Ronda Giangreco | Special to the Sun
Headlines of late have been so filled with dire financial concerns and world problems that many readers may have missed a small notation that one recent week had a much more jolly significance. In case it slipped by you, the first week of August was National Clown Week.
For one Sonoma man, it was a week to reminisce upon a year in his life that was filled with the sound of laughter. Looking back to a simpler age in the early sixties, it was a time to think about a special role that changed his life.
Most folks at the tennis courts in Creekside would never guess that their opponent, Gerry Sher, an eighty-one year old with the zest and stamina of a teenager had been a star with a name so famous that there wasn’t a kid in all of America who did not know him.
Gerry Sher was once Bozo The Clown.
With the signature bright red wig and goofy laugh, Sher transformed himself into one of this country’s most enduring symbols of fun. For many of us, the image of an enormous clown with absurdly huge shoes and a wide, ever-present grin is an indelible feature of our youth. This character so amused and charmed a generation that eventually even the name “Bozo” became a part of our language, a noun to denote someone silly.
Sher had always loved to make children laugh. He would often dress up as a clown he created called “Mr. Tickles” for his own three children. But he never imagined that his antics would someday provide a means of providing for his family. He had a background in acting but in 1963, he was working as a sales manager for a record company. When the company transferred him from Boston to San Francisco, Sher found himself in a very different environment, however.
“The tempo in Boston was very quick, but the pace of the office was San Francisco was way more laid back. I tried to push them and there was a lot of resentment. They got together and said either he goes or we go. Guess who was picked to go?”
With his third child on the way and a new home and car to pay, he knew he had to find work fast.
“So I asked myself, what do you love to do the most? I love being a clown! And who’s the biggest clown in the country? Bozo, of course! So I called my friend Frank Avrush and asked him, how do I become Bozo?”
At the time, Sher’s buddy, Frank was the Boston Bozo. There were actually fifteen different Bozos across the country by then. A man named Larry Harmon had been one of the first. Mr. Harmon began aggressively marketing the character of Bozo the Clown after purchasing the rights from Capitol Records executive Alan Livingston in the 1950’s. He ultimately developed the character into a legend of the entertainment industry.
With Larry’s phone number in hand, Sher made the call and was invited to fly down to Hollywood for an audition. Larry Harmon took one look at Sher and proclaimed, “You’re the right height and weight. You’ll do physically, but can you do the laugh?” Sher had always been good a mimicry. “I listened to him do it once and then did a perfect impression. He ran around to everyone in the office making them listen to me over and over again. He signed me up right there.”
Measurements were made to have the infamous Bozo costume and wig fitted. It took awhile, however, before Sher was transformed into one of the most recognizable clowns in the world. The legendary bright red, winged wig was fashioned from the hair of Himalayan yaks. A shipment had to be sent from the Far East before they could create a new one for Sher.
After the costume and wig were completed, his lines were rehearsed and the laugh perfected, Gerry Sher became Bozo number sixteen. Initially he was to sign on with a television station in the Bay area, but after reviewing the long and complicated contract that they required, he opted instead to do only personal appearances as Bozo. It was the right decision for a man who loved the sound of laughter.
Sher began traveling from one gig to the other with his friend, a magician named Dick Quirolo. Quirolo was always at the wheel because the enormous wig and size 32 shoes made driving impossible for Bozo. One can only imagine the looks that the two got as they cruised the streets of San Francisco. For a modest salary of $500 per show, with some going to his side-kick, Sher set out to make a career out of making people happy. When he visited hospitals, however, the charge was simply smiles.
But Sher was a marketing professional, too. When he got the idea for a promotion he called “Bozo Day at The Beach,” he presented it to the owner of “Playland At The Beach,” an amusement park in San Francisco. George Whitney, the owner said, “I don’t need you as Bozo, I need you as my director of public relations.” With a family to feed, Sher realized that a steady paycheck was too good an opportunity to pass up. From then on, Bozo became his side job.
Says Sher, “The best part of that year was the joy I saw in the kids’ faces. I made them laugh, even the ones who were a little afraid of me at first. But it wasn’t just little kids that I got to perform for. I often went into a nursing homes and made balloon animals for the elderly. They were the most appreciative audiences.”
These days getting enough breath to blow up the balloons isn’t so easy anymore.
“I miss the playfulness of the character. I do a lot of little theater here in Creekside. I write humorous poetry. Maybe I can’t blow up balloons so well anymore, but I can still keeping ‘em laughing.”