Why Chicago will always love the man who brought Bozo to life

No, it turned out it wasn’t just childhood nostalgia or a middle-aged man’s faulty memory. Bob Bell really was as great as I’d remembered.

Watching Bozo’s Circus: The Lost Tape Sunday night evoked a flood of recollections about a show that defined growing up in Chicago for hundreds of thousands of us kids. And the legendary performer at the heart of everything was the peerless improvisational comedy actor who brought Bozo to life for nearly a quarter-century.

Seen publicly for the first time since it originally aired 41 years ago, the recently discovered and magnificently preserved episode of the WGN-Channel 9 production showed Bell in his prime. It was all there: The impeccable timing, the quick wit, the fearless showmanship, the warm-hearted interaction with children, and the occasional asides that only adults in the audience could appreciate. (When Roy Brown as Cooky takes out a cake covered with brown splotches, Bell as Bozo quips: “Looks like that could use a shot of penicillin!”)

What’s more amazing is that Bell and his castmates performed their corny vaudevillian sketches, waged pie fights, played games with the kids, marched around the studio, and made it seem like they were having nothing but fun live on television for an hour a day, five days a week, year after year, decade after decade. They treated every show as a special performance because it was special — for those in the studio audience and those at home.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Bozo's Circus was the hottest ticket in town, with a waiting list of 10 years in its heyday. Parents would reserve seats before their children were born. Many of those who were lucky enough to be in the audience can still recall what they were wearing and what they ate for breakfast on the day they skipped school to attend the show.

In real life, Bell was a dapper and soft-spoken father of four and staff announcer for the station who never exploited his alter ego’s immense fame for personal benefit. “I’ve always kept Bozo in the studio, where he belongs,” he once said. “A lot of outside appearances would cheapen the character. It has cost me money, but I think has paid off in the long run.”

Though no one was more responsible for the success of Bozo’s Circus than Bell, the show’s longevity amazed him as much as anyone.

“Around the office, we laughingly said of the original concept of having a circus with Bozo as the headliner, ‘Who knows? It might even last a year,’” Bell told me in a 1987 interview. “If something lasted 13 weeks or 26 or 39, you were lucky. It was nothing anyone ever hoped or even imagined would last as long as it did.

“It always felt right. I had a rule for myself: If I ever put on a bit of makeup, I tried to feel like that character until I took it off. So when I put on the clown face and looked in the mirror and had a clown voice, that’s the way I felt. So when I started out and went into the studio for the first time, there was no doubt about it: I was Bozo. It wasn’t a piece of acting; I tried to perform as I thought a clown would and the way the kids would conceive a clown.”

One of those kids, Oak Park native Dan Castellaneta, would pay homage to Bell’s gravelly delivery as Bozo when he created the voice of Krusty the Clown on The Simpsons.

Bell, who retired after 24 years as Bozo in 1984 and died in 1997 at age 75, didn’t live long enough to see how Tribune Broadcasting executives squandered the treasure he’d left them. They thoroughly mismanaged Chicago’s most beloved television institution and canceled the greatest children’s show in history after a 40-year run in 2001.

But thanks largely to Bell and the gifted performers who surrounded him, the show lives on as none other in the collective memory of generations of Chicagoans.

With little promotion and up against stiff competition, Sunday’s premiere of Bozo’s Circus: The Lost Tape drew a respectable 3.5 rating (which translates into more than 122,000 households). While that didn’t come close to winning the prime-time hour for WGN-Channel 9, it was the station’s highest rated program of the day.

Viewers will have another chance to catch the special, hosted by Dean Richards and written and produced by George Pappas, at noon Christmas Day on WGN-Channel 9 and WGN America. (It also will be seen in less pristine non-HD form at 7pm Saturday on WGN 9.2 Antenna TV, although not on AT&T U-verse, DirecTV or Dish Network.)


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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)