Sometimes it Pays to Be a Real Clown. Just Ask Bozo : Television: Larry Harmon’s been keeping the legacy going for 50 or so years. And he’s not ready to stop.


In 1947, USC freshman Larry Harmon appeared in his first Tournament of Roses, performing as a drum major in the Trojan marching band. Crowds applauded then, but when Harmon makes his second Rose Parade appearance on Monday, he hopes that people call him a Bozo.

“Imagine,” Harmon says, his eyes lighting up. “A million people lined down Colorado Boulevard, screaming, ‘Bozo! Bozo!’ ”

For Harmon, that’s no insult; he is Bozo--originator of the television clown that supports a merchandising empire Harmon runs from his Hollywood office. On New Year’s Day, he will ride atop a discount store’s float aptly titled “Clowning Around.”


Harmon, 70, hasn’t worn the flaming red wig, greasepaint and size 83AAA shoes for the last decade. But with 1996 the 50th anniversary of Bozo--give or take a few years, as Harmon’s production company also declared a 50th anniversary celebration in 1988--the world’s most heavily promoted clown thought it an apt time to reintroduce himself to the world and to reflect on a memorable Hollywood career.

“One day,” Harmon says with uncharacteristic solemnity, “my time will come to go up to that circus in the sky.” Before that happens, he wants to write the story he someday hopes to publish as “The Man Behind the Nose.”

Over the years, Harmon generated some 50,000 hours of local children’s television and produced 156 Bozo cartoons. As Bozo, he entertained French President Charles de Gaulle, launched public service campaigns for presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and helped raise funds for UNICEF in the year the children’s organization won the Nobel Peace Prize.

And Harmon made certain his legacy will last, having trained 203 others to play the Bozo character exactly as he does, replicating his franchise much as McDonald’s or Burger King do theirs.

“Nobody in the history of mankind has been able to duplicate himself ad infinitum, in perpetuity,” Harmon says. “People come and go. Muhammad, Jesus, the great leaders of all the great religions have come and gone; the great people in the theater--Lionel Barrymore, John Barrymore, Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante, Clark Gable--they’ve come and gone. The baseball heroes--Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig--they’ve come and gone.”

Bozo, however, “walks, talks, looks, thinks, sees, laughs and is the replica of what I started out with 50 years ago. And, the good Lord providing, 50 years or a 100 years from now, there will still be a Bozo to say, ‘Howdy, this is your old pal Bozo. Just keep laughing! Yee-haw-haw-haw!’ I started something that nobody ever thought of: I cloned myself,” he says proudly.


The Toledo-born Harmon says his destiny was clear even in his infancy. When he was but 3 months old, his mother noticed that instead of crying, the baby Larry laughed. She took him to the doctor, who told her, “You ought to bless the day he was born. . . . Someday, that laughter will be turned into something special.”

Harmon soon showed an affinity for show business, easily mimicking the sounds of birds and animals, learning the drums from the Cleveland musician who taught Lionel Hampton and Buddy Rich and putting together a band to play for local colleges.

Harmon’s idol was Al Jolson, who starred in the first picture he ever saw, 1927’s “The Jazz Singer.” His teenage dream, however, was to become a gynecologist.

“To me,” he explained, “when God created woman, it was the greatest gift in the world. And my mother, of course, was the symbol of all that. She was brilliant, beautiful, she backed me all the way. She was everything a mother and a friend could be, and that was why I wanted to become a gynecologist.”

Drafted in the Army during World War II, Harmon performed in shows for his fellow servicemen. It was in one of those revues that he met his hero, Jolson, who pulled Harmon aside to ask what the young soldier planned to do after the war. The great singer seemed puzzled when he learned that Harmon aspired to gynecology.

A year later, their paths crossed again at a military show. Harmon, an expert impressionist who instinctively slips into the voices of most celebrities he quotes, adopted Jolson’s distinctive timbre as he remembers what the entertainer told him:


“You were 10 times as good as you were last time. You listen to old Jolie: Instead of you being a doctor of medicine, you should be a doctor of laughter.”

Sitting in his office, a Bozo watch on his wrist, his office cluttered with Bozo toys, clocks, posters and coffee mugs, Harmon says the moment was an epiphany. “Here,” he says, “was the pivot point of my whole life.”

There may have been more than one such pivot point, however. In a 1992 Chicago Sun-Times interview, Harmon attributed a similar remark not to Jolson but to Milton Berle.

In any event, Harmon recalled attending USC, learning drama from Cecil B. DeMille’s brother, William, doing voices for the Gene Autry, Jack Benny and Red Skelton radio shows and helping put together musical numbers for Betty Hutton in “Annie Get Your Gun.” He played a bugler in John Huston’s “The Red Badge of Courage” and was one of television’s first spacemen, starring as NBC’s “Commander Comet.”

