Someone at WGN-Ch. 9 once calculated that, during Ray Rayner's firstthousand shows on "Bozo's Circus," he threw or was hit by 800 pies and fired off or was sprayed by 700 bottles of seltzer water.
But Rayner, who died Wednesday morning at age 84 of respiratory failure at a Ft. Myers, Fla., hospital, was more than a target for Bozo. He was a TV icon for Chicago Baby Boomers.
"There were times in his career when he was on whenever you turned thetelevision on," said Bruce DuMont, founder and president of the Museum of Broadcast Communications. "To me, along with Bob Bell, who played Bozo for so many years, and Frazier Thomas, who was synonymous with Garfield Goose, he was the other jewel in the crown of children's icons."
The New York-born and -raised Rayner --he was born July 23, 1919 as Rahner but later changed it. He was a B-17 navigator during World War II and was shot down over France. It was during the 2½ years he spent as a prisoner of war that he was bitten by the acting bug.
"They put on plays to kill time," said Rayner's daughter, Christina Miller.
"That was the first time he did any acting. And he loved it."After the war, he attended Holy Cross College for a year, then transferred to Fordham University, where he received a degree in philosophy. He later returned to school and received a master's in humanities from the University of Chicago in 1970.
After college, Rayner started his radio career on Long Island. He became news director for a Dayton radio station in 1949, and later took a job in Grand Rapids, Mich., as a disc jockey. He came to Chicago in 1953 and was hired as a staff announcer for the local CBS affiliate.His Chicago television debut came on a morning variety show, "Rayner Shine."
While at WBBM-Ch. 2, he hosted "The Ray Rayner Show," an afternoon dance party show; "The Little Show," a children's program; and "Popeye's Firehouse." He moved to WGN-TV in 1961, where he became a part of the lives of thousands of Chicago Baby Boomers.
He started out as Sgt. Henry Pettibone on "The Dick Tracy Show," where young viewers could watch the cartoon Tracy battle the likes of Pruneface and Flat Top. Several months later, he also joined "Bozo's Circus" as Oliver O. Oliver, the sidekick clown with the Kentucky accent who served as Bozo's foil.
In 1962, Rayner also became host of "Breakfast with Bugs Bunny," which was retitled "Ray Rayner and His Friends" two years later. At that point, he had three shows and some interesting friends.
There was Cuddly Dudley, a giant orange dog-voiced by Roy Brown, who later became Cooky the Clown on the show-who helped him answer mail. There was Dr. Lester Fisher, director of the Lincoln Park Zoo, who made weekly appearances to talk about animals. And there was Chelveston the Duck.
Named after Chelveston, England, where Rayner was stationed during the war, Chelveston may be best remembered for chasing Rayner around the studio, nipping at his heels. (Rayner later admitted to stashing duck feed in his pants cuffs so the duck would peck at his legs). Rayner inevitably would save himself by providing Chelveston with a head of lettuce, which the duck also would attack savagely.
The morning show featured Rayner in a jumpsuit covered with small pieces of paper-a 1960s version of Post-Its-on which he supposedly wrote things (they were actually blank) he needed to do, such as show a cartoon, visit Cuddly Dudley or work on a do-it-yourself project (most of which ended up as less than artistic successes).
"When he first started his show in the morning, I suggested we do ado-it-yourself segment," said Al Hall, longtime WGN producer and director.
"I gave him a rather simple project to do, which I figured would take about three minutes. It took 15. We were live-I was almost out of my mind. How could anybody be this uncoordinated? About two weeks later, I talked to the guy who used to be his producer at Channel 2, and he said, `Hey, you've got to have him do do-it-yourself projects.' I said, `Yeah, I know.'."
While he was most visible on television, Rayner also did other work during his Chicago days.
"He was a working actor," his daughter said. "He did voice-overs. He did commercials. He did industrials. He did, you name it. He was doingappearances. He did anything any actor in Chicago would do."
Rayner worked extensively at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Summit and the adjacent Forum Theatre, mainly in the 1970s. His major theatrical roles at the Forum and Candlelight included work in Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" and the lead role in "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum."
"Aside from his other accomplishments, Ray also was very much a creature of the stage," said Richard Christiansen, former chief critic of the Chicago Tribune.
"He had a zestful presence and a wonderful voice along with excellent comic timing. There was a sense of enjoyment in his work-you knew he was having a good time, and the audience was having a good time along with him."
"The Dick Tracy Show" ended in 1966, and Rayner moved to "Rocket toAdventure," another children's show, which lasted two years. He left "Bozo's Circus" in 1971, and continued his morning show until he retired from WGN in December 1980. He moved to Albuquerque, where he was soon back on the air, doing weather for the CBS affiliate until 1989.
After his first wife, Jeanne, died about seven years ago, he decided torelocate to Florida, his daughter said.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include his second wife, Marie; a son, Dr. Mark Rahner; and four grandchildren. Mass will be said Saturday in Ft. Myers.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times