Saturday, December 10, 2011

Clowning Around

>>>I heard an interesting story. To make a long story short , BOZO the CLOWN signed the Beatles to Capitol. I know this sounds absurd, but I heard the man who played Bozo the Clown was the exec who made the decision to sign the Beatles. It seems paradoxical that the guys at Capitol and Decca did not see what a man who started his career as a clown did. HE signed the Fab Four. I do not know the man's name, but I heard the story on TV a  few years ago. 
(Larry M. Smiley)  

>>>The Bozo connection is a guy named Alan Livingston.  When he first began working for Capitol Records (back in 1946), his initial assignment was to develop a catalog of children's records.  According to Bruce Spizer's book "The Beatles' Story On Capitol Records", Livingston's first creation for the label was Bozo The Clown, "a character who would later become a television star and part of American culture."  Bozo made his debut in September of 1946 on the Capitol album "Bozo At The Circus", which was written and produced by Livingston.  Spizer says "The album was an immediate hit, selling over 100,000 copies in its first month ... and it quickly became a million seller."  I don't know that Livingston WAS Bozo The Clown ... but he apparently INVENTED him!!!  During his tenure with the label, Alan Livingston paired Frank Sinatra with Nelson Riddle and signed both The Beach Boys and The Beatles to the label.  After Dave Dexter infamously turned down the first several Beatles releases, it was Alan Livingston who stepped in and gave the green light for Capitol Records to press and release "I Want To Hold Your Hand" ... and the rest, as they say, is history!  (kk)

One of the first things Alan W. Livingston did after becoming a Capitol Records executive in 1946 was create the Bozo character in order to allow his four year old label to expand into the childen's market.  He hired an illustrator to create the face of Bozo based on elements from a lot of clown images Livingston had collected.   But was Alan Livingston the voice of Bozo?  No.  He handed that task to Pinto Colvig (1892-1967), a vaudeville and radio performer, animator and  newspaper cartoonist for United Features Syndicate (the same firm which later distributed "Peanuts").  Colvig's real first name, the way, was Vance -- but because his freckled face reminded his schoolmates of the pattern on a certain horse in town, they dubbed him with his forever stage name.

Aside from Bozo -- whom Pinto was to play on records for a decade, Colvig also provided many other cartoon and cartoon like character voices.  He supplied Pluto's barks -- along with the voices of Goofy, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a "Wizard of Oz" munchkin, the "Three Little Pigs" porker who built his house of bricks, the Fleischer Studios' Gabby, Popeye's nemesis Bluto plus Sleepy and Grumpy in "Snow White."  Pinto also wrote the lyrics of songs like "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf."  

One reason why Pinto seemed so real on records as a clown was that he actually had been one -- landing his first clown job with a traveling circus at the age of 12.  His specialty?  Very squeaky clarinet playing,  After clown make-up had been applied to Pinto's face for the first time, the man who hired him said, "Now you look like a real bozo" -- "bozo" being the industry term for clowns who adopt tramp-like personas (as Red Skelton did when he portrayed Freddie the Freeloader).  Keep in mind that Pinto was first referred to as "Bozo" in 1904 -- 42 years before he became Bozo on records!  

Said Alan Livingston, "Pinto came in and turned out to be a very jolly, likable fellow with the kind of warm, folksy voice I wanted. He didn't talk down to children." Not only did Livingston get a perfect Bozo voice in Pinto, he also got most of the animals and odd creatures under the sea and in outer space voiced by the same man.  On some Bozo records, Pinto provided as many as eight different voices. The series turned out to be highly successful for Capitol -- so much so that over eight million read-along book-and-record sets were sold in the late '40s and early '50s. The character even became the record label's mascot -- as "Bozo, the Capitol Clown." Pinto, as Bozo, also starred in the very first Bozo television series, "Bozo's Circus," on KTTV in Los Angeles in 1949.  Pinto, as Bozo, became a popular guest on numerous radio shows and went on personal appearance tours all over the country. He especially enjoyed visiting children's hospitals and orphanages, "doin' my silly stuff, " he said, "to make 'em laugh."  

