Critic's Notebook: What I learned from Chucko
A tip of the spinning merry-go-round hat to TV's Chucko the Clown, born Charles Runyon, who died Saturday at the age of 86. Back in the middle of the 20th century, he hosted birthday parties each weekday for the little boys and girls of greater Los Angeles.
Although I honor all hosts of local children's shows as heroes of a lost world of real community television, I can't make any particular claims for Chucko's artistry. I don't fully recollect him; I was tiny then. But he lasted eight years on KABC and one on KTTV, so he must have delighted more children than he scared, or delighted children more than he scared them. (He looks capable and comfortable in this clip.)
Still, photos show the character I do recall -- a straight-ahead Ringling Bros.-style white-faced, red-mouthed, star-eyed circus-poster clown. He looked like an expensive French pastry. And I can sing the first line of his theme song.
Indeed, some of my clearest early memories are attached to that show, not so much because I watched it but because I was on it, as a birthday-party guest. I remember as if it were yesterday, except from a lower vantage, standing backstage before the show, surprised by the unpainted, unfinished, bare-wood backsides of the scenery. It was my first brush with unreality, a lesson in illusion, or possibly laziness. In any case it made a lasting impression.
In the course of the program, I threw a plastic chip into a basket, held by Chucko himself, and won ... a sandwich. Afterward, all the other kids were given sandwiches too, so I had two sandwiches. That was another lesson in, what? Disappointment? Victory turning to sandwich-flavored dust in one's mouth?
It has been a bad year for TV clowns: Larry Harmon, who industrialized and franchised but did not create Bozo the Clown, died in July, the last local Bozo show (airing in Chicago) having folded its tent in 2001. Even Ronald McDonald, though he keeps up the charity work, has been retired from selling hamburgers over the air.
The clowns have not all gone away; the circus still comes to town. But within the mass culture, they have become quaint and marginal, and within the world of children's television they have lost their once mighty power to Muppet monsters and cartoon sea creatures. At the same time, their brand has been degraded by horror movies, serial killers and "The Simpsons." (Check out this "Evil Clown Generator.") This only underscores what might have been true all along, that there is something as disquieting as there is delightful about a grown-up with a painted face.