CHICAGO — When the new medium of television was taking hold, kids in the Chicago area lucky enough to have a set got their first tastes of shows made “just for them” on WGN.
The very first children’s host was singer and radio personality Richard “Two Ton” Baker, whose “Wonder House” puppet show debuted on the second day of broadcasting.
In the late 1950s, there was the Peabody Award-winning “The Blue Fairy” with Brigid Bazlen, who would fly around WGN’s Michigan Avenue studios on wires, connecting with the imaginations of kids who would flock to public appearances.
“Lunchtime Little Theater” introduced Ned Locke to WGN-TV’s young audience in 1956 as “Uncle Ned,” with Ted Ziegler as Uncle Bucky, Dardanelle Hadley as Aunt Dodie and, later, Bob Baron as “Uncle Bob.”
In 1960, Ned moved on to “Paddleboat” as Skipper Ned. He’d later take on a different role on WGN’s most famous kids’ show.
Other early shows included “Romper Room” with games and activities, and a special acknowledgement to kids watching through the “Magic Mirror.”
There was the educational show “Ding Dong School” with Frances Horwich that moved to WGN in 1957.
“Treetop House” was another Peabody Award-winning series, where they told stories, sang songs and did craft projects.
And from 1963-1965, there was “The Mulqueens” puppet show with Elaine Mulqueen and her puppeteer husband, Jack Mulqueen.
But the most famous of all of the puppet shows on WGN featured a goose who thought he was king of the United States.
“Garfield Goose and Friends” moved to WGN in 1955 with host Frazier Thomas and the puppets: Gar, Romberg Rabbit, Macintosh Mouse, Chris Goose and Beauregard Burnside III.
They all transitioned to “Bozo’s Circus” when Ringmaster Ned Locke retired from television in 1976.
The puppets remained on the Bozo show until 1981. Thomas continued, while also hosting the long-running movie showcase “Family Classics” until his passing in 1985.
In 1973, another beloved Chicago puppet show, “The BJ & Dirty Dragon Show,” featuring artist and puppeteer Bill Jackson, moved to WGN.
Cartoons have always been a big part of WGN’s children’s programming. “Breakfast with Bugs Bunny” was an early morning offering for the kids, hosted by Dick Coughlan.
In 1962, Ray Rayner replaced Coughlan and two years later, the show was renamed “Ray Rayner and His Friends.”
For 18 years, with his signature jumpsuit and notes attached all over to remind him what to do next, he’d show cartoons, do his best with arts & crafts projects, tell jokes with a funny friend named Cuddly Dudley and deliver traffic, weather and sports reports for the grown-ups.
He’d sing songs, visit Lincoln Park Zoo with Dr. Lester Fisher and play with a feisty duck named Chelveston.
Rayner also was Sgt. Henry Pettibone in the afternoon on the “Dick Tracy” show from 1961-1966 and then, an astronaut on “Rocket to Adventure.” And for nearly 10 years, he played a big part in the success of “Bozo’s Circus.”
The first live WGN Bozo show was on June 20, 1960, but as a half-hour show with only one performer.
Staff announcer and character actor Bob Bell played Bozo, performing comedy bits and introducing the Bozo cartoons, weekdays at noon.
He’d also play the feisty custodian of the imaginary Odeon Theater, where he’d show “The Three Stooges” and other classic comedy film shorts.
In January 1961, the “Bozo” show was placed on hiatus to accommodate the station’s massive move from 441 N. Michigan Avenue to its new broadcast center at 2501 W. Bradley Place. And on September 11th of that year, the show that would become the most popular and successful locally produced kids’ show in the history of television, was relaunched as “Bozo’s Circus” in its new studio.
It expanded to a full-hour live show but on the first day, it was without Bozo. It wasn’t until the next day that Bob Bell would make his return as the character for which he’d always be remembered.
The cast included Ned Locke as Ringmaster Ned, musical director Bob Trendler leading the WGN Orchestra as the “Big Top Band,” and Ray Rayner as Bozo’s main foil, Oliver O. Oliver.
In the weeks that followed, writer Don Sandburg, who started making weekly appearances as Sandy, a character inspired by Harpo Marx, took over as the show’s producer.
WGN’s “Bozo’s Circus” became a smash hit with a waiting list for tickets that grew into years to be in the 200-plus member studio audience.
Later cast members also included Roy Brown as Cooky the kooky circus cook, Marshall Brodien as Wizzo the wacky wizard and Frazier Thomas as the circus manager.
In 1978, the show’s viewership began to spread throughout the U.S. and beyond as WGN became available to cable and satellite providers as a superstation.
The amazing chemistry of this cast was surrounded by funny skits, circus acts, cartoons and games for the studio audience.
But no game was more popular than the simple bucket game created by the actor who played the mute clown, Sandy, then-producer Don Sandburg. The Grand Prize Game became a favorite as kids in the studio audience hoped to be picked by the “tips and tips only” of the Magic Arrows.
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In 1980, “Bozo’s Circus” was renamed “The Bozo Show” and moved to weekday mornings, recorded. In 1984, with the show still #1 in its timeslot, Bob Bell announced his retirement as Bozo.
With Bell stepping out of the spotlight as Chicago’s favorite clown, the search for a new Bozo began and after a nationwide search, Los Angeles-based actor Joey D’Auria was chosen to step into the giant shoes.
In 1994, the show was moved to Sunday mornings as “The Bozo Super Sunday Show” with D’Auria as Bozo, musical director Andy Mitran as Professor Andy and new cast members, Robin Eurich as Rusty the Handyman, Michele Gregory as Tunia and Cathy Schenkelberg as Pepper; later adding “educational and informational” elements to the show as per a 1997 Federal Communications Commission mandate to the industry.
The final Bozo show, a prime-time special titled “Bozo: 40 Years of Fun!” aired on July 14, 2001, with a musical performance by Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corgan.
On December 24, 2005, Bozo returned to WGN-TV’s airwaves in a two-hour WGN News retrospective, “Bozo, Gar and Ray: WGNTV Classics.” The prime-time premiere was #1 in the Chicago market.
Additional two-hour specials, “Bozo’s Circus: The 1960s” and “Bozo’s Circus: The 1970s” followed. All three specials continue to be broadcast and livestreamed annually.
And all of these years later, Bozo remains a crowd favorite, appearing on the WGN-TV float at Chicago’s biggest parades.
In the 75-year history of Chicago’s Very Own WGN Television, kids’ programming, led by Bozo, has been a Grand March of fun!