Things That Matter: Bozo the Clown costume
La Crosse County Historical Society

Clowns have gotten a bad rap in recent years, with scary movies and strange people turning clowns into something to fear. Despite the recent hype, clowns have a much longer history of being fun and entertaining characters.

Perhaps the best known clown in America is Bozo the Clown. Bozo was created in the 1940s for a children’s storytelling record. He became a mascot for Capital Records and soon was appearing on television. In 1956 he became a franchised character, and TV stations across the country purchased the rights to create their own children’s programs hosted by Bozo, usually played by a local actor wearing a specially created costume.

WKBT-TV picked up the character in 1962, and broadcast the program for five years in the La Crosse area. The local Bozo was played by longtime radio and TV announcer Jack Martin. Martin interacted with a live audience of children, entertaining them with jokes and slapstick comedy, while also showing animated cartoons.

This blue costume Martin wore was typical of those worn by other actors across the country. It included a headpiece with Bozo’s wild red hair, oversize shoes, layered collar, white gloves and a red bulbous nose. Martin’s character featured white and red facial makeup to give Bozo a huge smile and high arched eyebrows. The program was a popular show with children, as they clamored to be in the audience and be seen on television.

At age 70, Martin was an older Bozo, yet he still showed up in character at many local parades, fundraisers and other activities. When he was interviewed after WKBT canceled the show in 1967, he seemed proud of his role as Bozo: “In my 30 years in radio and television, I can truly say that this is the finest thing I have given to the tri-state region.”

Martin began his career as a vaudeville actor before becoming a broadcaster at the La Crosse radio station WKBH (now WIZM) in 1932. He later became a news and farm reporter. Martin was a widely known personality in the community, and he was named Oktoberfest festmaster in 1967. He died in 1979 at age 87.

In 2017, Martin was recognized by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association for his community contributions. His Bozo outfit was donated to the La Crosse County Historical Society by his wife in 1977.

Bozo has faded in popularity since its peak in the 1960s; however, the world’s best known clown lives on. He can be found on YouTube, and he even has a Facebook page. Here you will find proof that there is nothing to fear about Bozo.

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