Elizabeth Davies: Bozo taught us how to laugh

Elizabeth Davies

Every kid who grew up around Chicago during a certain era was entirely familiar with all things Bozo.

There was Cooky the Cook, with a whole slew of crazy antics. And Mr. Ned with his top hat.

Then there were the Bozo Buckets. We sat around our TV sets — up close, of course, because these were the days before remote controls — and cheered on the lucky kids in each episode who got to throw balls into Bozo’s line of buckets. Anyone who made it to the furthest bucket won the best prize a kid could imagine: A new bike.

Of course, we kids at home would mock those whose balls bounced out on the second or third bucket. We knew, without a doubt, that we would be riding down the street on a new bike if only we had the chance to throw for Bozo’s Buckets.

In those days, getting tickets to the “Bozo Show” was akin to landing front-row seats to the Super Bowl. Parents put their children on the Bozo waiting list when they were born, in hopes of moving high enough on the list before their kids outgrew the show.

Me? My tickets arrived when I was 12. I was fully engrossed in “Full House” at that point, and no longer very interested in Bozo and Cooky.

Still, recent news that Bozo developer Larry Harmon had died brought back a flood of memories for me — and undoubtedly for the thousands of children who gathered around their family television set for the show’s games, songs and Vaudeville-like comedy.

Harmon wasn’t the Bozo we saw on TV, the one with the funny red hair and oversized shoes. Chicago-area kids actually were watching Bob Bell, who licensed the character from Harmon and portrayed Bozo for much of the show’s local run.

Years after the Bozo I knew had retired, I had the opportunity to visit the “Bozo Show” as part of a clown class at my high school. (Clearly, my parents were revisiting their decision to pay for private school at that point.)

Our entire clown class drove down to the “Bozo Show” with our teacher, who was an honest-to-goodness professional clown and who would be guest-starring on “Bozo.” The first thing that amazed me as a teenager walking onto the set was how small it was. The world of TV is so magical and larger-than-life for your average viewer, especially when that viewer is so small. In reality, the studio wasn’t much larger than my biology classroom.

The other thing that surprised me was that Bozo had a bit of a potty mouth. Given that children hadn’t filed in to take their seats yet, I suppose he figured that he wasn’t in character. Still, you just don’t expect that kind of language out of a guy wearing a red rubber nose.

And indeed, his persona changed when the children took their seats. Watching the show from the catwalk above, I caught glimpses of pure happiness on the faces in his audience.

Long before I was old enough to understand, the “Bozo Show” was criticized for not being educational enough. It didn’t teach ABC’s like “Sesame Street”, or manners like “Mister Rogers.” But what I saw that day was proof that Bozo was giving them the same life lesson he had been handing down for generations.

Sometimes, you just have to take time out and laugh.

Elizabeth Davies’ column runs in the Rockford Register Star.