In case you have not been following TV history, the format of Bozo the Clown was a franchised affair. Many people do not realize that the career of the carrot-topped comedian goes back further than the television era, and that his fame as a TV star was actually the last stop in his line of successes.
Alan Livingston, head of Capitol Records in Hollywood, had a new concept for a series of children's records. Livingston's idea was that of what he termed a "record-reader." This package contained a colorful picture book with illustrations printed on the right hand pages and dialogue in the form of a script on the left hand pages. The accompanying 78-rpm records would be dramatizations of the dialogue, so children could literally read the words and look at the pictures while the story unfolded before their ears.
As a subject for this first "record-reader," Livingston created a new star character, Bozo the Clown. Capitol enlisted the talents of Pinto Colvig, a former clown himself who had made it big in the animated cartoon field, most notably as the voice of Walt Disney's Goofy. The first Capitol Records Bozo production, Bozo at The Circus, was released in 1946. It was an overnight smash hit, and for several years thereafter Capitol released one new Bozo adventure per year.
Like many clowns, though, Bozo began experiencing some tragedy as the 1950s wore on. More and more, television was cutting into the market for children's entertainment, and by the latter half of the decade Capitol was not selling nearly as many Bozo Record-Readers as they would have liked. At this opportune time, into the story came Larry Harmon, a promoter of the first degree.
In 1957, Harmon bought the rights to Bozo from Capitol Records, with the intention of producing a series of animated cartoons based on the character. In the cartoons, Harmon himself provided Bozo's voice in a close approximation of Colvig's records. There were also several new supporting characters, including Bozo's ever-present young sidekick Butch ("Butchy Boy," as his mentor called him affectionately), gangsters Big Shorty and Short Biggy, the apoplectic circus boss (voiced by cartoon legend Paul Frees), the aptly-named Wacko Wolf (Frees again), and many more.
Once the Bozo cartoons were finished, Harmon
had to get them on the air somehow. Perhaps inspired by the success of
Room's franchising, Harmon began leasing the Bozo character and format
to local TV stations all over the country. Each station produced its own
version of Bozo the Clown, using local talent to play the role,
but all were required to purchase the Bozo suit and the animated cartoons
from Harmon's company.
Where does Birmingham and WBRC fit into
this story? In June 1961, the Birmingham version of Bozo the Clown made
its debut. Unrecognized by nearly everyone, inside the big shoes and fright
wig was WBRC announcer Bart Darby.
Nearly everyone agrees that Darby was probably the least likely person in town to essay the role of Bozo the Clown. Suave and sophisticated, Darby and his angular face seemed ill-suited to the ill-fitting suit. However, at the time, WBRC had only a small pool of talent from which to choose a Bozo. The station's "stars" were Harry Mabry and Tom York, who were obviously too overworked as it was to take on any more projects. Benny Carle was there, and had a way with children, but he already had his own show. Therefore, Bart Darby was given the job whether he wanted it or not.
In the TV column of The Birmingham News in 1961, one reader lamented the fact that Darby had "put on the clown suit and lost his identity." Darby's reply through the columnist was that he was still himself 23 1/2 other hours in the day. But the comment made a good point: unlike Cousin Cliff, Benny Carle, or the rest, the actor inside Bozo's costume could remain perfectly anonymous.
Benny Carle remembers an early personal
appearance that left Darby completely nonplused: "We were to do a
show downtown at the Alabama Theatre," Benny explains. "Bart had
decided not to remove his makeup when his show ended; instead he was going
to join us at the theatre. Well, he was late, and everyone kept wondering
what had happened to him. Finally, he showed up in the lobby, panting and
out of breath. 'Bart, where have you been?' I asked. 'Couldn't find a parking
space,' he gasped. 'I had to park four blocks away and walk, and all of
a sudden all these kids and their mothers started chasing me! I couldn't
figure out why!' I said to him, 'Bart, you're Bozo the Clown, for
pete's sake!' It had never occurred to him that he looked a little
conspicuous walking four city blocks in his Bozo suit!"
Romper Room teacher Jane Hooper, a close friend of Darby's, recalls that in the early days of his Bozo stint, he was provided with a mynah bird that was supposed to be a part of the show and say "Hello, Bozo" on cue. In order for the bird to learn his part properly, Darby kept the feathered friend in his home, and anyone visiting the Darby family had to make it a point to say "Hello, Bozo" every time they passed the bird's cage. Presumably the mynah eventually got the point.
Whether his stint as Bozo had anything to do with it or not, a year after the show began Bart Darby decided to leave Birmingham for the greener bayous of New Orleans. Darby remembered an old friend of his, Ward McIntyre, who had expressed an interest in joining the WBRC staff should anyone there decide to leave. Darby told McIntyre that his position was about to be open, so Ward was able to get his foot in WBRC's door about the time they received Darby's resignation letter.
McIntyre was not known as a television personality at the time. Instead, he had come up through the world of radio, and was currently toiling at WSGN. He was hired at WBRC, replacing Bart Darby as newscaster, sports announcer, and any of half a dozen other duties. For better or worse, one of those duties was Bozo the Clown.
Ward McIntyre first slipped on Bozo's oversized shoes in August 1962. If any of the children watching the show noticed that they were suddenly being confronted by a different clown, the shock must have quickly subsided. It was true that Ward's face had a rounder look than Darby's, but probably the biggest difference was that McIntyre normally wore clothes a size bigger than those worn by Bart Darby. WBRC, having shelled out the money to Larry Harmon to buy the Bozo costume just a year earlier, was not about to spring for another suit, so McIntyre had to do his best to make himself fit into the outfit. Fortunately, Bozo's blue jumper was baggy enough that it had some room to spare anyway, but it did appear to be a bit snug on Ward.