Talented as Harmon might have been, however, Bozo wasn’t his brainchild. The character was hatched by Capitol Records for a series of children’s story albums. Originally, Bozo was played by Pinto Colvig, who also was the voice of Walt Disney’s Goofy. When the record company announced auditions for someone else to play Bozo at live appearances, Harmon immediately signed up.

The site, Harmon believed, was auspicious; auditions were held at the same Warner Bros. lot where Jolson had made “The Jazz Singer” a quarter of a century before.


Soon, Harmon was Bozo on KTLA, where he recognized the character’s commercial possibilities. He bought the rights to Bozo from Capitol and began building his empire. The first franchised Bozo, Harmon notes with pride, was Willard Scott, the weatherman for NBC’s “Today,” who donned the yak-hair wig for a Washington, D.C., channel.

Eventually, there were Bozos in every television market in America, introducing stock characters and the inexpensively made limited cartoons that Harmon produced in Hollywood.

Not every child loved the character. “Those of us who grew up in the late 1950s had to endure Larry Harmon or his franchised Bozos in other cities in order to get our required diet of cartoons,” complained a National Public Radio listener after hearing an interview with Harmon. “He has, for us, no other redeeming social value.”

Nonetheless, the character endured, and Bozo shows remain on the air in Providence, R.I., and, most important, on the Chicago superstation WGN-TV, which just renewed for five more years the program it has carried--with its own Bozos--since 1959. To this day, people wait years for tickets, and parents have been known to sign up kids even before they are born.

The clown has had an influence in the political world as well. Harmon ran for president against Ronald Reagan in 1984, under the campaign slogan, “Put the real Bozo in the White House.” In 1992, President George Bush referred to his opponents, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, as “two bozos,” prompting Clinton to reply, “All I can say is Bozo makes people laugh, and Bush makes people cry.” Harmon thanked Clinton for defending Bozo and has received Christmas cards from the White House ever since.

Merchandising of the character continues unabated, and Harmon has managed to profit from both sides of the street--he was behind the “No Bozos” fad of a few years ago, which saw the clown’s face prohibited with a red line.


Along with his Bozo business, Harmon manages the commercial life of some other famous clowns, Laurel and Hardy. In the early 1960s, Harmon bought the rights to the characters from Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s widow and proceeded to merchandise their images throughout the world. This year, Harmon announced plans to produce a “new” Laurel and Hardy movie and began auditioning actors to replace the original duo.

His main enterprise, however, remains Bozo. And if Harmon has his way, Bozo will be expanding onto the big screen as well.

“If just half the people who grew up with me went to see the picture, you’ve got yourself a $100-million box-office picture, domestic. Probably 85[%] or 90% of America has grown up with me or is growing up with me, and they’re sitting right there like plums!” he gushes.

Ideally, Harmon says, Robin Williams would star as Bozo in a spoof of Arnold Schwarzenegger-type action pictures, with Harmon himself playing Papa Bozo. Williams, Harmon confides, is a great Bozo fan, and he says others include entertainers Whoopi Goldberg and Dana Carvey.

Still, there are some things that cause the clown to frown. One is perhaps the best-known television clown of the 1990s, the animated Krusty the Clown who appears on “The Simpsons.”

Krusty, who looks uncomfortably like Bozo and who hosts a fictitious children’s program remarkably similar to Bozo’s, is portrayed on “The Simpsons” as a shameless, cynical huckster who drinks, smokes and gambles when he’s off the air.


“Let him get his own act,” Harmon grumbles. “He has a lot of crust taking off on Bozo.”

Moreover, Harmon says, Krusty’s less than appealing personality has led people to question Harmon’s own character.

“People keep asking me, ‘Are you like that offstage?’ No, I’m not like that! Does Krusty like kids? I don’t think so. I’m the opposite of that! I’m a warm, pleasant, delightful, energetic person who loves the world and loves people and is full of love and laughter,” Harmon insists.

And although presidents from Kennedy to Clinton have praised Bozo’s contributions to society, Harmon bristles at the cold shoulder he’s received in his hometown.

“I brought Hollywood to the world and the world to Hollywood,” he says. “I’ve been here 50 years, I’ve been the staunchest supporter of Hollywood, I’m probably known by more people in the world than almost anybody else as a personality, I’ve raised millions and millions of dollars for charities, and you know, they haven’t given me, and nor can I get, a star on Hollywood Boulevard!”

Still, Harmon considers himself a lucky man.

“Life was good to me. I gave love and laughter to the world, and they let me stay there for 50 years.” Harmon says that his Tournament of Roses appearance “will let me say hello to all my friends around the world. Jan. 1 will be the first day of my next 50 years.”

* “The Tournament of Roses” parade begins in Pasadena at 8 a.m. and airs on KCBS, KNBC, KTLA KABC and KMEX. For a look at the Bozo float on the World Wide Web, see