special titled "Bozo: 40 Years of Fun!" to air July 14.
Reruns of the Sunday morning Bozo show will still air through the end of August. But the retrospective counts as the last original episode, and it combined charmingly cornball vaudeville-era skits, a whole lot of highlights from the past, and in-the-flesh visits from departed characters including Wizzo the Wizard and Sandy the Tramp.
Purists will blanch at the way the Grand Prize Game gets played. But as Joey D'Auria, Bozo since 1984, said, "What are they gonna do, fire me?"
It was virtually the only on-air acknowledgment that this was more than an anniversary show.
The unusually adult and unusually well-known crowd was another tip-off. Among them were ex-Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, who had requested a role on the show; Museum of Broadcast Communications founder Bruce DuMont; Alan Livingston, creator of Bozo as a record-company executive in 1946; and Carol Bell, widow of the original Chicago Bozo, Bob Bell.
But the VIPs and clutch of reporters on hand didn't squeeze out all the regular folks, many of whom lamented the passing of a childhood icon and local institution.
"I don't think they should take it off the air," said Jeff Dudley, 34, a Schaumburg resident attending with his wife and two sons. "It's like a sign."
The symbol, he said, was of popular culture becoming a lot more dangerous.
"About the most violent Bozo got was Cooky getting hit in the face with a pie," said Dudley's wife, Carla.
Corgan, 34, was less jaded than the kids and certainly less jaded than the stereotypical rock star in explaining why he wanted to take part.
"I'm a big believer that we need to celebrate important things, especially when they come to an end," said Corgan, whose own band recently split up and who led a pick-up group in a rendition of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" during the taping.
"I can't remember not watching the show," he said. "For me, it was an innocent thing in a pretty turbulent childhood."
Most every Chicagoan of a certain age has his or her own tale of rushing home at lunchtime to watch Bozo, or of getting on Bozo and just missing Bucket No. 6.
And with legendary ticket waits that at one point lasted up to a decade--for a show that taped each weekday--the stories of how the family finally landed Bozo tickets are passed down like folklore.
They should be, because they reflect a genuinely different era. When Chicago's Bozo began life in 1960, most every TV station in the country had its own kids show, featuring a cowboy, a schoolteacher or, most often, a clown who was probably named Bozo. As many as 180 iterations of the character, franchised by trademark owner Larry Harmon like so many fast-food joints, once hammed it up on the nation's airwaves. (Chicago's Bozo, for the record, outlasted the one in Grand Rapids by two years.)
But kids gradually began going for more slickly produced programs, made with the kind of big budgets that only national audiences could finance. Cable television rose up and spawned its own, very successful, kid-specific channels, most prominently Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel.
And the market leader in children's television, America's Public Broadcasting Service, has only sharpened and solidified its children's lineup in recent years.
The three most popular current shows among Chicago-area 2- to-11-year-olds are all on PBS: "Arthur," "Clifford the Big Red Dog" and "Dragon Tales." "The Bozo Super Sunday Show," the last of several names for Chicago's Bozo show, ranked near the bottom of the listings, drawing in February only about one-seventh the audience of "Arthur." It was also only a small fraction of what the show drew in 1992-93, when it still aired each weekday morning, only to give way to WGN's more profitable "Morning News" program.
Clown defenders will argue that WGN did the show no favors by scheduling it in virtually an infomercial time slot, 7 a.m. Sunday. And the move in recent years to an educational mission for the show surely didn't help its popularity with children.
Before taping Tuesday, D'Auria gleefully promised, "There will be absolutely no education content in this show whatsoever. No clowns with books. No clowns at museums. Just a lot of great memories."
Carol Bell Tuesday said she had her husband's old Bozo shows in a box in a car, ready to hand them over to the Museum of Broadcast Communications.
And Museum President DuMont said that after Tuesday's taping, some of the sets and the Bozo costumes it doesn't already have would be put in a truck and driven to the 78 E. Washington St. location.
There, they'll be installed quickly in a permanent Bozo exhibit, part of a bigger display commemorating the now-passed era of live, local children's television.
The Bozo paraphernalia will go before the public beginning at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, a time that will officially mark what had been evident years earlier. Bozo the Clown, after a 41-year run in Chicago, has become a museum piece.