Larry Harmon may be a Bozo. But he's not the original Bozo, even though he's claimed otherwise.
Harmon owns the rights to Bozo. Two years ago, The Wolf Files took him on, revealing that the 76-year-old show business entrepreneur has frequently stuck a Bozo-sized, big, red, floppy shoe in his mouth, taking credit for creating Bozo and bringing the clown to TV.
Both assertions are, at the very least, highly questionable — and they detract from the two men who can take credit for breathing the first life into the greatest clown legend.
Now, the only remaining Bozo TV show is being canceled. WGN-TV in Chicago taped the final episode June 12. Dozens of articles have been written in the past few weeks. But nary a word has been spoken of the clown who first appeared as Bozo on TV and records — Pinto Colvig.
It's time to set the record straight. The Father of Bozo Speaks
If Bozo has a father, that man is Alan Livingston, former president of Capital Records, who created Bozo at the Circus in 1946. It was the first read-along record — a milestone in children's entertainment — and it sold more than a million copies.
It was so successful, Livingston branched out into TV in 1949. The show debuted on KTTV, Channel 11 in Los Angeles. Colvig, who provided Bozo's voice, stepped in front of the camera. Livingston was the writer and producer. Harmon had nothing to do with it.
[Take a look at the original Bozo.]
"Larry Harmon was just an out-of-work actor when I hired him to do some promotional work," says Livingston. "Years later, when Capitol got out of the children's entertainment business, we sold it to him and some partners. But he's been misleading everyone — and taking credit for Pinto's work."
Harmon stopped speaking to The Wolf Files in 1999, when inquiries were first made into Bozo's origin. In a fax that year, Harmon blamed the media for making mistakes.
"Thousands of articles have been written since I purchased all the rights to Bozo …" Harmon wrote.
"In some of those articles, I have been misquoted and blatantly misrepresented. I cannot be responsible for misquotes and incorrect information printed by the media and routinely recycled over and over again over a long period of time.
"I have always been extremely proud to say that Allen [sic] Livingston created Bozo The Capitol Clown when he was with Capitol Records in the middle 1940s."
But to believe Harmon, we must also believe The Associated Press, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and at least six other major newspapers misquoted or misunderstood him, often times repeatedly.
And Harmon has never explained apparent mistakes on his own products. On a videocassette of Bozo cartoons, Harmon is pictured in greasepaint with the caption "The Original Bozo."
When Bozo reached the half-century mark in 1996, Harmon's production company issued a brochure titled "50 Years of Clowning Around With Bozo." It credits only Harmon for the clown's origin.
"Bozo. You can't even say it without smiling," the brochure begins. "Bozo the Clown, created by Larry Harmon half a century ago, has gone from children's recording star to international TV star, joining the American vocabulary along the way." [Italics added.]
Harmon's Cold Relationship With Bob Bell
Livingston says he was the one who developed Bozo's basic look. The clown's name, now a household word, was born during a late-night brainstorming session. Circus folk had long used "bozo" to refer to tramp clowns. But Capitol somehow copyrighted the whole enchilada and hired actors such as Harmon for personal appearances.
But Harmon had a different recollection in an Aug. 29, 1990, article in the Chicago Tribune, He said he based the clown's name on a famed Gypsy humorist named "Bozolowski."
"What stuck with me was those four letters," he told the paper. "It was a name everyone can pronounce. I tried it in all the languages. It came out the same."
He then went into detail about how he designed the hair and other characteristics: "I knew I wanted sort of a cotton-like fabric that I curled up and brought out to the sides," he was quoted as saying. "Red is one of my favorite colors. Red, white and blue I love. That's America."
Harmon is indeed a world-class marketer. In the late 1950s, he went from city to city, creating local Bozo TV shows in every nearly every major U.S. market and in such faraway places as Thailand, Greece and Brazil.
Harmon says he trained some 200 clowns along the way. But several Bozos — including WGN's Bob Bell and Joey D'Auria — say they developed their act without him.
In a 1984 magazine article in the Chicago Tribune, Harmon admitted that Bell was self-taught. "He was a natural Bozo," Harmon said. "Bob was able to jump into my soul … He was able to reach into my mind and my emotions, because Bozo was me … And Bob has my love for the children, my sensitivity, my understanding."
The article quotes Bell as recalling a cooler relationship with Harmon: "I haven't seen him for years. He never calls. He never comes around. Even when he's at the station, contracting for his cartoons, he never stops in and says hello. Never."
Bell's daughter, Joan Roy, says Harmon failed to offer his congratulations when Bell was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1996. She says Harmon even objected when Bell wanted to attend the ceremony in his Bozo greasepaint. "My father was 74 and frail," Roy says. "It was outrageous."
In artwork from the ceremony, Bell appears as the only honored clown out of makeup, a sure disappointment to fans.
The Clown Hall of Fame honored Harmon in 1990. But Bill Lange, founder of the Hall of Fame, says he regretted giving him the award, after researchers looked into Bozo's true origins.
"We'd like to finally honor Pinto Colvig," says the current Hall of Fame executive director, Kathryn O'Dell. "The problem is, a lot of people don't realize all he did as Bozo."
Still, Colvig, who died in 1967, certainly left his mark. He led the quintessential clown's life, running off to join the circus as a teenager. He served as the voices of Goofy and Grumpy in Walt Disney cartoons and helped composer Frank Churchill write "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf."
"Those were great days in TV," recalled Lee Carrau, the floor manager on the first Bozo TV show. "It was a live show, two cameras in a small studio, with animals and screaming kids. We never knew what would happen, monkeys jumping around everywhere. Every week was absolute pandemonium."
Carrau remembered Colvig well in a 1998 interview with The Wolf Files. "He used to go to the bar after the show in Bozo costume for laughs," he says. "He was a fun, fun guy."
Asked about Harmon, Carrau said, "Never heard of the gent, and I knew everyone on the show."
Buck Wolf is a producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.