That all ended in 1956 when Larry Harmon, an actor hired as Colvig's understudy, talked Capitol into selling him the character rights (but not the already recorded record masters).  Harmon then created his own Bozo empire by adopting Colvig's TV concept into a children's show format he could franchise out into different cities and towns (like a McDonald's or Starbucks). 

Harmon then hired and taught local actors across the nation to portray his version of Bozo on their local TV stations.  Harmon's firm supplied scripts, costumes, props, stunt and game ideas as well as a library of cheaply produced Bozo cartoons.  The plan worked so well (peaking in the '60s) that Harmon eventually became wealthy enough buy the rights to two other characters he did not originate: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.  Harmon purchased the character rights, but none of :Laurel & Hardy's actual films.  As a result, he was able to get Laurel & Hardy cartoons made and then license Stan and Ollie's animated images on toys, games, etc.  In 1999 Harmon produced (and, of course, appeared, as Bozo) in "For Love or Mummy," a feature film flop billed as 'the all new adventures of Laurel & Hardy."   In the movie, Gailard Sartain portrayed an accurate Hardy; Bronson Pinchot was less successful as Laurel.

In the early '60s, cigarettes were one of the heaviest sponsors of TV advertising.  Even "The Flintstones,"  sponsored by Winston, included animation of Fred and Wilma puffing away (!).   In 1963, well before the Surgeon General's Report on the connection between smoking and cancer, Pinto Colvig endorsed a bill sponsored by Oregon Sen. Maurine Neuberger requiring warning labels on cigarette packages.  A heavy smoker all his life, Pinto did want others to suffer from the lung cancer which would claim his life four years later.  

In 1999 Alan Livingston was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame -- REPLACING Larry Harmon, who had spent so many decades claiming HE had invented Bozo that even the Hall of Fame committee had originally believed him.   Once the truth was revealed, though, Harmon was out.  As for Pinto Colvig, he was inducted in 2004.    
Gary Theroux

Here's a photo of Pinto Colvig as Bozo:

Pinto Colvig, the original voice of both Bozo the Clown and Goofy
(among many others)

Interesting stuff.
Bozo certainly was big here in Chicago ... Bob Bell has most famously been associated with the character locally ... and he was a living legend.  (In fact, he just may be the most universally known Bozo ever!)
The demand for tickets to Bozo's Circus (aka The Bozo Show) was SO great at one time that expectant mothers were signing their unborn children up for tickets in the hopes that by the time the tickets finally came through (often 7-8 years later ... and, at peak time, I believe there was something like a THIRTEEN YEAR WAITING LIST!!!), they could surprise THEIR kid with tickets to the show!  Unreal!  (kk)  

Bob Bell's run as the Chicago Bozo was one of the longest and most successful of them all.  He was clearly one of the best of the more than 200 local Bozos Larry Harmon trained and controlled.  My wife grew up watching Bell's version of the show, along with "Garfield Goose" and a number of other Chicagoland children's shows back when there WAS locally produced children's programming.  As I lived in the NYC area, I saw WPIX's Bozo, Bill Britten, during the series' run in New York between 1959 to 1964.   Frankly, I preferred the other leading kid shows over Bozo -- the very low budget but highly creative programs hosted by Chuck McCann, Sandy Becker, Sonny Fox, etc.  

Bob Bell played Bozo for an incredible 24 years.  When he officially called it quits in 1984 it marked the end of an era.  In 1996 he was inducted into The International Clown Hall Of Fame ... but it was a bittersweet induction.  Larry Harmon, who owned the rights to the Bozo name (and franchise) refused to congratulate Bell on his honor ... and then prohibited him from accepting the award in his clown costume. Sadly, Bell died a year later.  (kk)