Death of a Clown

Friday A/V Club: A Bozo in every port


Columbia Records

The story was all over the news this week: The great clown Bozo is dead. This may have confused those of you who remember Bozo the Clown dying in 2008, or in 1997, or in 1994, or in 1991, or even (for you oldtimers) in 1967. A lot of men have played Bozo over the years, and the only one who's even arguably more famous than the character is Willard Scott. In this case the dead clown is Frank Avruch, who let the spirit of Bozo possess him on Boston's WHDH-TV from 1959 to 1970.

The fact that more than one performer played Bozo isn't odd in itself; we're used to seeing different actors take on such roles as Batman, Romeo, Sherlock Holmes, Santa Claus, Abraham Lincoln, and other figures from our shared cultural mythology. What's strange, looking back from 2018, is that there was a time when dozens of cities all had their own Bozos, each playing the same character in a separate locally produced show. Some programs are syndicated; Bozo was franchised. (Technically, it was both: Avruch's version of the series was eventually aired on other stations as well, so a town without a clown of its own could still have a Bozo show.)

One of those Bozos ran for president. Yes, I know: Lots of bozos have run for president, and some of them have won. But Larry Harmon, the harlequin who bought Bozo's licensing rights in the 1950s and then decided to let a hundred TV clowns bloom, decided to toss his nose into the ring in 1984, running for the White House as the nominee of the Bozo Party. The Washington Post covered his announcement:

Addressing an assemblage of 55 reporters and photographers at the National Press Club, Harmon, or Bozo, as he prefers to be called, warned of the arms race, the burgeoning national debt, and pledged "a few steps backward" to correct the major ills of the nation.

The press, which over the years has seen dark-horse candidates for office prove successful, sat for 25 minutes without the least smile, until a reporter grinned for no discernible reason.

The video below begins with a bland Today Show interview with Harmon that touches briefly on his campaign; at the 4:37 mark it cuts to footage from a far livelier campaign rally at Columbia University, featuring a punk band called the Nasty Bozos:

Harmon was a write-in candidate and not every state reports its write-in ballots, so it is unclear how many votes he received. But he got at least 21.

I'll wrap up with a story about another late Bozo. 2007 saw the death of Ward McIntyre, who for six years served as the Bozo of Birmingham, Alabama. A poster at Democratic Underground (remember Democratic Underground?) reacted with this reminiscence:

I first met Ward when I was in my late teens and working as a 'gofer' for a local ad agency….About 10 years later Bozo had come to local TV. It wasn't one of my favorite shows but it came on right before the evening news. So sometimes I'd catch the last few minutes. I knew most of the local broadcasters and Bozo sounded somewhat familiar, but I just couldn't quite place the voice. The character used kind of a raspy falsetto.

One evening I bumped into Ward at a downtown watering hole.
He waved me over to his table.
I sat down, got a drink, and we chatted about this and that.
And then it hit me.
I looked at him and grinned.

A pained look came across his face.
"Shhhhh. If you tell anybody I'll have to kick your ass!"
Being Bozo was SO totally against his image.
It had been a closely held secret.
Hence the weird voice he used.
I guess the money was good, though.

And I never told.
Until now.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)