Thursday, July 3, 2008

Larry Harmon, Long Time Bozo the Clown, Passes On

Larry Harmon, who took Bozo the Clown and turned him into a licensing phenomenon, died from congestive heart failure. He was 83 years old.

Larry Harmon was born in Toledo, Ohio in 1925. It was while he was studying at the University of Southern California that he became interested in theatre. He went into acting, with little success. He appeared in an uncredited parts in Too Young to Kiss in 1951 and Invitation and Because You're Mine, both in 1952. In 1952 he bought the robot Gort from the classic When the Earth Stood Still, with the intent of using the prop in a pilot called General Universe. The pilot was never made, although Harmon found himself hosting a space oriented children's show called Commander Comet on KNBC in Los Angeles (he did use Gort on that show).

While Larry Harmon long played Bozo the Clown and was responsible for making the character famous, he was not the clown's creator. Bozo was created in 1946 at Capitol Records by producer Alan Livingston. Livingston developed the idea of a record which would come with a book. Children could read the book as the record played. It would essentially be the first "read along" book and record. The narrator of the record was Bozo the Clown. As the voice of Bozo Livingston hired Pinto Colvig, the voice of Goofy and other voices for Disney, as well as being an animator at the studio. The success of the read along book, Bozo at the Circus, was such that Capitol would make even more read along books, fifteen of them featuring Bozo. It was in 1949 on KTLA that Bozo made his television debut in Bozo's Circus, with Pinto Colvig playing the role. The series lasted a year. A syndicated version, released a year later, lasted but briefly as well. Dell Comics would even release a Bozo the Clown comic book in 1950. He would get a regular, quarterly title in 1951, which would last until 1954.

Bozo's popularity naturally created demand for personal appearances by the clown. To keep up with that demand, Alan Livingston then hired several actors in different cities to portray the clown. Among them was young, struggling actor Larry Harmon. Harmon immediately recogised the marketing potential of the character of Bozo. It was in 1956 that Larry Harmon and a group of investors bought the rights to the character (he would not get the rights to Capitol Record's recordings until 1971). It was Harmon who came up with the revolutionary idea of franchising the character to television stations across the United States. Eventually, many cities across the country would have their own Bozo the Clown. Future Today weatherman (and also the first man to play Ronald McDonald) Willard Scott was the Bozo for Washington D.C. Bob Bell was the long running Bozo at WGN in Chicago (actor Dan Castellaneta credits Bell's Bozo as the inspiration for the voice of Krusty the Clown on The Simpsons.

Larry Harmon would not stop with simply licensing Bozo to many stations across the U.S. He also produced a series of cartoon shorts for television under the title Bozo, the World's Most Famous Clown, in 1958, 1959, and 1962. Harmon would also produce a nationally syndicated show, Bozo's Big Top, with Frank Avruch as Bozo, from 1965 to 1967.

Larry Harmons' empire would not end with Bozo. He bought the rights to the likenesses of comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in 1961,.With Laurel's blessing, Harmon's intent was not only to make Laurel and Hardy cartoons, but to also sell Laurel and Hardy merchandise. In 1966, with Hanna-Barbera, Harmon produced a series of Laurel and Hardy cartoons for television. His animated versions of Laurel and Hardy would later guest star on The New Scooby-Doo Movies in the Seventies. He would also produce a live action, direct to video movie, The All New Adventures of Laurel and Hardy in For Love or Mummy in 1999.

Harmon was also responsible for many of the Popeye cartoons of the Sixties. From 1960 to 1962, Larry Harmon Studios was among the studios hired by King Features Syndicate to produce the 220 new Popeye cartoons. Larry Harmon Studios would also work on The Dick Tracy Show and Mister Magoo cartoons made specifically for television for UPA in 1960. He would also be the announcer in the English dubbed versions of the Tintin cartoons and animated feature films released here from 1959 to 1962. Larry Harmon Studios would produce one live action, TV movie, It's Good to Be Alive (based on the life of Brooklyn Dodger Roy Campanella).

Although Larry Harmon did not create Bozo, as he sometimes claimed, he was certainly responsible for making the character popular. Had Harmon not bought the rights to Bozo and franchised the character across the United States (something previously done with the show Romper Room), it was quite possible that the character may have been forgotten by the Fifties. As it was, WGN's version of the show lasted until 2001. Versions in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Philadelphia lasted nearly as long--circa 1993 and 1999 respectively. The character would appear in scores of merchandise, as well as 163 animated shorts. And while Harmon hardly created Laurel and Hardy, he was responsible for creating new, official Laurel and Hardy merchandise for the team's new audience of fans raised on their classic shorts rerun on television. Harmon may never have become an actor as he originally wanted to be, but he was very successful as a merchandiser.

1 comment:

Bobby D. said...

I had a bozo doll that talked. he said:
Hi! it's your old pal, Bozo
Heehee hahahahaha

and I forget what else.

he got damp and never talked right after that.