WGN-TV was built on sports and children's programming. In the fifties and sixties, channel 9 was the place to be for such favorites as Lunchtime Little Theater with "Uncle Ned" Locke and Ted Ziegler, The Blue Fairy, Paddleboat, and Ray Rayner as Sgt. Pettibone!
It lasted for forty years. Some say much longer than it should have, while others still mourn it's passing. However you feel, there's no question that the long running children's show is a Chicago television treasure to the thousands of 1960s and 70s kids who raced home from school at lunch time to catch Bozo, Oliver O. Oliver, Sandy, and Ringmaster Ned. There were no lessons to be learned, no messages, no pop quizzes. An hour of pure fun and entertainment. Much of the comedy was redressed vaudeville and burlesque, tweaked as so the little audience would appreciate it but not too much as to bore the moms and dads.
The character of Bozo The Clown first appeared on the scene as the lead character in a series of children's records offered by Capital in the 1940s. He was created by Alan Livingston. Larry Harmon bought the licensing rights to Bozo and by the 1950s had begun to sell franchises to local television stations. The stations could develop any show they wanted using Bozo as the central character and they would have to buy Harmon's limited animation Bozo cartoons (with Butchy Boy, a character not used in the Chicago program).
In 1959, Bob Bell first donned his Bozo guise and hosted a cartoon series on WGN-TV. This version was short-lived. When Channel 9 moved to it's new modern studio facility at 2501 Bradley Place, the decision was made to re-invent the show with a live audience. In 1961, Bozo's Circus premiered in color at 12 noon. But Bozo wasn't there. Bob Bell was watching the show from the control room with Don Sandburg. A management snafu forced Bell to sit the first show out.
On the air was a trampoline performer by the name of Tails, played by Hal Taylor, an NCAA Trampoline champion. He was joined by Ringmaster Ned Locke and Mr. Bob Trendler and his 13 piece Big Top Band.
The show did not go over well and the next day, Bell was on screen as Bozo and not long after, Sandburg was producing and writing. This was the true beginning. In short order, Sandburg created Oliver O. Oliver, portrayed with aplomb by the multi talented Ray Rayner, who had recently arrived from WBBM-TV and was starring as Sgt. Henry Pettibone on The Dick Tracy Show. Oliver was the perfect foil for the mischievous Bozo. In addition to his responsibilities as producer and writer, Sandburg created and appeared as Sandy (dubbed Sandy The Tramp by Ringmaster Ned).
Sandburg developed the circus format of the show introducing the Grand Prize Game in which two contestants, a boy and girl, attempt to land a ping pong ball into six buckets lined up in a row. Each bucket would bring you better and better toys until the famed bucket #6 which, if won, would bring you a Schwinn bike and all the silver dollars put in the bucket since the last winner. Mr. Ned would remind us each day "...one silver dollar in bucket number six until someone wins them all!" Sandburg also created the "fair and square contest" to decide who would lead the grand march at the end of the show; Golly The Gorilla; and also brought in the now classic outside circus trapeze and magic acts.
The show was a hit. A legend in its own time. Ticket sales for the show climbed each year until at one point, a ten year waiting list had formed. Newlyweds were scrambling to get on the list for tickets for their unborn offspring. The series even spawned a short-lived prime time version called Bozo's Big Top in 1966. But by 1968, changes were in the wind.
Anxious to spread his creative wings and feeling that he had done all he could with the show, Don Sandburg left. But before he did, he convinced Roy Brown, who had been the puppeteer on Garfield Goose & Friends and was also the voice of Cuddley Duddley on the morning Ray Rayner & Friends. Brown became Cooky The Cook, a character based on a long running gag between Bozo and Oliver that the circus food was so bad. In reality it was a dig at the less than scrumptious cuisine offered by the WGN cafeteria, Next Marshall Brodien, who had appeared as himself several times, in a traditional tuxedo and top hat magician's act, would appear as Whizzo. And for a short time, a third clown, named Monty Melvin (named after a school chum of Sandburg's) would appear, played by WGN floor manager Dick Lubbers.
