Growing up in the Chicago area, we all had our favorite places that no longer exist or products that were made or created here. Along with that, we all have those old TV shows we remember and love. Whether it was BJ And Dirty Dragon which turned into a syndicated show in the latter 70s called “Gigglesnort Hotel”, Svengoolie, Bob Luce Wrestling, Ray Rayner, Family Classics with Frazier Thomas, and then there’s… Bozo!
While The Bozo Show was produced here in Chicago (on Bradley Place) and broadcast on WGN, the show was actually based on the Capitol Records record book series named Bozo The Clown. The character was created by Alan W. Livingston and portrayed by Pinto Colvig for a children’s storytelling record album and illustrated read-along book set in 1946. He became popular and served as the mascot for Capitol Records.
The character first appeared on US television in 1949, played by Colvig. After the creative rights to Bozo were purchased by Larry Harmon in 1957, the character became a common franchise across the United States, with local television stations producing their own Bozo shows featuring the character. Harmon bought out his business partners in 1965 and produced Bozo’s Big Top for syndication to local television markets not producing their own Bozo shows in 1966, while Chicago’s Bozo’s Circus, which premiered in 1960, went national via cable and satellite in 1978.
Performers who have portrayed Bozo, aside from Colvig and Harmon, include Willard Scott (1959–1962), Frank Avruch (1959–1970), Bob Bell (1960–1984), and Joey D’Auria (1984–2001). Bozo TV shows were also produced in other countries including Mexico, Brazil, Greece, Australia, and Thailand.
David Arquette purchased the rights to the Bozo the Clown character from Larry Harmon Pictures in 2021
In June 1960, the show would begin its historical run on WGN, lasting over 40 years, making it the longest-running children’s show ever.
For Chicago, ‘Big Top’ was on the air! The show was a half-hour show that debuted on June 20th, 1960 at 12 noon on WGN TV. The show was broadcast from WGN’s Tribune tower location. While the format would change and adjust throughout its run, the show originally featured cartoons, Bozo comedy sketches and more at 12 noon.
The show took a break for a few months as WGN TV moved into its new location on Bradley Place, Northwest of downtown.
The show would return at 12 noon on September 11th, 1961 with a new one-hour format and a new name, “Bozo’s Circus.”
That new version would feature Bob Bell as Bozo, host Ned Locke as “Ringmaster Ned,” a 13-piece orchestra known as the “Big Top Band” led by Bob Trendler, comedy sketches, circus acts, cartoons, games and prizes live in front of hundreds of people enjoying it all in the ‘studio audience.’
In the early months, a true acrobat, an English clown known as “Wimpey” (played by Bertram William Hiles) performed real acrobatics. Hiles continued to make periodic guest appearances on the show into the mid-1960s.
With so many great characters throughout its run, many may not remember that even Ray Rayner was one! Yes, it’s true. The man who’d go on to rule our mornings in Chicago back in the day played the character Oliver O. Oliver, a country bumpkin from Puff Bluff, Kentucky. As a matter of fact, Ray Rayner was also hosting WGN-TV’s Dick Tracy Show (which premiered the same day as Bozo’s Circus). Ray became so liked at WGN that in the near future, he’d replace Dick Coughlan as host of “Breakfast with Bugs Bunny” which would later be renamed “Ray Rayner And His Friends.” We’ve got a special feature coming up in the next few weeks about that show that you’re going to love!
Bozo’s Circus also featured interaction with the kids. That interaction included games. One of the most remembered was the “Grand Prize Game.” Who can forget those ‘Magic Arrows” zooming across the screen looking to find a boy and girl in the audience to play the game. Later, those ‘Magic Arrows” would be replaced by the “Bozoputer” (a random number generator), Once selected, each contestant had to throw a ping-pong ball into the numbered buckets. If they made it to the last bucket, bucket number 6, 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.”
For many of us, the biggest memory we have of the show was the wait for tickets! In some cases, people made reservations before they even got married so when they arrived, their kids would be old enough to enjoy the show. Many people reported the wait for tickets on the show was up to 10 years!
There’s so much history, so many characters, the different people who played Bozo… check out the entire history of Bozo here
Below are classic sketeches, episodes, interviews and all those great features that will definitely take you back.
WGN-TV, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons