Writer’s Workshop: Clowns! Weird? Yes! Creepy? Nah…

Yesterday for One-Liner Wednesday, I shared something my subconscious spat out during a dream that involved clowns and telephone wire. Naturally, there were a couple of people who wanted to know what I thought it meant, and my reply was “I dunno.” I think it’s one of those “cow tools” moments for which there are really no explanations. Birgit, who is a faithful reader of this blog and whose blog you really should be reading because it’s excellent, asked me “what’s your take on clowns?” Since one of Mama Kat’s prompts for today is “Write a blog post inspired by the word: creepy,” I thought answering Birgit’s question would be a good way to approach this.

Some people think clowns are creepy and are frightened by them. There’s a word for that, coulrophobia, “fear of clowns.” From what I understand, the American Psychological Association doesn’t list it as an official phobia, which doesn’t change the fact that some people think clowns are creepy and are frightened by them. If you are one so afflicted, you have my sympathy and if you’d rather not continue reading this, I understand.

I don’t think clowns are creepy. Perhaps this is because of my growing up in Chicago, the home of maybe the best-known of Larry Harmon’s Bozo The Clown franchises. It ran weekdays at noon on WGN-TV in Chicago, and we would run home to see it after we were let out of school for lunch. The stars of the show were Bob Bell, a WGN announcer, as Bozo, “the world’s most famous clown”; Don Sandburg, the producer of the show, as Sandy the Tramp (later Sandy the Sad-Faced clown); Ray Rayner, who hosted the morning cartoon show and a number of different after-school cartoon shows over the years, as Oliver O. Oliver, a clown from some small town in Kentucky; later, Ray Brown, who designed most of the sets for the various WGN shows and operated the puppets on several kids’ shows, as Cooky, a clown who was also the cook; and Marshall Brodein, a local magician, as Wizzo the Magician. Hosting this noontime orgy of clowning around was Ned Locke, a station announcer who had also starred in several Chicago kids’ shows, as Ringmaster Ned; after he retired, Frazier Thomas, host of Garfield Goose and Friends (an after-school kids’ show) and Family Classics (a movie that was suitable for everyone in the family), took over the circus. Music was provided by Bob Trendler, a holdover from the days when TV stations had orchestras, and his “Big Top Band.” Okay, it was a dumb show designed to show “Bozo The Clown” cartoons and sell lots of toys and sugary snacks. What about it?

Here, for your viewing pleasure, is an episode of Bozo’s Circus from 1968, when I was either in 6th or 7th grade and still running home to see it at lunchtime. Notice the “cast of thousands,” i.e. the audience. Bozo was the hottest ticket in Chicago. The waiting list was said to be over seven years, and parents would send in their ticket requests when they knew they were expecting. The video is almost an hour long, so I understand if you only watch part, or save it for later, or just take my word for it.

When I was growing up, we would spend a week or more at Assembly Park in Delavan, Wisconsin. As Wikipedia notes, “Between 1847 and 1894, Delavan was home to 26 circus companies.” I remember one year my Aunt Cash, who spent the week or so with us, bought us t-shirts declaring Delavan as “Home of the Circus,” and there was a big ol’ clown on the shirt. Didn’t scare us. At the same time, we felt like dorks walking around in them.

And of course there were clowns advertising things like breakfast cereal…

and straws…

And there are rodeo clowns, who prevent rough stock (bulls and broncos) from stomping the rider to death after they buck him off.

And there was Ken Feit. Ken was a Jesuit priest who was also a clown and who specialized in sound poetry: poetry written without words but with sounds. Example: this was the poem he wrote about a kid playing with a paddle ball:

thupa thupa thupa FIP! Bip bip bip bip bip buh.

He had another about an old lady, and all I remember was the sound of her smiling: rimpleeedab…

He wrote a book called Soundways for Loyola University Press. Fabulous Auntie Jill, working there at the time as a production person, helped him publish the book, and my freshman year English teacher, John Druska, illustrated it. I had a copy, which went missing, and I could kick myself, because it was a real classic.

So, you see, I like clowns. Yes, they’re goofy, but not creepy or anything.

Well, okay, there was John Gacy. He seemed like a nice guy who played a clown named “Pogo The Clown” and donated money to children’s charities, but secretly murdered at least 33 teenaged boys and buried them around and under his house. I remembered them digging the bodies out from his backyard and under his house. He was one of the first murderers executed by lethal injection in Illinois. And, yes, there’s It, the star of Stephen King’s book of the same name. I’m not a fan of Stephen King. And I’m sure a few of them become clowns to get close to young kids, if you know what I mean. But in general, I like ’em.