The format of Bozo the Clown, at least as WBRC presented the show, was quite simple. Quite naturally, the set consisted of a backdrop made to look like the outside of a circus tent. The children who were to be on the show each day were seated on benches in front of the tent backdrop, and served bags of popcorn that drove home the intended circus look. For most of its run, Bozo the Clown was only a 25-minute show: the first five minutes of its time slot were occupied by Pat Gray and her Young People's World children's news program. (On occasions when Pat went on vacation, Ward McIntyre... a.k.a. Bozo... would come on early and read the news in full makeup!)
With only 25 minutes to fill, WBRC's Bozo the Clown had little time for fooling around. One of the Larry Harmon animated cartoons took up five minutes of the show, and Bozo's interviews with the studio audience took a bit longer than that. The remaining time was pretty well filled by commercials. Bozo the Clown's original soft drink sponsor was Coca-Cola, but when they decided to pull out, McIntyre suggested to the sales department that they try selling Mountain Dew on his show instead, and according to Ward, "In six months it was the third best-selling drink in this market!" Of course, Jack's Hamburgers was on hand, and various cereal companies had their fingers in Bozo's bowl as well. From time to time, Golden Flake potato chips sold a spud or two on Bozo's show, even though they had their own trademark clown.
Another popular sponsor was Colgate-Palmolive's Soaky bubble bath, they of the cartoon-shaped plastic bottles. Soaky could be found on the other kids' series as well, but with Bozo the Clown they had a unique advantage. Whereas Soaky never thought of marketing a Cousin Cliff or Benny Carle bubble bath container, Bozo was one of their featured characters, and you can bet your bubbles that was a big selling point for McIntyre! Chocks Vitamins, the "pillow-shaped vitamin," rang up healthy sales from their Bozo exposure.
The sheer routine of doing the show every day led the staff to welcome any break from the ordinary. "It got to the point," Ward says, "where I could say to the director, 'Do you wanna have a tee tee on the show today?' He'd say, 'Yeah, we haven't had one for a long time.' Ordinarily, halfway through the show we gave each of the children a Jack's Hamburger and a Mountain Dew. Now, if we wanted a tee tee, I'd give them the Mountain Dew the moment they sat down!! That was an absolute necessity. If they got the drink in the middle of the show, they'd wait until they started out and then tell their mama. But if they got it at the beginning, when they said 'Bozo!' and I said 'What?' I knew what was coming. They'd say, 'I gotta tee tee.' I think one time I said, 'Well, I do too,' but usually I'd say 'Your mama will get you in a minute.'"
Like the other TV personalities, McIntyre made personal appearances as Bozo at the Jack's Hamburgers grand openings, various department stores, and the Children's Hospital. He would attend children's birthday parties in their homes if he were asked to do so, but didn't openly advertise that facet of the job. "I should have, though, because I could have made a lot more money that way," he says somewhat ruefully.
During his time as Bozo, McIntyre also
donned other bizarre outfits to host non-kid-oriented series. On Saturday
afternoons, WBRC carried a syndicated lineup of country music shows produced
in Nashville, starring the likes of Porter Wagoner, the Louvin Brothers,
and other Grand Ole Opry stars. In between the shows, Ward McIntyre appeared
as hillbilly "Sad Sam" with a blacked-out tooth and cornpone delivery.
When the station briefly attempted a Friday-night horror movie show, Ward
hammed it up as "Bela LaGhosty," a vampire-like mad scientist.
Behind-the-scenes events at WBRC had begun in 1966 that would eventually spell the end of Bozo the Clown, at least as far as Birmingham was concerned. During that year, Taft Broadcasting (WBRC's parent company at the time) bought out the famous Hanna-Barbera cartoon studio. As a Taft station, that meant that suddenly the vast Hanna-Barbera film library was available at very little cost. The contract with Larry Harmon was still in effect, however, so Bozo the Clown continued until it was renewal time again. At that point, the clown was out and the cartoons were in. TV logs last list Bozo the Clown as airing on January 5, 1968.
However, that was not the end of Ward McIntyre's stint at the station. His Bozo format was replaced with the Hanna-Barbera cartoons in a format logged as Huck and Yogi. Ward was at last able to get out of his daily makeup ordeal, and for this series he put on a cowboy suit to become known as Quick Fire McIntyre (a takeoff, no doubt, on Quick Draw McGraw). On his very first show as Quick Fire, Ward opened by telling the kids watching at home that Bozo had gone back to the circus, and that was why he wasn't there any more. The Huck and Yogi series closely resembled the Bozo format without the big top motif, but daily live kids' shows were already on their way out, and by May 1968 Quick Fire had run out of ammunition. "Everyone said they needed a comma in there: it should be 'Quick, Fire McIntyre!'" Ward chuckles. "And they did!" McIntyre went back into radio, where he spent the rest of his career until his retirement.
For many years he preferred to NOT discuss his career in the clown suit, mainly because of the not-so-good-natured ribbing his children had to endure from their classmates at school, but in recent years he has finally come to grips with the fact that most kids truly appreciated his work -- and those are the kind of rewards one does not even attempt to measure.
After a period of illness, Ward McIntyre
passed away on Friday, July 20, 2007.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF WARD McINTYRE AND RODNEY BARSTEIN
TEXT AND CAPTIONS BY TIM HOLLIS
(BOZO image is a registered trademark of LARRY HARMON PRODUCTIONS)
Created 05/29/2005 - 948 PM EDT