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BOZO taking final bow in Chicago after 40 years

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CHICAGO (AP) _ Marie Graff didn't wait until the last minute to try to get tickets for her firstborn daughter to see Bozo the Clown's television show in Chicago.

``She sent away in December of 1967,'' said the daughter, Martha Wagner. ``And I was born in August of 1968.''

Their turn came, 10 years later.

By then, the Graffs had moved to Des Moines. So they climbed into the car and fought through a blizzard to make it to Chicago's WGN-TV studios.

To those who grew up in the Chicago area, such devotion to Bozo, Ringmaster Ned, Cookie, Oliver O. Oliver and Sandy the Tramp was a way of life.

Now after four decades, 9,500 shows and who knows how many cream pies in the face, it's just about over.

Only one taping remains of a show that was an institution in Chicago and _ because of WGN's reach as a cable ``superstation'' _ was seen by more kids around the United States than any of the 180 or so locally produced Bozo shows that have already died.

On Tuesday, the cast and others will gather for a 40th anniversary show that will air in July. In August, WGN will air for the last time ``The Bozo Super Sunday Show,'' the latest version of a series that once ran five days a week.

The show was telecast to more than 50 million homes. Nowhere, though, was the clown with the size 184 1/2 shoes any bigger than in Chicago.

``I've talked to everybody, from bus drivers to bank presidents, and they all have the same story of running home from school and eating their lunch in front of that show,'' said Joey D'Auria, who has played Bozo since 1984. ``Bozo belonged to Chicagoans.

``Chicagoans cling to things they deem uniquely Chicago and are fiercely loyal to those things,'' he explained.

Bozo was so popular that the waiting list for tickets eventually stretched to a decade, prompting WGN to stop taking reservations for 10 years. On the day in 1990 when the station started taking reservations again, it took just five hours to book the show for five more years. The phone company reported more than 27 million phone call attempts had been made, peaking at 120,000 a minute.

The reasons for the show's success begin with what it wasn't.

``With Bozo there wasn't any pretense of education,'' said Randy Shaw, a 38-year-old research coordinator who grew up in the Chicago suburbs watching the show and took his own son years later.

``Nobody was tuning in to Bozo to see clowns tour a museum or read a book, any more than they were watching Mr. Rogers to see him get a pie in the face,'' said Jim Engel, who grew up watching the show and is now the curator of an exhibit on children's television at Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications.

Instead, it was a fast-paced variety show of sketches, circus and vaudeville acts, chimps, seals and a 13-piece band. It had a cast that stayed the same for years _ giving kids time to see Bozo and his cohorts as friends. In 40 years, for example, only two men wore the Bozo face paint and bright red hair _ made from yak hair, by the way.

Then there was the Grand Prize Game, in which kids tried to toss pingpong balls into a line of six buckets.

It added up to something for everyone, including the guys who watched with more than a passing interest from their barstools in local taverns.

``I remember one kid missed bucket four and I let him go again,'' said Allen Hall, who directed the show for several years. ``I got all these outraged phone calls and then it dawned on me that I ruined the bet.''

But the show was changing. The Big Top Band, once 13 members strong, was whittled down to three members in 1975 and reduced to a synthesizer a dozen years after that. In 1994, after years of appearing Monday through Friday, Bozo was sent packing to that purgatory of television _ early Sunday morning.

Three years later, WGN decided Bozo would help meet a requirement to provide educational children's programming.

``They started exercising, going to museums. Bozo read to kids,'' Engel said.

In 1999, ``Bozo's Big Top'' ended its 33-year run in Grand Rapids, Mich., leaving Chicago's version the last locally produced Bozo show.

When WGN lowered the boom in March, general manager and vice president John Vitanovec said it was necessary because the audience was continuing to decline.

Even D'Auria conceded that the time may be right to hang up the floppy shoes.

``Bozo these days is kind of a dinosaur,'' he said.


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