May 25, 2004 -- — As a journalist for 17 years, I've had to address a lot of fools. But I expect I'll never speak to as many at once as I will this Friday, when I help induct the original Bozo into the International Clown Hall of Fame.
Clowns from around the world are piling into little cars and pedaling tricycles to Milwaukee, and I'll be joining them (via airplane) to honor Pinto Colvig as the first in a long line of TV Bozos — a proud group that includes Chicago's Bob Bell and NBC's Willard Scott.
Colvig, who passed away in 1967, led an incredible life. A circus clown turned newspaper cartoonist, he was one of Walt Disney's original cartoon stars, originating the voices of Goofy, Grumpy and Sleepy, among others, and co-writing classics like "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?"
Colvig's also credited as Bluto from Popeye cartoons; a Munchkin voice in the Wizard of Oz; and hundreds of other characters.
But in life or death, Colvig was never honored for perhaps his greatest achievement — bringing Bozo to life — first on a series of children's records in 1946, and then, three years later, on a live TV show in Los Angeles.
Only after a bit of a controversy — in which The Wolf Files helped show how one clown seemed to repeatedly take credit for Bozo — did this event take place.
That other clown, Larry Harmon, owns the rights to Bozo, and he has reasserted his claim on his Web site that Capitol Records picked him to star in the first filmed TV pilot — a claim that the record executive who wrote and produced Bozo still flatly denies.
"I can't believe Larry Harmon says we'd ever hire him to star in anything," says Alan W. Livingston, the executive.
"Harmon is very good at marketing. He sold Bozo shows all over the country. But I suppose he never got over the fact that he's really not much of a clown."
Harmon, 78, failed to return two phone calls.
Now, as I head to Milwaukee, it's time to remember an amazing career that started in 1905, when Colvig's father took him to a state fair in Portland, Ore., and a day later, the 12-year-old boy was in white face, playing a squeaky clarinet in a circus band.
Many Colvig fans have been pushing for this day. I'm lucky enough to have the honor of giving Colvig's induction speech, although I now must face a sizable audience of professional clowns, not to mention the men, women and children who love them. What do I tell them?
Even Colvig had trouble explaining his own wild career. "I have been trying to make up my mind whether I wanted to be an actor, cartoonist, writer or musician," he once told a reporter.
"I have been trying to figure it out for 30 years. I wind up squawking like a monkey, barking like a dog, and braying like a jackass."
As someone who's written a bit about Bozo, circuses and sideshows, I can relate to braying like a jackass. Here are some vintage Wolf Files on the subject of clowning, as I take off for Milwaukee:
Rubber Chicken à la King: Just because you can't eat them doesn't mean you can't make a living off rubber chickens. Gene Rose, the last American rubber chicken manufacturer, has been a giant in the elastic fowl business for more than 50 years, and he still has no idea why anyone buys his merchandise. More Fear of Clowns: What evil lurks behind a greasepaint smile? Coulrophobia — the fear of clowns — is no laughing matter. And for many, it's way worse than that nagging fear that you'll be buried under a bucket of confetti. Sean "P. Diddy" Combs even had to deny being a coulrophobe, after reports that he demanded a "no-clown clause" in his contracts. More.
A Place for Old Fools: There was a time in Gibsonton, Fla., when folks wouldn't bat an eye when a bearded lady, hermaphrodite, or three-legged man ambled down the street, all at the same time.
Just outside Tampa, the town of Gibsonton is still the home of hundreds of retired clowns, acrobats and carnies. More.
Bozo Unmasked: Larry Harmon is a Bozo. But he certainly isn't the original Bozo — even though he's taken credit for creating the TV clown while building his small show-business empire.
Take a look at Harmon's claims over the years about the history of Bozo, including a promotional brochure, copyrighted by his production company and titled "50 Years of Clowning Around With Bozo." It begins:
"Bozo. You can't even say it without smiling. 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.] More.
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Buck Wolf is entertainment producerat ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files ispublished Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice whena new column is published, join the e-maillist.