The Way It Was — Bozo the Clown

Take a closer look at this image of Bozo the Clown in 1961.
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Photograph courtesy of The Walter P. Reuther Library of Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

1961

From the early days of television in the ’50s through the ’70s, numerous children’s shows produced by Detroit stations and Windsor, Ontario’s CKLW had kids glued to the “idiot box” as they were entertained with cartoons and a colorful cast of in-studio hosts that included Soupy Sales, Milky the Clown, Sagebrush Shorty, Johnny Ginger, Captain Jolly, Poopdeck Paul, Ricky the Clown, Wixie the Pixie, and Sgt. Sacto.

However, none was more popular than Bozo the Clown, clad in his oversize shoes, bulbous red nose, bald pate, and spiked red hair.

From 1959 to 1967, Canadian native Bob McNea, a former circus clown who first appeared as Moppets the Clown in commercials for Schaeffer Bread, played Bozo (pictured here) on Bozo the Clown on WWJ-TV (now WDIV). The show was performed live on camera from 4 to 5 p.m. daily and two hours each on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

The Bozo character first appeared in 1946 on Capitol Records children’s albums before Larry Harmon was cast as the clown for in-person record promotions. Harmon’s ship came in when he later franchised the character to television stations around the world. More than 200 people performed as Bozo the Clown on numerous local TV outlets.

When asked in a 1967 Detroit Free Press interview if he minded that his fame lay as a clown and not as Bob McNea, the performer responded, “At times it’s the type of thing you think about — but I sure wouldn’t want to have to live with the clown outfit on all the time. It’s a relief to put street clothes on.”

When the show’s rights moved to CKLW in Windsor in 1967 and later to WJBK, former WKNR radio music director Art Cervi (who for a time doubled as the talent coordinator for the CKLW, Channel 9 dance show Swingin’ Time) played Bozo until 1980. Cervi passed away at age 86 in 2021.

After McNea lost his Bozo gig, he promptly reappeared on WWJ-TV as the self-created Oopsy Daisy, billed as Bozo’s cousin. Later, in 1979, McNea negotiated a deal and relocated the production of his show to CKCO-TV in Kitchener, Ontario, where he reprised the Oopsy the Clown show for another generation of children. He died in 2005 at age 76.


This story originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. To read more, pick up a copy of Hour Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on April 5. Plus, find even more The Way It Was articles at hourdetroit.com