A lot has been written about something that happened 50 years ago Monday — the Friendship 7 spaceflight that made John Glenn the first American to orbit the earth. This is about something that happened 50 years ago Sunday — my television debut.
In my mind, the two events will always be tied together. If my 10 or 15 seconds on camera hadn’t happened on Feb. 19, who knows when I might have gotten on? The way I remember it, the show I was on was pre-empted the rest of that week for news coverage about Mr. Glenn. And it was canceled later that year.
The show was “Bozo the Clown.” I was seven years old.
I think I tried to hijack the segment in which each child got his close-up. You were supposed to say your name and engage in a brief back-and-forth with Bozo, with the emphasis on brief. I was a talkative child. I think I just kept chattering away. No, of course I don’t remember what I said.
You will notice that I wrote “I think I said” a couple of times in the paragraph above, and “The way I remember it” in a sentence two paragraphs above that. I did that because memories, no matter how sharp they seem, are only so reliable. Careful reporter that I am, I can’t call my parents to fact-check scenes from my childhood — they’re gone now. So I tracked down Willard Scott, because he was there. He was Bozo.
He was no help, and all the help in the world.
“I don’t remember that,” he said.
Of course not. He chatted with thousands of children in the three years he did the “Bozo” show every afternoon. The Web site Kaptain Kidshow says that he had fans in high places: “Bozo” was Caroline Kennedy’s favorite program, and Mr. Scott went to the White House for her birthday one year. As Mr. Scott himself said, everyone knew Bozo. (In fact, at the time, there were local Bozo shows in cities across the country.)
“In the very beginning, I enjoyed it,” Mr. Scott said. “Later on, it got to be a thing I couldn’t handle. I almost had a nervous breakdown, between the show and the appearances. I’d go to schools and fairs. The most poignant thing I learned about that show, I said to the producer one day, ‘Look at some of these mothers, they beam, they’re so happy, but every once in a while I see one who’s almost cruel to their child, bossing them around.’ It was the first time I’d ever been aware there were people who didn’t love their kids.”
Being on “Bozo” was the first time I had been aware of what a television studio looked like: There were bright lights and bright colors that our black-and-white set delivered as so many shades of gray. Bozo’s hair was red! It matched his nose! And his nose matched the stripes in the background! The whole set seemed so big!
In fact, it was big. This was Studio A at Channel 4 in Washington, the studio in which NBC had officially switched to color telecasting in 1958, the studio from which one of the Kennedy-Nixon debates had originated in 1960 — “That’s when Nixon was sweating like a pig,” Mr. Scott said.
And when the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev appeared on “Meet the Press,” Mr. Scott said, a wire-service article mentioned that “Khrushchev was in the same studio where Bozo would swing on a rope every day.”
Bozo had swung on a rope? I had forgotten. He explained.
“I had a rope a few feet off camera range,” he said. “I’d put my foot in it and swing out.”
But the rope hurt his foot, he said, so one day a stagehand put a little plank at the bottom of the rope for him to step on.
“It didn’t hurt my foot, and it looked great on camera,” he said. “The only thing we didn’t allow for was when I jumped off, the rope came back and it damn near knocked me out. I mean, I saw stars. I could hear the producer, ‘What’s wrong with Willie?’ I was lying on the ground.”
Apparently that was not the only risk for a Bozo. There was the time a child landed a punch that sent him tumbling backward into a jug of liquid vitamins. That ruined the Bozo suit. And there was the time he did an appearance at a holiday party at Andrews Air Force Base.
“All the kids had gone,” he recalled, “and the sergeant said, ‘How would you like a little drink?’ I said, ‘I’d better not, I’m still in the Bozo suit.’ He said, ‘They’re gone.’ ”
Whiskey had been poured and consumed by the time a child appeared with a mother who was very apologetic for being very late. The child had his moment with Bozo, and afterward, the mother had a moment with Bozo too.
“Charlie,” she told Mr. Scott, laughing, “says you smell just like Daddy.”