Tears for a Clown

Bozo is dead! Long live Bozo!

LOS ANGELES (AP) … Larry Harmon, who turned the character Bozo the Clown into a show business staple that delighted children for more than a half-century, died Thursday of congestive heart failure. He was 83. His publicist, Jerry Digney, told The Associated Press he died at his home. Although not the original Bozo, Harmon portrayed the popular frizzy-haired clown in countless appearances and, as an entrepreneur, he licensed the character to others, particularly dozens of TV stations around the country. The stations in turn hired actors to be their local Bozos.

Bozo the Clown, aka Larry Harmon
Bozo the Clown, aka Larry Harmon

When my sister Debbie and I were kids, our mother and father took us to a circus at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, New York. My father’s brother, Uncle John, was a musician and was in the orchestra hired to play at that circus, which featured a special guest appearance by Bozo the Clown. Because we had connections, little Debbie and little Nicky actually got to meet Bozo!

Here’s a link to a snopes.com piece on the legendary and perhaps apocryphal story about the time a kid supposedly cursed out Bozo during a live broadcast of his TV show:


And finally, in honor of the late great Bozo, here’s my short story called “Tears for a Clown,” based on a chapter in my novel Gloryville.



By Nicholas DiGiovanni

This clown –- his clown name was Bongo, don’t ask me why, and I never learned his real name –- was with a small traveling circus that had pitched its tents in a field outside of Troy, New York. It’s important to note that the circus’s two performances were scheduled at night and that clowns are not paid a lot of money. That information goes a long way toward explaining how and why Bongo walked into a First National Bank of Troy at about 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, just as the bank was closing, pointed a gun at the teller, and announced he was robbing the bank. Bongo escaped with two thousand dollars.

But the bank’s cameras got a good shot of Bongo, who was wearing the same face paint and the same polka-dotted costume that he then wore for that evening’s circus performances in the recently mown hayfield field outside of Troy.

The police chief for the city of Troy, a smart fellow named Roy McCoy (who liked to answer the phone at headquarters this way: “Troy. Roy McCoy. Mrs. McCoy’s boy at your service!’’), responded to the crime scene, interviewed the teller and other witnesses, looked at the security video, filled out the necessary paperwork and telexed an APB to his colleagues in the surrounding towns, then took his young daughter, who was named Joy, to see the circus.

Sure enough, Bongo made his appearance at the circus that night, wearing the same clown makeup and the same clown costume, and Roy McCoy the police chief of Troy ran right out into the center ring of the three rings, right in the middle of the performance, and shouted: “Up with your hands, clown! You’re under arrest!’’

Bongo pulled out a gun, and Chief McCoy pulled out his gun and fired, and Bongo was shot dead right in front of all those kids at the circus, and not until later did the authorities realize that Bongo’s gun wasn’t a real gun: when they pulled the trigger to test-fire it, a flag popped out of the barrel, and printed on the flag was the word “BANG.’’

This was, of course, the famous trial in which the attorney for the circus stunned the legal world by winning a manslaughter conviction against Chief Roy McCoy, using the now-famous “clowning around’’ argument to prosecute his case and convince the jury that Chief Roy McCoy should have known that Bongo’s gun was not a real gun and that the “BANG!’’ flag would pop out of the gun’s barrel, just as everyone knows that when a pretty girl in a short skirt walks past a construction site the cavemen construction workers will all shout “HUBBA HUBBA!” Or “YABBA DABBA DO!’’

As we all know from the acclaimed made-for-TV docu-drama, Chief Roy McCoy’s daughter Joy was traumatized forever, American jurisprudence was thoroughly transformed, and Chief Roy McCoy himself was totally unrepentant and told anyone within earshot, to his dying day, even in his deathbed interview with Barbara Walters: “If I had it to do all over again, I’d still shoot the damned clown.’’

What the TV documentary did not delve into at all was Bongo’s clowns-only funeral, which I managed to sneak into only because I forked out $87 at a costume shop in Utica and bought an authentic clown costume with polka-dot pants and a brightly striped shirt with puffy red sleeves and a porkpie hat with an artificial petunia (which squirted water when I squeezed a bulb in my pocket), and then went to a theatrical supply store in Amsterdam where I bought a bright red nose and a curly red wig and white-and-black greasepaint.

I got to the funeral parlor a few minutes late, and I couldn’t find a seat –- there had to be a hundred clowns there, maybe more, everyone of them with sad expressions painted on their faces, and each one blowing his or her nose loudly, and in unison, into magical, never-ending hankies that they pulled out of their baggy sleeves.

Bongo wasn’t in a coffin. He was sitting up (I later learned that this was accomplished through extensive use of quick-drying rubber cement, strategically placed steel rods, and thin, nearly invisible wires) in a chair, his face fixed in a tight sardonic smile.

Instead of organ music there was a calliope playing, alternating between “Ave Maria’’ and “Tears of a Clown,’’ softly in the background.

Instead of a minister, the circus ringmaster led the service, reading a simple prayer, which he called The Clown’s Prayer:

When my life comes to a stop

When there is no more Big Top

No one in Heaven will wear a frown

God’s tent always needs a clown

Smell of the greasepaint

Roar of the crowd

In that Big Top called heaven

Clowns get their own cloud

As the ringmaster read The Clown’s Prayer, the weeping got louder, and the nose-blowing by the mourning clowns got louder and louder, and the calliope now played a slowed down, dirge-like version of “My Way.’’ The clowns all joined in to sing the verse about the end now being near and facing the final curtain, and so on.

They then walked up to Bongo in a slow and solemn procession, and each one reached into a big baggy pocket, pulled out a bottle of seltzer water, and gave Bongo one last farewell squirt -– right in the kisser!

The clowns returned to the seats, and each one remained standing in front of their chair until all had returned to their places.

Then one of the clowns must have given a signal -– I didn’t see the signal, but there had to be some kind of hand gesture or something, because the timing was perfect. The clowns sat down simultaneously -– on memorial whoopee cushions, made of black rubber instead of the usual pink, which I hadn’t seen before and which must have been stashed under their chairs -– and then all shook hands while wearing joy-buzzers tuned for the occasion to a minor key.

With that the clowns filed out of the funeral home, where hundreds of children were gathered outside, also mourning Bongo. The clowns made their sad little faces smile again. They twisted skinny balloons into animal shapes and handed them to the kids, and tossed candy into the crowd, and did cartwheels and somersaults, and paraded (some of them walking on stilts) down the main street to the railway station, where they boarded a chartered train.

The only untoward incident reported in the local papers the next morning involved a female clown named Bingo, who was Bongo’s wife, who ran up to a cop and hit him over the head with a foam-rubber mallet and screamed out “Bongo! Bongo! Bongo!’’ until she was dragged away and onto the circus train by two fellow performers: Albert the Albany Adonis (“So handsome he can’t go out in broad daylight, lest women swoon in the streets!) and Sam’s Son (“Strongest son of the strongest man in the world! Even stronger than his dad!). Bongo’s wife was comforted by Louella the Bearded Lady, who used her thick and luxurious whiskers to wipe away the widow Bingo’s tears.