Tribute To Bill Britten Wonderama Host
& NYC's First Bozo!
by Kevin S. Butler
PART TWO / PART ONE HERE
During his tenure as Wonderama's third emcee Bill Britton appeared as a zany cowboy character 'Three Gun Willie The Kid.' The character didn't catch on with the viewers and studio audiences so Bill decided to drop the gimmick and appear as himself.
Along with the games, comedy and puppet skits and the screening of cartoons. He added social messages and a segment titled 'Mom Of The Week' where a boy or girl would nominate their mother to be honored on the show for being a caring parent.
(Editor's note "Wonderama's" fourth host Sonny Fox revamped this idea as 'Teacher Of The Week' where a boy or girl would nominate their teacher to be honored for being a positive influence on their class)
For a time Bill hosted "Wonderama" live on Sunday mornings until the fall of 1958 when WABD TV Ch.5 was bought out by Metropolitan Broadcasting Inc. (later known as Metromedia Television Inc.) and the new management insisted that the show be pre-taped on Thursday afternoons for Sunday morning broadcasts.
Bill Britten would host "Wonderama", "The Looney Tunes Show", "Bugs Bunny Presents" and "Funnytoons" on Ch.5 until late December of 1958.
(Editor's note… Ch.5's resident cartoon show host 'Uncle Fred' Scott would emcee "Bugs Bunny Presents" later retitled "Nuts & Bugs" where, along with screening Bugs Bunny cartoons, he would also present the film comedies of Leon Errol, Edgar and Tom Kennedy, and Charley Chase for the remainder of the series' run.)
The following September, in 1959, Bill would join WPIX TV Ch.11 and become the first entertainer to play 'Bozo The Clown.'
His experience as a clown wasn't just limited to performing for the gas station franchise in Seattle, Wa. (See part one). When Bill moved to NYC in 1953 and before he became involved with 'Jolly Gene & His Fun Machine' he won an audition to become "The Funniest New Clown Of The Year" for Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus.
As Bill recalled, "When I first came to New York (City), The Ringling Brothers had a big contest to find The Funniest New Clown Of The Year. I had a chair, I forgot who made it for me, but when you sat on it the springs would give way and it would collapse to the floor. When you get off of the chair, the chair would jump right up."
Adding his tramp clown character who he bestowed the name of 'Professor Oakey Doakey' Bill created an entire routine with the chair where he would ask the kids sitting in the circus stands to say the magic words, "Oakey Doakey" to help restore the chair for sitting. "I got into the semi-finals and I went onto The Today Show (then hosted by Dave Garroway) with four or five other clowns and I won the contest."
Henry Ringling North and his staff signed Bill to a six month contract where he performed with the circus but only at NYC's Madison Square Garden. This experience came in handy when he became Bozo. "The Bozo Show" debuted on WPIX TV Ch.11 in NYC as a half hour program seen weekday evenings beginning on Monday, September 14, 1959.
Along with the rerunning of the Bozo cartoons Bill would perform comedy skits as 'Mr. Mighty Muscles' (a parody of TV's physical fitness expert Jack La Lane), 'Grandpa Smokey' (a northwest trapper), 'Billy Bean' (the bumbling but lovable leader of The Bozo Fan Club), 'Barker Bill.' He would also perform semi-educational pantomime skits as 'Flapjack' the silent tramp clown.
In a recently found kinescope film print of "The Bozo Show" Flapjack is seen ignoring a sign that tells him not to look thru the sign 'Danger.' He looks thru the sign and he gets hit with a pie. He also played with his studio audiences, led them in sing a longs, and interviewed guest performers and personalities.
Two guests that appeared on the program were actor Jack Larson (best remembered as 'Jimmy Olsen' on "The Adventures Of Superman" TV show) and 'Fireman Todd' Russell (then the host/performer of "The Three Stooges Firehouse" on Ch.11). The series would soon be expanded to an hour and be retitled "Bozo's Big Top Circus Show" and the series became even more popular.
Bill Britten was always in demand for personal appearances, he would do live stage shows at schools, churches, hospitals, and at movie theaters. He even appeared at amusement parks like "Freedomland USA", "Palisades Amusement Park" and "Peter Pan Playland" along with performing for his fans he also rode the rides at the parks with the kids.
Bill's Bozo also co-hosted "The WPIX TV Christmas Party" kids' specials with Ch.11's resident kiddie show personalities 'Captains' Allen Swift and Jack McCarthy, 'Officer' / 'Police Chief' Joe Bolton, Chuck McCann, 'Fireman Todd' Russell, 'The Merry Mailman' Ray Heatherton, 'Cartoon Zookeeper' Milt Moss, horror film and cartoon show emcee John Zacherle(y) and 'The Old Philosopher' Eddie Lawrence.
Britten also appeared with ' Capt. Jack', 'Officer Joe', Chuck McCann and with kid performers Paul and Mary Ellen O'Keith on "The Visit To Freedomland" kids' special.
In 1962, he hosted "The Cartoon Express" Saturday mornings on Ch.11 as zany train engineer 'Smokey Bill'. The show was not successful and had a brief run on WPIX TV.
More often than not a mishap would occur on "The Bozo Show" hat warranted a change in one of the skits. As Britten recalled, "Once on The Bozo Show I had two costumes. My (first) costume was in the dry cleaners and I was wearing my second costume and my pants split, you could see my white Jockey shorts."
Britten was unaware of the wardrobe malfunction until the laughter of the studio audience and the crew made him aware of the damage during the screening of a cartoon. "I didn't have another pair of pants so I went into my dressing room and I got an apron (that) I could wrap all around (my) back and front. I changed the next skit to a comedy baking skit on the spot."
Following the cancellation of "Bozo's Big Top Circus" Bill went onto host his last NYC based kids' show "Bozo's Cartoon Circus Lunchtime Show" on Ch.11. Unlike his previous series he did this program without a studio audience.
Here Britten performed comedy and puppet skits, and presented informational segments in-between screenings of the cartoons and eating lunch with his viewers. (Once again the meals were prepared by a nutritionist minus the mixing of "Cocomarsh and "Bosco" into a glass of milk.)
"Bozo's Cartoon Circus Lunchtime Show" was on WPIX TV's weekday afternoon schedule until the station execs closed down the circus for good in 1964.
Britten went on to continue his education at Hunter College. Upon his graduation, he briefly served as the programming director of WNYC TV in Brooklyn. Eventually, he became a drama teacher at NYC's Performing Arts High School and later taught drama at The Laguardia High School Of Music & Art.
He would also find the time to perform in plays and musicals in summer stock and Off Broadway Theater, including a memorable performance in the Off Broadway Production of "Man Of La Mancha" with Richard Kiley. Bill Britten also appeared as a comedy villain in 'The Mathnet' segment of "Square One TV" PBS TV's educational kids' show. He did a cameo in the movie version of "Fame".
Bill also attend a private party honoring WPIX TV's 40th Anniversary at the last of the Horn & Hardart
automat restaurants on E. 42nd Street and 3d Ave. in the summer of 1988.
Bill continued teaching drama at Laguardia High School Of Music And Art and perform in theater productions until failing health forced him to retire.
I was lucky enough to see him and Ms. Doris Faye do a personal appearance as Bozo and Princess Ticklefeather at the Laconia Movie Theater in the Bronx in the early 1960's and saw him perform with Joey Faye in the Off Broadway musical "The Coolest Cat In Town" at the NYC Center Theater in 1978.
I did a two part interview with him at Laguardia H.S. in 1988 and in 1989. He was kind enough to provide information about his career in NYC kids TV history with a young researcher.