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DIANE MAKAR MURPHY Few will watch an old clown sing a new tune



Published: Thu, August 23, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



I once rode in Bozo's clown car.

Oh, yeah, sure. NOW you're impressed with me.

For those of you who have been living in a cave, enclave, or clown-free zone for the last half-century (or if your parents failed to share American culture with you), Bozo is television history. He is the ultimate clown: white face; arched eyes; red, rubber-ball nose; gigantic heart-shaped lips and an orange reverse mohawk that outpunks any blue-haired teen. His name is part of the lexicon, for gosh sakes!

Bozo began throwing pies over the air waves in 1949 and has been throwing pies ever since. But the meringue had to stop somewhere. Bozo's last show is in the can. On Sunday, the last Bozo show will air.

Bozo will go the way of all my youthful studio heroes. Growing up in Cleveland, I had Woodrow the Woodsman, Barnaby and Captain Penny. It was a sign of our naivet & eacute; that we did not question why a man in tights slinging an ax would host cartoons -- or why another fellow with a straw hat and pointy ears would be waiting for us on the television screen each day. And I never heard even a trace of Abraham Lincoln when Captain Penny (a railroad engineer) admonished each noon, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool mom."

A co-worker tells me Youngstowners had Grizzly Pete and Susie Sidesaddle whose studio audience was open to Girl Scouts and Campfire girls. And then, there was Bozo.

In abundance: When I was a kid, Bozos were as plentiful as Santas are in shopping malls at Christmas today. But we didn't know that. We thought the Bozo in OUR local television studio was the one and only Bozo.

So you can pretty much sense the excitement I felt when my sister's Blue Bird troop scheduled a visit to see Bozo the Clown and I was invited to go.

This is something kids of today -- cable kids -- can't really relate to. Oh, sure, they have Barney and Blues Clues and the like. But television was still somewhat of a magical thing back in the '60s. Joining your star on that little screen was tantamount to being a star yourself.

We crowded into the studio bleachers with great gusto. My sister's troop was suitably adorable in their beanies and blue skirt and vest outfits. I don't recall my wardrobe, but I'm told I was a pretty cute kid -- dimpled, at least.

I don't remember much about that day, except that I was singled out. I was chosen to come down in front of the bleachers, hold Bozo's hand and pedal around in his car. No other Blue Birds made that trek.

Not surprisingly, my sister barely remembers the day. Sour grapes.

I don't believe I was a terribly huge Bozo fan. I didn't own a Bozo telephone, Bozo glasses, the Bozo gumball machine or Bozo plastic bank. I may have eaten Bozo cookies; I'm not sure. But I was pretty impressed that day, walking alongside the 83-EEE shoes and holding Bozo's white-gloved hand.

Bozo started as a character for read-along books, then made the jump to television city by city. He started in Los Angeles, then a Bozo was hired in Memphis, one in New York, and soon Boston. I met mine in Cleveland. Bozo never was a network clown. Instead, he was a local hero, able to visit schools and libraries, and me.

Can't compete: A Newsweek article said that at one time, the waiting list to join the studio audience of Chicago's Bozo was 10 years long! Howdy Doody and Big Bird? Forget it. Barney? Never.

But now, homegrown clowns are in disfavor. Even Bozo, it seems, needs an update. The owner of the Bozo trademark, Larry Harmon, wants to make Bozo a network show updated with technology. Robots and rap music will update the retro clown, says Harmon.

Oh, come on, Mr. Harmon! You can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can't have a Bozo that sings rap music!

So long, you old clown!

murphy@vindy.com




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