In 1990, the International Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee honored Larry Harmon, longtime clown and entrepreneur, as the creator of Bozo the Clown. More than a decade later, they recinded the award and gave it to Pinto Colvig, a one-time voice of Walt Disney's Goofy and Alan Livingston, an employee of Capitol Records. The clowns at the Hall of Fame claim that Harmon misrepresented himself; he argues that the truth behind the whiteface is more complicated.
Bozo first appeared in 1946, when Livingston marketed the first ever "read along" book, a book with an accompanying record of the text. Its narrator was the nascent Bozo. Pinto Colvig, a cartoon voice man and former Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey clown provided the voice. The record/book combination was a hit. Others followed, and young fans demanded personal appearances. Colvig made the first such TV appearance in 1949, on KTTV in Los Angeles. For live shows, various actors were hired, including Larry Harmon. As Capitol lost interest, Harmon purchased the trademark and modified the character. Alan Livingston, then, is Bozo's creator, while Pinto Colvig is just as clearly the first Bozo. Harmon, however, arguably created the popular image of Bozo. Pinto's clown had orange moppy hair and a drawling voice, in contrast to Harmon's spikey flaming red 'do and distinctive patter.
Harmon franchised his Bozo on television. By the late 1950s, Bozo, Inc. was licensing hundreds of Bozos in various cities in the United States and throughout the world. For years, each major American city had its own Bozo, appearing on local television in the days when television networks were, quite literally, networks of interconnected stations. Harmon himself also voiced Bozo on a series of televised cartoons.
Some of Harmon's franchised Bozos fared quite well in the role, including Chicago's Rob Bell and Colvig's son, Vince. Indeed, Bell (who played the clown until 1984) created the archetypal kids' show for the Baby Boom generation: clown pranks, music, cartoons, and a kiddie studio audience. His supporting characters appeared in the popular Bozo coloring books, and other Bozos began to imitate his style. The Simpsons's Krusty the Clown owes more than a little to Bozo. Krusty's show generally plays like a parody of the Chicago incarnation, and Dan Castellaneta has acknowledged that he based the voice on Bell's Bozo.
By the 1980s, Bozo's television presence consisted of a sparsely-shown syndicated effort that had evolved from Bell's Chicago show. The clown finally went off the air in 2001. Harmon's company continues to market to the preschool audience, with efforts such as 2003's CD, "Get Down with the Clown." However, it seems that Bozo's glory days have passed.
During those days, marketing included dolls, bendy toys, posters, Christmas decorations, posters, coin banks, jewelry, t-shirts, a Kenner Give-a-show Projector and coloring books. Dell Comics issued a Bozo special in 1950, and ran a Bozo comic book from 1951 to 1954 and another from 1962 to 1963. I had a Bozo flashlight attachment when I was a kid; you put it on the end of the flashlight and the clown's face lit up. Needless to say, it spooked the bojesus out of a good many people. Still, whatever the clown's associations in the post- Gacy era, this clown has had a generally positive impact on millions of children, and generated considerable revenue for a half-century.
Not bad for some Bozo.
Larry Harmon died on July 4, 2008.
"Bozo brouhaha forces rewrite of humor history." MSNBC News. May 27, 2004. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5075932/
Cara Bruce. "Bedding Bozo." Erosguide. http://www.eros-guide.com/articles/2002-10-23/beddingbozo/
Don Markstein. "Bozo the Clown." Don Markstein's Toonopedia. http://www.toonopedia.com/bozo.htm
"The Unusual History of Bozo the Clown." Clown Ministry. http://www.clown-ministry.com/History/bozo-clown.html