Coulrophobia is the correct terminology to use when describing the psychological condition of those among us who have a fear of clowns. I personally have never had such a fear, perhaps because the first time I was cognizant of one, was when my parents took me to McDonalds where the jovial, red-haired, Ronald McDonald handed me a happy meal complete with a mediocre toy for my childish amusement. Possibly one’s first childhood experience with a clown was at a very young age and was less than pleasant. It might have occurred at a birthday party, or maybe at an amusement park, where a garishly painted and attired clown, who the child perceived as menacing rather than funny, suddenly came toward them and ‘got right in their face’ so to speak. I can understand how coulrophobia may well have begun for them at that point. Even some adults, in this blogger’s opinion, might well have suffered adverse emotional effects while reading the best selling novel IT by the master of the macabre, Stephen King, where he so deftly brings the character of the clown Pennywise to horrific metaphoric life; or when watching one of what seemed like the two hundred thousand plus airings by HBO of the 1982 film Poltergeist directed by Tobe Hooper, (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) where the child’s toy clown is brought to life by evil spirits and tries to strangle the boy to death. Those adults, although not being traumatized enough to cause them to be coulrophobic, could have been made very leery of those who paint their faces and wear crazy getups in the name of entertainment.
Leaving some of our less friendly clowns aside, there have been many entertainers who’ve touched countless lives with their antics, for instance: the Spanish clown Charlie Rivel (Josep Andreu i Lasserre); The German performer Otto Griebling; Americans like the fictional aforementioned Ronald McDonald; the legendary performer Red Skelton; and Brooklyn Dodger baseball fans probably remember Emmett Kelly, who was a performer for Ringling Brother and Barnum and Bailey Circus before he became the team’s clown mascot during the 1956 season. Children from the past twenty years might insist that Krusty the Clown, who debuted on January 15, 1989 on the long defunct Tracey Ullman Show, and went on to join another cast of famous characters who got their start on that show, The Simpsons, is the true king of clowndom. It was on February 25, 1990, in The TellTale Head, which was the eighth episode of The Simpsons first season, Krusty joined the cast of the long running animated smash. All of the previously mentioned clowns are worthy of their own blogs for the impact they’ve had on their particular microcosmic part of the overall world of entertainment, but this week’s blog focuses in on one particular red bulbous nosed, orange haired, red, white, and blue attired clown named Bozo, or to be more specific, the man who played him for decades, Larry Harmon.
Born Lawrence Weiss in Toledo, Ohio, on January 2, 1925, and raised in Cleveland, Larry Harmon, from all accounts, appeared to be a dreamer from the time he was old enough to understand what having dreams meant. He didn’t start out wanting to be a clown…far from it. His first aspiration was to be like his boyhood idol, Al Jolson, who during the 1930s was America’s most popular and highest paid entertainer. Harmon, while serving in the army during World War II, would not only actually get to meet and have a conversation with Jolson, which would change his life, but he was forever able to say that he performed on the same stage as his hero during a show for the soldiers. That’s just one of the many incidents in the very interesting life he led, and detailed in his posthumously published memoir, The Man Behind The Nose: Assassins, Astronauts, Cannibals, And Other Stupendous Tales.
The character of Bozo was created by Alan Livingston, a producer for Capital Records of children’s albums and books, titled Bozo at the Circus, the first of which was released on October 7, 1946. The first televised appearance of Bozo would follow three years later in 1949 when KTTV-TV in Los Angeles, California, aired the show, Bozo’s Circus. Interestingly enough, Larry Harmon was not the first performer to either voice or portray the character of Bozo. The same man who voiced Walt Disney’s character, Goofy, Pinto Colvig, was the first ever Bozo. Sensing that the character of Bozo could be a proverbial gravy train of financial success in what was at the time the newly expanding world of television, Larry Harmon set out with some business partners to buy the licensing rights to the character. Please don’t view Harmon as some money hungry schemer who only pretended to care about children because the antithesis is true. It is evident from reading the book that Harmon had a type A personality, and while he was interested in making money to provide for his family like any other normal person, he was equally interested in spreading a message to the children whose living rooms he entered through the medium of television. The message he was attempting to convey to his young impressionable audience was a simple one: that love and laughter make the world a better place, and that those who engage in it, are better people because of it.
In the interest of brevity I will briefly describe the business aspect that led to Harmon owning the exclusive rights to the character of Bozo. For those of you who are interested, it is documented more fully in the book. Harmon and several business partners bought the rights to the character in 1956. In 1965, he bought out his partners and became the exclusive owner of the licensing rights for the character of Bozo, to whom he had given the moniker “Bozo, The World’s Most Famous Clown.” Between 1965 and 1967, Larry Harmon went on to star as the lovable clown in 130 half-hour episodes of the show titled Bozo’s Big Top, which forever cemented his iconic status as the pervasive character.
Even for those of you who don’t normally like to read, or when you do, you don’t want to feel like you’re back in school reading something dull assigned by the teacher, I can inform you with absolute confidence that this book is a well written, enthralling, easy to read page turner that is appropriate for anyone in their teenage years and beyond. It is not often one can find in a single work of non-fiction someone who has: met a President, John F. Kennedy no less; managed to avoid being the main course for a group of purportedly flesh craving cannibals; survived a deadly snake attack; and thwarted an assassination attempt, amongst other interesting encounters and anecdotes. Most best selling authors wouldn’t pack that much into one of their novels. But all of the adventures I have merely hinted at, along with numerous others that I haven’t even mentioned, can be found in Harmon’s book, which includes photographs to dissuade any nay-sayers who wish to question the validity of what is written. Larry “Bozo, The World’s Most Famous Clown” Harmon died at the age of 83 of congestive heart failure on July 3, 2008. He left behind his wife, Susan, to whom he was married for twenty-nine years and his son Jeff, and his four daughters, Ellen, Leslie, Lori, and Marci. He also left behind a legacy of laughter and joyous memories for millions of fans of all ages.
For those of you who wish to see the iconic clown perform, in 2003, a set of six shows from Bozo’s Big Top were released on DVD, and several years later in 2007, two DVD box sets titled “Larry Harmon’s Bozo, The World’s Most Famous Clown” was made available. After reading “Bozo’s” memoirs, which I can recommend to you without any reservation, I will probably purchase the two sets of DVDs, in the hopes of sharing them with my own children some day.