Larry Harmon was born Lawrence Weiss in Ohio, the older of two boys. His mom worked in an office, and his dad took anything he could find, from handyman to salesman. These humble beginnings were no match for Harmon’s vision and determination. When Bozo decided to run for political office, people thought he was just clowning around, but Harmon had a mission. Making people laugh and learn was no laughing matter.
As a young boy Harmon stuttered, and he knew he would have to overcome that to be successful. He figured he could help prepare himself for his destiny by imitating what he heard on the radio. Whenever his parents listened to a program, their ambitious son copied all the sounds and patterns of the voices, from speeches by President Roosevelt to opera.
THE BEAT OF A DIFFERENT DRUMMER Harmon had a keen ear, and he heard rhythm in everything. Beating on things was a natural outlet for a kid with rhythm. He started with the pots and pans, banging out patterns with spoons. When he was six he wanted a more sophisticated sound. His first drum set was made up of a wooden breadboard, a cast-iron skillet, a metal mixing bowl, and an empty coffee can. For drum sticks he upgraded to his mom’s butcher knives. For his safety, his parents finally gave him a pair of real drumsticks and lessons with the renowned Charley Wilcoxon.
In eighth grade Harmon was captivated by listening to the USC marching band perform during the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. The announcer described the drum major in his colorful uniform and commanding showmanship, and Harmon decided that he would be a drum major as soon he got into high school. Never mind that had never seen one and the position was always held by a senior.
Through annoying persistence, a trait that often served him well, Harmon convinced the high school band director to let him audition at band camp that summer. To earn the money to go to camp, Harmon, only 14 years old, talked his way into a job at the local dry cleaners. On the last day of camp, Harmon fell, tore a tendon and was in a cast for the audition. He made up for his immobility with a grandiose ending that got him the job, the only freshman in the history of the school to be drum major.
After a stint in the army Harmon had another dream come true. He was accepted to USC where he studied theater and became the drum major for the Trojan marching band. When he graduated he was ready for a career in entertainment and started using the stage name Larry Harmon. His first gig was as Commander Comet in a kid’s show on NBC. Television was still in its infancy, and Harmon not only played the spaceman, he also did the voices for six puppets, read the commercials and booked the guests, including pilot Chuck Yeager.
As busy as the actor was on his first show, he also needed a day job. During that time he worked as a private investigator, home decorator, manager of a wholesale brokerage company and, when his parents moved to California, he opened a jewelry store with his father. At night he played with a jazz combo.
SEND IN THE CLOWN In 1952 Harmon auditioned at Capitol Records to be one of the Bozo the Capitol Clowns in public appearances. He got the job and felt as comfortable in the oversized costume as in a favorite pair of jeans. For a few years he played Bozo and maintained his survival jobs until one night he had an epiphany. He envisioned transforming Bozo from just a clown to the World’s Most Famous Clown. In 1956, he negotiated buying the rights to the character at a time when the clown was losing his relevance for the direction Capitol was going.
Immediately Harmon revamped the character into its iconic image. He made him smart and energetic with the wisdom of an adult and the wonder of a child. He changed the voice and created a laugh that crescendoed with each syllable. He redesigned the costume, replacing the mop-like wig with a red wig made from yak hair and coated with Krylon. He traded in his shoes for a size 83AAA.
Once the new character was set, Harmon needed a TV show for him to appear in. It was too expensive to produce a program on a major network, so he decided to create a show for the local market airing in Los Angeles on KTLA. He added other characters and hired a different actor to play Bozo so he could concentrate on the production aspects. To round out the program, Harmon wanted cartoons to give Bozo the opportunity to do crazy things a live actor couldn’t. He borrowed money and opened a small animation studio.
It didn’t take long for Bozo to become a hit, and Harmon started stage two of his business plan. He franchised the show at local stations all around the country, allowing it to adapt to regional differences and giving the kids in each market the opportunity to participate in the audiences. Advertisers had the advantage of buying time on a show that catered to the customers in their area.
In 1959 Harmon started licensing the Bozo TV shows, and he traveled around the country to train hand-picked actors to play the character. Eventually, over 200 men in the US and other countries, including Thailand, Greece, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Australia, completed the rigorous training to learn the specifics of playing the world’s most famous clown. And, playing Bozo launched at least one show business career. In Washington, DC, Willard Scott wore the red wig and nose before becoming a celebrity weather man.
FINDING OPPORTUNITIES Harmon occasionally played Bozo himself, and he used his alter ego to educate children as well as entertain. This gave him the opportunity for some unique experiences, always in costume. He flew in the zero gravity aircraft that trains astronauts. He went scuba diving with Navy frogmen. He threw out the first pitch for a Cleveland Indian’s baseball game. He jumped out of a window while being chased by flames to demonstrate fire safety.
Much of Harmon’s success was because he refused to take “no” for an answer. Harmon persuaded an Australian bush pilot to drop the clown and a two-person film crew into the jungle of New Guinea so he could meet the cannibalistic aborigines and prove that laughter is a universal language. When he came face to face with the chief, Bozo tried to explain that he came in peace, but he was at a loss for words. After some tense moments, the two men discerned that they had something in common, an unusual headdress. Then Bozo broke the ice with a magic trick which led to spending two days making friends with people the rest of the world feared.
In 1984, Harmon was encouraged to use Bozo’s influence to get people to vote in the presidential election. To do this he declared himself a write-in candidate for President of the United States and hit the campaign trail. He had no delusions about winning, but some citizens feared his candidacy was more than symbolic. There were three serious attempts to kill him.
When Harmon was 60 years old he had a heart attack, the first in a long list of heart ailments. He continued working on the business aspects of his enterprise for over 20 years supported by his second wife Susan. On January 1,1996 Harmon became Bozo for the first time in a decade to appear in the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California.
In 2008 his heart gave out. But even though Harmon has passed on, the laughter and lessons from Bozo live forever.
QUESTION: What could you do if you refused to take “no” for an answer?
©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved
Harmon, Larry & McKenzie, Thomas Scott, The Man Behind the Nose: Assassins, Astronauts, Cannibals, and Other Stupendous Tales. New York: Igniter Books, 2010.