From the Los Angeles Times obituary about Charles Runyon, who died at 86 earlier this month …
The jovial and genteel clown wore a spinning merry-go-round hat with his name on it, a half red and half red-and-white-striped clown suit with a fluffy Elizabethan-style collar and cuffs, and white gloves; and he had arching blue eyebrows on a white face with a rhinestone-tipped nose and an upturned red smile
For many youths here in Southern California during the 1950s and 1960s, watching Clucko after school was daycare without sign-in sheets. Cue that bigtop music. Personally, I was a “Sheriff John” loyalist, with a little “Hobo Kelly” and her magic butterfly (whose protege evidently became the radioactive Lunesta sleep creature) dashed in. Gordon, my uncle and the hero of Wheeling the Deal: the Outrageous Legend of Gordon Zahler, Hollywood’s Flashiest Quadriplegic,” probably didn’t spend much time tuning in for either man’s floppy shoes and magic pockets.
Back in those same 1950s and 1960s, Gordon partnered with one of America’s most ambitious clowns, and no, he wasn’t running for office or in charge of federal monetary policy. After buying licensing rights from a record label, Larry Harmon first played the original “Bozo” and then franchised the concept of the ruffle-stripped entertainer to most big U.S. television markets and an impressive list of foreign ones, too. Naturally, he branched out — if McDonald could, why not a circus-type celebrity — and never lost his love of the ladies or the skinflint reputation that Gordon’s old cronies still remember. For kicks, here’s Harmon’s obituary.
There’s some telling anecdotes about him in my book. Gordon supplied music to Bozo (perhaps for the cartoon) and some of Harmon’s other cartoons like Popeye and Mr. Magoo. At one point, Harmon and Gordon probably worked within shouting distance of each other at KTLA. Both men — one a enterpreneurial funny dude, the other an ambitious dreamer who happened to be crippled — would chase that almighty buck anywhere, back when that actually was applauded. Of course, Wall St. back then bore little similarity to today. From the Times’ takeout on ol’ Bozo …
Harmon launched the first Bozo children’s show on KTLA-TV Channel 5 in Los Angeles in 1959, with Pinto Colvig’s son, Vance, playing the role. From there, Harmon began franchising Bozo, and the bulb-nosed clown with the big feet became an iconic children’s show character around the nation and the world. Harmon trained more than 200 men to portray the carrot-topped character on TV, including future “The Today Show” weatherman Willard Scott and Los Angeles television weatherman Johnny Mountain. In the mid-1950s, Harmon launched Larry Harmon Pictures Corp., which turned out animated cartoons featuring not only Bozo but also Popeye, Mr. Magoo, Dick Tracy and Laurel and Hardy (Harmon acquired the rights to the comedy duo in 1960.) His company continues to license the names and characters of Bozo and Laurel and Hardy worldwide. A Harris poll once recognized Bozo as the world’s most famous clown. “Bozo is a combination of the wonderful wisdom of the adult and the childlike ways in all of us,” Harmon told the Associated Press in 1996. “Bozo is a star, an entertainer, bigger than life. People see him as Mr. Bozo, somebody you can relate to, touch and laugh with.”
When you read the whole story, you’ll see Harmon was tossed out of the International Clown Hall of Fame because, technically, he hadn’t concocted Bozo from scratch. He just merely popularized him. It was crushing. Maybe that’s why clown paint on their smiles. At any rate, Gordon knew Larry-cum-Bozo was a tough negotiator who generally acted broke, sometimes hours from the time he painted on that grin and worked for laughs.