OK, Bozos, stand up and be counted: Your country needs a whole lot more of you

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This may be hard to believe if you watch the news, ponder the state of the nation or dispassionately look over your own family and friends:

America doesn't have enough Bozos.

"The need is approaching rather quickly," says Larry Harmon, the man who brought a clown to the world and a special four-letter word to many of its languages. "I'm looking for a few good Bozos."

Sure, there's a cheap laugh here, and Mr. Harmon, 67, who never met a shaving-cream pie he didn't like, is happy to go for it.

But there also is a serious, proud and perhaps unappreciated side to one of the world's most famous characters, and he submits that for your consideration as well.

"Think of it. After you and I are long gone, wherever there will be a need to reach out to people, there'll be Bozo. The world will long remember the day that Larry Harmon planted his size 83AAA shoes on this earth."

First, the news: No matter who you are or how much of a Bozo you may be, there could be croquet-wicket eyebrows and gravity-defying hair in your future.

Every two or three years, Larry Harmon Pictures tries to beef up its stock of authentic, authorized Bozos -- there are currently 76 -- by holding open auditions. Send a picture and a resume, get to Hollywood on Wednesday, and you've got a shot.

Can't 76 versions of the same clown handle the job? After all, although a few TV Bozos remain, the era when every town had its own kid-show clown has passed. Anti-clown humor, perhaps best embodied by the smoking, drinking, child-exploiting Krusty the Clown on "The Simpsons," seems to get bigger laughs these days.

The answers may surprise you. There are Bozo shows around the world, including a six-hour, six-day-a-week Bozothon on Brazilian TV.

A Bozo renaissance

Here at home, several Bozo stage productions tour the country. Bozo frequently turns up at parades, fairs and shopping malls and plenty of charity events.

And Mr. Harmon is certain we are on the verge of a renaissance of local Bozo TV shows. He says negotiations are going on for a big-budget Bozo movie.

Clearly, even nearing age 50, Bozo is still a clown for the '90s.

Although hundreds of wannabe Bozos are slated to audition, Mr. Harmon already despairs that he won't find enough.

"If I got three or five, I'd be so happy," he says. "It's really hard to find Bozos."

The roots of Bozoism are obscured behind the white greasepaint and big red nose of history. The gargantuan Oxford English Dictionary, among its 290,500 entries, defines "bozo" as "a person, fellow," but concedes in brackets, "Origin unknown."

Begetting of Bozo

The dictionary tracks the word to a 1920 magazine article, then to a 1924 book by the English humorist P. G. Wodehouse. The following year marked the birth of Larry Harmon in Toledo, Ohio, and the genesis of a new Bozoan Era.

But there is a bit of disagreement over the begetting of Bozo.

Mr. Harmon, who was a band leader and entertainer while still in his teens, says he thought up the name and began perfecting his clown shtick to keep audiences happy during intermissions.

"I had to find a great name, a name anybody can say in any language," he says. In his research into clown history, Mr. Harmon says, he has run across references to a 13th-century Italian monk humorist known as Bozzo and a gypsy band named Bozolowski, but these may be coincidence.

A more curious coincidence came in the mid-1940s, when Capitol Records put out a children's album and read-along book starring Bozo the Capitol Clown. A circus clown named Pinto Colvig played the part.

Capitol executives from that period have claimed that they designed the basic Bozo look and put on a Bozo show in the early days of television. Mr. Harmon disputes both points.

What is clear is that in the early 1950s, Mr. Harmon, who was portraying Commander Comet on NBC-TV, was hired as the new Bozo. After making several successful records and a half-hour TV show that never aired, Bozo decided to become his own boss.

Mr. Harmon bought all the rights. End of dispute.

"It doesn't really make any difference what the origin was," Mr. Harmon says. "The fact is that I had the foresight. I achieved a dream of making one person so famous around the world. Anyplace you go in the world, you say the name Bozo and a big smile comes on everybody's face."

The first smiles came from Bozo cartoons that Mr. Harmon

produced.

In 1959 he starred in a Los Angeles TV show that pioneered the basic Bozo concept of taped cartoons, live fun and games and an audience of giddy children.

