a candid conversation with Don Sandburg
When WGN-TV bought a Bozo franchise from Larry Harmon, who had purchased the rights to the character from Capitol Records, they needed someone to develop the show. They already had the talent in house. Ned Locke, fresh from his stints as Uncle Ned in Lunch Time Little Theater and Paddleboat was perfectly cast as Ringmaster Ned, the fatherly figure and head of the circus. Ray Rayner, a recent arrival from WBBM-TV had been playing Sgt. Henry Pettibone on the afternoon The Dick Tracy Show. Bob Trendler, long time music conductor for both WGN radio and television, led the thirteen piece Big Top Band, and of course, staff announcer and former funny man of The Wally Phillips Show, Bob Bell. The man they chose was Don Sandburg. In short time, Sandburg created Bozo's Circus. Rayner would appear as Oliver O. Oliver, a constant foil for the mischievous Bozo played by Bob Bell; the fondly remembered "Grand Prize Game;" the fair and square contest to lead the grand march, the Bozo drum, Golly The Gorilla, and toward the end of his tenure, Cooky The Clown (brought to life by another long time WGN-TV staffer Roy Brown); and Whizzo The Wizard (as personified by professional magician Marshall Brodien, who had appeared as himself in tuxedo many times on the show previously.) For the first time in his career, Sandburg decided to move in front of the cameras. He developed the character of Sandy, a mute tramp.
Will you appear as Sandy on the taping?
DS: I'm gonna try!
VV: You must feel good after all these years to find that the show has become so legendary- especially to the baby boomers who grew up with the show. I don't think the young kids of today really appreciate the history. They're all into other things.
DS: We're living in a different age. And you know I had somebody call me from Associated Press a week or two ago for a quick interview. He asked why do I think the show was cancelled? And I said don't ask me I've been away from it and then later on I thought I do have some insights. Change has to keep taking place and I don't think there was enough. They didn't change to keep up with the times.
VV: Tell me about your start in broadcasting.
DS: Well my first job in broadcasting was at WCPO in Cincinnati. That was in 1951. And I went to work there to do a show called The Paul Dixon Show. Which was on the DuMont Network at first. Actually WGN, as you know, was with the DuMont Network. It was a mime show. One guy and two girls that mimed the records of the day. It was an hour show. We'd do about fifteen sets a day so it was quite an active show. And then it went on the ABC Network, I started out as a prop man. It wasn't too long before my immediate boss spent more time outside in other activities than he did at the station. Management kept asking questions and I was the only one with the answers. So they fired him and made me the production supervisor of the show. I had just turned 21.
VV: You were young then!
DS: Well back in those days nobody knew anything. We were experimenting night and day. Doing new innovations everyday. And it was fun. You learned the business.
VV: Quite different back then.
DS: And the sets! The background sets were huge rolls of seamless paper with painted scenes. They don't use them anymore. They were nine feet high by thirty-two feet long! You just unroll and staple one up on top of the other. Put your foreground pieces up front and do a song. And it was mimed on record. It was part of my job to shout the words to them. That was WCPO.
I left there to go out west and hopefully get into Denver TV. And I think you made a reference to this in one of your articles that there was a time when the FCC had frozen licenses for television?
VV: Yes, in the early 50s. The FCC had frozen all new licenses while it studied UHF.
DS: Well, that was the case in two cities that I knew of...Portland and Denver. So I thought with my cocky young ideas, here's a good chance to go out and be a pioneer in a new station and Denver was no small city.
VV: What station was this?