Larry Harmon, Who Popularized Bozo, Dies at 83
Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press
Larry Harmon, left, with one of the many Bozos, in 1995. Mr. Harmon licensed and trained more than 200 Bozos.
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: July 4, 2008
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Larry Harmon, who bought the rights to the character Bozo the Clown and turned him into a show business staple that delighted children for more than a half-century, died Thursday at his home here. He was 83.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said Jerry Digney, his publicist.
Although he was not the original Bozo, Mr. Harmon portrayed the clown in countless appearances and, as an entrepreneur, licensed the character to others, particularly dozens of television stations around the country. The stations in turn hired actors to be their local Bozos.
“You might say, in a way, I was cloning BTC,” he told The Associated Press in 1996, referring to Bozo the Clown, “before anybody else out there got around to cloning DNA.”
Pinto Colvig, who also provided the voice for Walt Disney’s Goofy, first portrayed Bozo the Clown when Capitol Records introduced a series of children’s records in 1946. The writer and producer Alan W. Livingston created the character.
Mr. Harmon later met the original Bozo while answering a casting call to make personal appearances as a clown to promote the records. He got that job and eventually bought the rights to Bozo. Along the way, he embellished the clown’s distinctive look: orange-tufted hair, a bulbous nose and an outlandish red, white and blue costume.
“I felt if I could plant my size 83AAA shoes on this planet,” he said, people “would never be able to forget those footprints.”
Susan Harmon, his wife of 29 years, said that Mr. Harmon “was the most optimistic man I ever met. He always saw a bright side; he always had something good to say about everybody.”
Besides his wife, Mr. Harmon is survived by his son, Jeff Harmon, and his daughters, Lori Harmon, Marci Breth-Carabet and Leslie Breth.
The business — combining animation, licensing of the character and personal appearances — made millions, as Mr. Harmon trained more than 200 Bozos over the years for local markets. The Chicago version of Bozo, portrayed for many years by Bob Bell, ran on WGN-TV for 40 years and was so popular that the waiting list for tickets to a TV show with him once stretched to a decade, prompting the station to suspend taking reservations. By the time the show ended in Chicago, in 2001, it was the last locally produced version.
Mr. Harmon became caught up in a minor controversy in 2004 when the International Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee took down a plaque honoring him as Bozo and formally cited Mr. Colvig with creating the role. Mr. Harmon denied ever misrepresenting Bozo’s history. He said he was claiming credit only for what he added to the character — “What I sound like, what I look like, what I walk like,” he said — and what he did to popularize Bozo.
Mr. Harmon protected Bozo’s reputation with a vengeance while embracing those who poked good-natured fun at the clown, whose influence spread through popular culture.
“It takes a lot of effort and energy to keep a character that old fresh so kids today still know about him and want to buy the products,” Karen Raugust, executive editor of The Licensing Letter, a trade publication, said in 1996. A normal character runs its course in three to five years, she said. “Harmon’s is a classic character. It’s been around 50 years.”
On New Year’s Day 1996, Mr. Harmon dressed up as Bozo for the first time in 10 years, appearing in the Rose Parade in Pasadena. The crowd’s reaction, he recalled, “was deafening.”
“They kept yelling, ‘Bozo, Bozo, love you, love you,’ ” he said.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, Mr. Harmon became interested in theater while studying at the University of Southern California.
“Bozo is a star, an entertainer, bigger than life,” Mr. Harmon once said. “People see him as Mr. Bozo, somebody you can relate to, touch and laugh with.”