Bruce Johnson

Charlie The Juggling Clown

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Bob Keeshan

by: Bruce Johnson

After serving in the marines during World War II, Bob Keeshan got a job as a page for NBC. One of Keeshan's duties was doing research for Bob Smith's adult radio program. He also handed out prizes on the children's radio program, Triple B Ranch. Smith used the name Buffalo Bob on his children's program.

When Puppet Playhouse (the show that would later be renamed the Howdy Doody Show) was planned, it was decided Keeshan would continue in his duties for Smith. He missed the first broadcast because a snowstorm prevented him from reaching the studio.

After the success of the first experimental broadcast of Puppet Playhouse, a second episode was rushed into production for broadcast on January 3, 1948. Keeshan made his debut on this show by handing out prizes to the young studio guests. Since he wasn't a character on the show he didn't have a costume.  He wore his sport coat. In addition to distributing prizes on camera, he was in charge of crowd control, keeping the kids seated and quiet while they were off camera.

Warren Wade, NBC executive in charge of television, watched the shows and was bothered by seeing a "civilian" on the show surrounded by circus characters. He ordered that some type of costume be found for Keeshan. The decision was made to dress him as a clown. A striped costume was chosen, and Keeshan appeared wearing it for the first time in February. After a few weeks, Wade decided the costume wasn't enough, and ordered that Keeshan wear clown make up as well. NBC make up artist Dick Smith designed his make up which included a baldpate. It took Keeshan about an hour a day to apply the make up.

There are conflicting stories as to why the decision was made to make the clown silent. For whatever reason, the new clown character wasn't given any lines. In order to communicate, he was given a box with two bike horns attached. A toot on the right horn meant yes, and the left horn meant no. Between honking and wild gestures, the clown tried to communicate with Bob Smith who was slow to understand. Eddie Kean, the show's writer, named the character Clarabell Hornblower.

Part of the appeal of the character was that the interaction between Clarabell and Bob Smith was dumb and predictable. At some point in nearly every early episode, Clarabell used a seltzer bottle to squirt Smith who then chased the clown around the studio. Later Keeshan theorized that kids like the predictable because knowing what is going to happen makes them feel smart. He used this concept in all his television shows, most notably Captain Kangaroo where kids knew Bunny Rabbit was going to trick him out of the carrots and Mr. Moose was going to dump ping pong balls on him.

Relations between Smith and Keeshan quickly became strained. Smith had an extensive background in music, and wanted to have a band made up of the show's characters. Keeshan was not a musician, and his attempt at taking music lessons failed.  Smith ordered a set of musical horns for Clarabell to play, but Keeshan hadn't been able to get the timing right, so Smith dismissed him as being "untalented."

Smith was part owner of the show and benefited financially from its success. Keeshan felt he wasn't properly compensated for his contributions to its success. When Smith couldn't meet all the personal appearance requests, he sent his brother on the road with actors hired to portray Clarabell. Keeshan resented his character being used in this way.

In 1952, Keeshan hired an agent to represent him in negotiations for a new contract. He talked three other dissatisfied cast members into being represented by the same agent. On Christmas Eve, the four performers were informed that they were being fired. The show went on that evening using substitute performers and a back up script. Clarabell's absence was explained by saying he was hiding. Bob Nicholson, a musician on the show, was cast as the new Clarabell. Nicholson objected because he didn't like the character. Eddie Kean wrote a Where's Clarabell storyline. Buffalo Bob discovered that Clarabell was trapped in a diving suit at the bottom of Doodyville Harbor. For a week the new Clarabell was hidden inside the old fashioned diving suit with only his face visible through the window in the helmet's front. Finally, after children had a chance to gradually get used to his appearance, he was freed from the suit. Kids didn't notice that this wasn't the same Clarabell, although suddenly he was nicer, calmer, and instantly was able to play the xylophone, piano, and trombone.

In August 1953, Keeshan was hired by the New York ABC affiliated station to star in Time For Fun, a local lunch time one-man clown show. Keeshan created a gentle; soft-spoken clown named Corny for the program. Later he added a morning program, Tinker's Workshop in which he played a toymaker.

Then in 1955, Keeshan created his network show, Captain Kangaroo. In addition to playing the Captain, Keeshan as performed the Town Clown on the program.

Bob Keeshan was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1990.

Excerpted from the Clown In Times Volume Four Issue Three.

Copyright 1997 by Bruce Johnson. All rights reserved.

 

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