Then he hit on the idea to do for clowns what McDonald's did for hamburgers: franchises.

Mr. Harmon sold himself to nearly every TV market in the country, crafted hometown Bozos in his own image -- and collected royalties on the package.

Mr. Harmon kept many of the good parts for himself. The original Bozo trained with the astronauts and entertained tribes in the jungles of New Guinea. He said howdy to Charles de Gaulle and Chiang Kai-shek, helped Lyndon Johnson promote Project Head Start and helped the Japanese teach automobile safety.

Among the early Bozos was Willard Scott, host of the Washington show, who also pioneered the Ronald McDonald character before becoming a television weatherman.

"He's never forgotten us," Mr. Harmon says of Mr. Scott. "Nowadays he's Bozo without the makeup."

If Bozoland has a capital, it's Chicago. No place has stuck by Bozo like Chicago.

"I'd like to see a study of why he's had such an impact on this town," says Al Hall, producer and director of "The Bozo Show," a daily hour-long funfest on WGN-TV. "It's part of the cultural fabric the community."

There are only six Bozo shows left. On some of them, the clown merely introduces cartoons or movies. But in Chicago, the phenomenon is in its 34th year.

The waiting list for tickets once had a 10-year backlog. Kids stuff the grand prize game drum with about 300,000 letters each month. Parents who giggled at Bozo's antics during their own childhoods now bring their kids to the 200-seat studio, and the sheer delight of both generations shines through the camera each morning.

"In this day of family values, we've developed almost a family feeling," Mr. Hall says. "Our characters really project warmth to the people at home."

About 300,000 kids in the Chicago area tune in each day. WGN is also a superstation beamed into cable systems around the country, which Mr. Hall figures brings Bozo's audience to about 1 million.

One of the most frequent questions, he says, is why Bozo never gets hit with a pie.

"First of all, Bozo's the star of the show. He's in all the segments, and if he gets hit he has to go clean up. And it would goof up that wig. They're made of yak hair and cost $1,500 apiece. And we only have three of them."

Bozo's feelings were mixed when President Bush, pulling out all the stops to avoid defeat, tried to think up the worst label to pin on his opponents.

'Those two bozos'

"My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos," the president told a Michigan rally on Oct. 29.

On the one hand, Mr. Harmon was gratified that his creation has become such an integral part of the language. On the other, he was a little miffed, and was pondering just what to say to all the journalists calling for comment when Bill Clinton appeared on television to respond.

"All I can say is Bozo makes people laugh, and Bush makes people cry," Mr. Clinton said.

What more could a clown want? A new generation of leadership, a mandate for change, and there's still a place for Bozo.

"When Mr. Clinton won, I sent him a telegram," Mr. Harmon says. "I thanked him for standing up for Bozo."

READ THIS BEFORE YOU AUDITION

So what does it take to be a Bozo? The Father of All Bozos, Larry Harmon, offers these tips:

"I'm not looking for a clown, a disc jockey, an actor or an announcer. Whoever you are, whatever you are, just so you're a people person. You've got to be born with it."

The talent scouts probably will give you a trademark Bozo line and a trademark Bozo laugh and see how close you can come.

They'll put on music and see how you move. Most of all, they're hoping to spot that special something that lets thousands along a parade route -- or a single kid in a hospital bed -- know Bozo cares.

"We're looking for that Bozo attitude," Mr. Harmon says.

The physical package is less crucial. The 203 Bozos to date have been as short as 5 foot 2, as young as 18 and as old as 93.

Hours are flexible. Some Bozos hold down regular jobs, others clown around full time. As the nation's demographics change, Mr. Harmon is particularly keen to find Spanish-speaking Bozos, "because we don't want to miss anybody."

Nor has there ever been a black Bozo, but Mr. Harmon would love to fix that as well. "The door is a million miles open," he says. "When you put on the makeup, it doesn't matter what's underneath."

The deadline is Wednesday. Send a photograph and resume -- a videotape is welcome but not mandatory -- to Larry Harmon Pictures, P.O. Box 3198, Hollywood, Calif. 90078.

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