Screenshot: Bozo The Clown (YouTube)

As confirmed by WCVB-TV in Boston (via CBS News), longtime Bozo The Clown performer Frank Avruch has died from heart disease at 89. Avruch played Bozo from 1959 to 1970, becoming the first nationally syndicated incarnation of the iconic clown along the way. He was also a regular contributor to WCVB-TV for over four decades, hosting various segments about things to do in the Boston area.

For those who are too young to remember the Bozo phenomenon and only know the concept of a TV clown from The Simpsons, the Bozo character was invented for a series of read-along records and quickly became popular enough for Capital Records and creator Alan W. Livingston to begin licensing it out to various television stations across the country. The Boston variation, given various names including Bozo’s Circus and Bozo The Clown, starred Avruch as the eponymous white-faced, orange-haired goofball, and it aired every day from 1959 to 1970.

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The Boston version was also wholly owned by Larry Harmon, a former Bozo actor who had bought the licensing rights, and he syndicated Avruch’s show to a number of markets that didn’t want to produce their own local Bozo in the mid-’60s. Along with Boston, it aired in New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles. This made Avruch’s Bozo the most famous take on the clown at the time, though the Chicago area’s Bozo, Bob Bell, eventually surpassed him when WGN started broadcasting its Bozo’s Circus across the country in the ‘70s.

WCVB quotes Avruch as saying that some people were hesitant to talk about Bozo when they would meet him, saying, “How could this suave, somewhat sophisticated man be this guy with red-orange hair and big shoes?” He would explain that playing Bozo was “one of the highlights” of his entire career, and he occaisionally revived his take on the character to help raise money for UNICEF (he was a board member for the organization’s New England chapter).

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In a statement, Avruch’s family said that they “celebrate the legacy of joy and laughter he brought to millions of children around the world as Bozo the Clown on TV and as a UNICEF Ambassador,” adding, “Our dad loved the children of all ages who remembered being on his show and was always grateful for their kind words. We will miss him greatly.”