Sadly, over this holiday weekend news broke that one of our nation’s most beloved clowns passed away. No, not former North Carolina senator Jesse Helms. Larry Harmon, who wore the large red shoes of Bozo. Says the AP:
Larry Harmon wasn’t the original Bozo the Clown, but he was the real one. Harmon, who portrayed the wing-haired clown for more than half a century, died Thursday of congestive heart failure, said his publicist, Jerry Digney. He was 83.
As an entrepreneur, Harmon licensed the character to others, particularly dozens of television stations around the country. The stations in turn hired actors to be their local Bozos.
And unlike Helms, Harmon actually seemed to want to make people’s lives better. (Listen, sure, Helms had his 11th hour crisis of conscience, where he backed AIDS treatment in Africa, and he suffered from dementia, something so terrible I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but still. If being an “icon” means not being willing to compromise, fighting against civil rights–including making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday — the NEA, gay rights, and the opposing the Kyoto Protocol, well. Tear that symbol down.)
Anyway! I remember as a kid, living in a frigid suburb of Chicago, being such a ridiculous fan of the Bozo show. (Apparently, Bob Bell portrayed the franchised character in our market, on WGN-TV. Not that a young kid would understand the concept of franchising and licensing etc.) I remember how gripping it was watching the Grand Prize Game, where a lucky kid from the studio audience would toss ping pong balls in to a series of progressing buckets. If you got it into bucket #6 you won the big prize. Oh, how I wanted to be on TV playing that game. And yet, the concept of actually being on TV, in the presence of Bozo and his sidekick Cooky, would have crippled me with shyness.
A couple months ago I was out with some acquaintances and someone I didn’t know well said he’d actually competed in the Grand Prize Game. I think I must’ve driven him to distraction with questions about what it was like, in front of that crowd, under those hot lights, the cameras hovering, trying for the big win. He didn’t seem to think it was as fascinating as I wanted it to be. Oh well. I can still remember fondly the sense of glee, excitement and frivolity that show brought to my little four-year-old self.
RIP Bozo. And if you see Jesse Helms, tell that fucker he got it all wrong. In whatever capacity you engage people, whether it’s wearing a red nose and throwing pies in someone’s face or working in the equally farcical realm of American politics, it’s not about telling people how to live and what to be, but rather helping alleviate some of the burdens that can make existence tedious and weary. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as it were. Along with the possibility of some fabulous prizes. That’s the American way.