23 thoughts on “Writer’s Workshop: Clowns! Weird? Yes! Creepy? Nah…

  1. I’ve known several clowns through the years and some of them were kind of creepy while some were very cool people. My parents collected clown art and knick-knacks. Now I have several of those items packed away in boxes. Maybe eventually I will have a place to display them.

    It was neat to see the recording of The Bozo Show. When I lived in Merrillville, Indiana I used to watch the show when I wasn’t in school. My parents performed their juggling act on the show one time. Even though my sister and I were working in the act at the time, for some reason we weren’t allowed to be on the show. Not sure what the reasoning was. I’m glad your clip included a juggling act. I’d never heard of the guy, but he had a pretty good act. I guess he must not have associated with other jugglers or been a part of the International Jugglers Association since his name doesn’t ring a bell. On the other hand, Bob Smith is such a common name that maybe it just didn’t stick with me.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

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    1. By the way, have you seen Fellini’s film The Clowns? If you like clowns you might enjoy this film. It’s a weird one, but it is about clowns which is a weird subject. The premise is that it is a “documentary” about the death of the art of clowning. The film crew becomes clowns in their own right as the bumble through making the film. It’s high on my list of Fellini favorites.

      Arlee Bird
      Tossing It Out

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    2. There are probably thousands of Bob Smiths out there, and even more Jack Smiths. I wonder how many started as Schmidt and changed it during WWI or WWII?

      I was always surprised by the quality of the acts on Bozo. A lot of them were local to Chicago. The whole thing was a quality show. Those guys didn’t make one extra penny for doing that show, so it must have been a labor of love, and it was clear that they had a great time doing it. They all had other jobs at the station, too.

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  2. That story about John Gacy was creepy. We actually knew a guy who had the clown phobia. They terrified him. Also puppets, Marionettes, ventriloquist dummies—anything with the two lines on the sides of their mouths so they move to talk—totally freaked him out. I’m not sure, but I think he might’ve watch “It” when he was too young to have been doing so.

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  3. Hey! Thank you for the shout out…that is very nice of you. I was never bothered by clowns although that commercial with that clown at the beginning, reminds me of the freaky clown in the storm Drain in It. Try and figure out dreams can be justbrain melting..hahahaaaa. My friends say, “I had a Birgie dream”. Yes, my dreams can be very weird. I watched Uncle Bobby which came out of Toronto, we also watched Commander Tom which came out of Buffalo

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    1. Kids’ shows were great, even after I stopped being a kid. One of the big names in Chicago kids’ programming wrote a whole book about the shows. I read it and reminisce…

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  4. Clowns weren’t creepy when I grew up. Through the years, clowns have portrayed some creepy characters or vice versa. I watched some of Bozo’s Circus – times have definitely changed since then.

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    1. Now, half the kids in the audience would be playing with their phones. That was great entertainment for kids then. Did you notice the Cub Scouts in the audience? That was another thing we did before the electronic age…

      “Pagliacci” had some pretty creepy clowns in it, as I recall…

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  5. i loved Bozo, too. I recently told someone I don’t remember why, but in first grade I watched Bozo the clown every morning and then I went back to Janie and Cowboy Bob, and it kinda bothers me that I don’t know why. It was not coulrophobia, though.
    Yes, some clowns are creepy, but that’s because they’re people, and some people are creepy. I generally like clowns because generally their intent is to spread smiles and laughter — much needed in this world 🙂

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  6. I don’t think clowns are my kind of entertainment, but I can see how it would be an awesome tv show if you don’t have Netflix or something. 😉 I bet finding this stuff on YouTube is so nostalgic!

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    1. It was almost every Chicago kid’s dream to attend a taping of “Bozo’s Circus” and be a member of the “cast of thousands.”

      Yesterday afternoon, I needed a pick-me-up because I spent too much time on “current events,” so I watched a video from the day President Kennedy was assassinated (I was seven and the three of us were sick and watching “Bozo” when they broke in with the news). Watching it reminded me of what TV was like 50 years ago, and how simple and professional the coverage was. They didn’t have mobile units or flashy graphics; the guys in the field had to find a public phone and call in their reports. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDOojsg62O0

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