(Above: The original Bozo’s Circus cast: Ringmaster Ned Locke, bandleader Bob Trendler, Bozo [Bob Bell], Oliver O. Oliver [Ray Rayner], Sandy [Don Sandburg].)
Don Sandburg, the last surviving original cast member of the Chicago edition of Bozo’s Circus, passed away over the weekend in Oregon as a result of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 87.
There were many versions of a Bozo the Clown show around the country, but Chicago’s was probably the most famous for a few reasons. It ran in some form from 1961 through to 2001. At its peak – through the 1960s and 1970s – it was produced five days a week, 52 weeks a year, pausing only for major holidays. It was seen nationally once WGN-TV became a superstation on cable. And, of course, it was the clown show that a young Dan Castellanaeta watched, imprinting an idea as to what a TV kids show clown should sound like. I’ve told students about the phenomenon that was Bozo’s Circus, and – when we had a TV history class at Grand Valley – showed them how it was a way that local television stations involved their communities as audiences and even participants. The show was so popular that couples, upon getting married, would apply to WGN for the free tickets to attend the show; that way, once the seven-year wait was realized, they would probably have kids to bring to the audience. (If you’ve never seen the Chicago edition, a full episode from 1968 exists – in color! – on the web.)
Don Sandburg started writing for a show at WGN called Breakfast with Bugs Bunny. This went on to be called Ray Rayner and Friends, and is one of the reasons that I wanted to be in broadcasting. The idea of a guy – Rayner – with a pleasant voice who informed you each morning who won the ballgames and how to dress for the weather? That seemed like a decent job to have. (Here’s most of an episode of Ray Rayner from May 1980 – when I was in sixth grade and playing radio in class.) Of course, it was on the Rayner show that Chicago kids got their fill of strange animated fare like Clutch Cargo (with his pals Spinner and Paddlefoot, of course) – a show that I’ve shown current students, scaring them in no small amount.
In addition to working on those shows Sandburg also went to work on Bozo’s Circus. He wrote and produced the show for TV and played Sandy the Tramp, the non-speaking clown in the circus cast. Sandburg, along with Bob Bell (the most famous Bozo) and WGN radio’s Wally Phillips, all came from Cincinnati, bringing what they had done there to Chicago’s airwaves.
In 1969 Sandburg was tapped to take over as producer for a Sid and Marty Krofft show – The Banana Splits Adventure Hour. Sandburg joined the show in its second and final season in 1969. The show was supposed to be like “Laugh-In for kids” in an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the rapid-fire bright visuals that gave NBC the #1 show in the country. (I simply remember the visuals of mascots fooling around at a Six Flags theme park.) The Kroffts had other ideas; one of the characters they introduced on the show, H.R. Pufnstuf, went on to get his own series. Sandburg went on to write for other kids’ shows, including The New Zoo Revue, which got a lot of airtime in my house as a kid. Sandburg also wrote for the animated version of Star Trek that ran in the 1970s. He did come back to Chicago periodically for the various Bozo reunions that took place over the years.
As much as I’d like to share the Bozo’s Circus theme as the song for the post, I probably shouldn’t, since a) it didn’t chart anywhere, and b) it will be in your head for days. I can turn to the charts, though, and dig up the theme from The Banana Splits Adventure Hour. “The Tra-La-La Song” made it to #96 in February of 1969. Perhaps the better version was included on a 90s compilation of cartoon themes – it was sung by Chicagoans Liz Phair and Material Issue.
Count the bananas. You can hear “The Tra La La Song” by clicking here.