Bozo is the consummate clown, the epitome of clown. The fire-orange yak hair erupting sideways from the bald white head, the gateway-arch eyebrows, the red-ball nose, the huge greasepaint grin — Bozo, created in 1946 by Alan Livingston — is the archetype. Bozo’s influence is seen from Ronald McDonald to Killer Klowns From Outer Space to Krusty. Bozo was franchised early on television, but it was Larry Harmon who standardized his visage, manner, and blue and red costume. In 1956, Harmon, who had already been playing Bozo, bought the licensing rights and became, until his death on July 3, the iconic Bozo we know.
An Ohioan, Harmon (born Lawrence Weiss) served in the Army during World War II, then majored in theater at the University of Southern California, where he was also drum major of the marching band. In the early 1950s, he answered a casting call at Capitol Records in Hollywood to be one of many Bozos promoting a series of children’s read-along records that featured the character. He got the job.
After buying the rights to the character with a group of investors, Harmon trained more than 200 Bozos for local TV shows across the country and around the world to Thailand, Greece, and Brazil. He developed a Bozo cartoon, tied-in the syndicated show with Popeye cartoons, and fiercely protected the Bozo franchise. Harmon turned Bozo into a marketing gold mine, selling Bozo lunchboxes, bed sheets, and the classic “Bozo Bop” blowup punching bags. The various licensed Bozo shows (and many imitators) colonized local television affiliates and syndication for years, though Bozo’s popularity waned as the century wound down. Still, on New Years Day, 1996, Harmon suited up as Bozo for the first time in a decade to appear in Pasadena’s Rose Parade, and the crowd went wild.
In 2004, abcnews.com columnist Buck Wolf penned a column challenging Harmon’s claims to have created Bozo. Pinto Colvig — who had previously been the voice of Walt Disney’s Goofy — is credited with being TV’s first Bozo. (Other famous Bozos include Chicago’s Bob Bell and the NBC Today Show’s Willard Scott.) The International Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee modified the “Lifetime of
Laughter” award it had presented Harmon in 1990, and took down his plaque. Harmon denied he was trying to take all the credit. “What I created for the world was me and my image: what I sound like, what I look like, what I walk like, what the costume looked like, with my animation studio,” he told a reporter.
Regardless, those size-83AAA shoes will be hard to fill.