Ray Rayner would cease to appear regularly as Oliver O. Oliver in 1971. Rayner, who by now was one of the busiest people at Channel 9, was appearing as himself on his morning show, then as Oliver at noon, and then as Sgt, Pettibone on Dick Tracy (and later on Rocket To Adventure) in the afternoon. Many evenings he would appear on stage in legitimate theater. He would make guest appearances as Oliver and sometimes as himself for a vacationing Ned Locke.
Between 1971 and 1972, two more clowns would make intermittent appearances on the show. Pat Tobin would appear as Elrod T. Potter and Johnny Thompson, a magician, would portray Clod Hopper. In 1975, Bob Trendler's retirement marked the end of the 13 piece Big Top Band. Tom Fitzsimmons would continue with a reduced three piece combo.
1976 would make the final year with Ringmaster Ned Locke. On his last show, the tables were turned and Mr. Ned played the Grand Prize Game. He was replaced by another WGN-TV veteran, Frazier Thomas. Thomas, who had been playing second banana to a puppet goose who thought he was king of the United States since 1952 was the obvious, though perhaps not best choice as Locke's replacement. In the storyline to explain the change, it was said that Garfield Goose bought the circus, assigning Thomas as Circus Manager. Arriving with Thomas and the goose were the rest of the gang from the castle, Romberg Rabbit, Beauregard Burnside III, Macintosh Mouse, and others. In addition, the Christmas classics "The Three Dwarfs" starring Hardrock, Coco, and Joe, and Suzy Snowflake were aired each season.
In a much ballyhooed move, WGN-TV moves the show from its noon time spot to weekday mornings in 1980 and no longer airs the show live. Renamed "The Bozo Show," it airs back to back with former cast member Ray Rayner's Ray Rayner & His Friends. When Rayner retires in 1981, the show expands to ninety minutes adding Cuddley Duddley and local news and weather reports (announced off camera by Bozo in his alter ego as Bob Bell). 1981 would also mark the final appearance of Garfield Goose, the grand march (though it would return by 1984), the magic arrows (replaced by the Bozoputer), and the show's signature theme.
Bob Bell retires in 1984 and is replaced by comedian Joey D'Auria, who continues until the show's cancellation in 2000. In 1984, Frazier Thomas dies unexpectedly at the age of 66. His role is not replaced. 1987, Andy Mitran joins, replacing the three piece combo with a synthesizer.
In 1994, due to a FCC rule ordering stations to provide educational content in their children's programming, the final version of the series (known as "The Bozo Super Sunday Show") was roughly 60% educational. It had a much faster paced format than before (due to time constraints and the FCC ruling) and sadly, because of this, there were no more Bozo-puter or magic arrows to pick the kids for "The Grand Prize Game." Contestants were chosen during the commercial break and were ready to go when the show returned. While the staples of the original show were still there- grand prize game, Bozo throwing pies, etc., there were no more cartoons such as "Rocky & Bullwinkle" and "Bugs Bunny", and most interesting of all- no Bozo cartoons! Quite a change from a program which began as pure entertainment.
When the announcement was made that after forty years, Bozo would leave the air, it was the last locally produced children's show on the air in Chicago. Specialty cable networks like Nickelodeon, MTV, and The Disney Channel were just too much for local clown to compete with. Critics of the station's cancellation decision say the show could have survived had management put money into it. Instead they gave the show the "death spot" of early Sunday morning. The station's interests were now elsewhere. Children's television would now be just a nostalgic reminder of it's past. The show's final telecast aired on August 26 2001.
Bozo Bob? Or is it Bozo Joey? The author admits he's a tad biased having been raised on Bozo Bob so Bozo Joey didn't have a chance in hell in being considered the "real" Boze. But Bozo Joey was on the scene for 17 years and over the course of time, he mellowed into his own special Bozo persona.
No one will ever replace Bob Bell. The man occupies a special place in the memories of kids who grew up in the sixties, much like the warmness that was felt for Miss Frances by the children of the first decade of television, the 1950s. And in time, the children that grew up with Bozo Joey will undoubtedly look upon him with similar affection when they look back at their childhood heroes.
Thank you WGN for forty years.