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CHICAGO (Reuters) - Long before reality shows and Big Bird or Dora the Explorer, Bozo the Clown entertained children on television shows broadcast throughout the country.
Larry Harmon, the driving force behind the immensely popular "Bozo the Clown" franchise, trained with fire departments and astronauts and ran for president to promote the locally produced Bozo television shows.
"Larry lived a reality show life before reality shows existed," said Thomas Scott McKenzie, co-author of Harmon's memoir, "The Man Behind the Nose: Assassins, Astronauts, Cannibals and Other Stupendous Tales," which was completed after Harmon's death in 2008 and released this week.
Capitol Records created the red-nosed, huge-grinned Bozo in the 1940s to narrate a children's storytelling record and read-along book. The first Bozo show, "Bozo's Circus", was launched in 1949 in Los Angeles as a children's comedy series.
Harmon, who was hired to portray Bozo at promotional appearances for Capitol Records, bought the licensing rights with a group of partners in the late 1950s for the character that became a franchise as television stations licensed Bozo for local shows.
In 1965 he became sole owner of the rights to Bozo.
The Chicago show was so popular it aired for 40 years and often had years-long waiting lists.
"It was harder to get than Oprah," said Kristen Lee Sohacki, an event marketing manager at Borders book store who said her mother put her on the waiting list when she was born. She finally got on the show when she was a teenager.
George Pappas, who plays Bozo for the Chicago station WGN at parades and other events, said the station still gets calls asking to bring the show back.
Harmon was not the only Bozo or even the first -- actor Pinto Colvig had that honor. But he aggressively pitched "The Bozo Show" to television stations and helped train actors around the world to play the clown.
More than 200 actors have worn the white face makeup and giant red wig of the beloved children's character.
Harmon also took Bozo to unexpected places. He donned the giant shoes to throw out pitches at baseball games, shook hands with celebrities and politicians, and survived assassination attempts.
His Bozo has been called one of the inspirations for McDonald's mascot Ronald McDonald.
"It just wouldn't be unusual for him to say, 'Oh yeah, you know, I had lunch with ...' some famous leader. It was just crazy the things that would come out," McKenzie said of working with Harmon on his memoirs.
"What's in the book is certainly more than enough to show the type of adventurous life that he led."
Reporting by Emily Stephenson; Editing by Patricia Reaney