The Column of Disquiet – The Grand Prize Game

The Grand Prize Game

The other day at work, I had lined up four large, white buckets in front of the icemaker. One of my co-workers was walking by and commented, “When you do this, it reminds me of ‘The Bozo Show.’”

“Bozo Buckets?” I responded. “The Grand Prize Game?”

“Yes!” he answered excitedly, and he was about to turn and walk away when I opened my mouth again.

“You know, I was on ‘The Bozo Show,’” I told him, without thinking.

He stopped in his tracks, and I immediately regretted saying anything.

* * *

Airing on Chicago’s WGN from 1960 until its unceremonious end in 2001, “The Bozo Show” was, I was surprised to learn, part of a franchise—the character of Bozo The Clown originated in the 1940s, and the creative rights were sold to Larry Harmon in 1956. Local television stations across the country then developed their own versions of the titular character and its accompanying show, with Chicago’s “The Bozo Show” being the most successful and longest running.

Despite the changing cast members and format of the show itself throughout the years, there were only two actors who played Bozo in Chicago—Bob Bell, and Joey D’Auria, who took over the role in 1984, seeing it through until the end.

* * *

Save for the year or two that we lived outside of Detroit (a period of time I barely have any clear memories of), I am originally from, and grew up in, Illinois. Born in the suburbs of Chicago and raised in a small town in the Northwestern corner, my introduction to “The Bozo Show” came when I was four years old.

The author endorsing Bozo the Clown for president over, we assume, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot

During these very early years of my childhood, I watched the show religiously every morning, and at one point, I had sent in a postcard with the hopes of being selected to be an ‘at home player.’

See, the thing that makes “The Bozo Show” so iconic and enduring—the thing that my co-worker, a few years younger than me, raised in Iowa, would remember and reference in 2017—was the show’s centerpiece: The Grand Prize Game.

Also known as “Bozo Buckets,” The Grand Prize Game plucked two lucky children (one boy and one girl) from the studio audience and challenged them to a game of true skill—gently (yet precisely) tossing Ping-Pong balls into six different buckets. The buckets grew further away the farther you got into the game, and the prizes you won for getting it in each bucket grew more extravagant. I believe the prize for the eighth and final bucket was a bicycle.

‘At home players’ were kids, like me, who sent in postcards, with the hopes that their card would be pulled out of the overflowing mail bin, and had the chance to win all the same prizes as the child who was playing the game during that day’s taping.

I was more than likely four, or maybe five at most, when my postcard had been selected; one day, a UPS delivery showed up at our house—large boxes addressed to me. My mother was confused, and gave discerning looks to both me, and the UPS driver as she signed for the packages. Among the prizes inside were a wooden Radio Flyer wagon and the game Boggle, as well as information on when the telecast in question was airing.

* * *

According to the Wikipedia entry about “The Bozo Show,” at the height of its popularity in the early 1980s, there was a nearly decade long waiting list for tickets. During a broadcast of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, people were encouraged to call in to WGN for the chance to get tickets to a “Bozo Show” taping—and that is what my mother did. She got through, we were put on a list, and I think we all promptly forgot about it for years, and years, and years.

I was eight years old when our tickets arrived—roughly four years had passed. I was in the third grade, and I think by that point, I was probably not as a devout viewer of “The Bozo Show” as I had once been, and there’s a good chance that I wasn’t the only one who had drifted away from regularly watching. This would have been in early 1992, and within two years, the once daily program was reformatted to a weekly variety show, banished to an early Sunday morning time slot where it would live out its twilight years until the summer of 2001.

The show taped in the late afternoon on weekdays, so I can recall getting to leave school early, piling into my father’s station wagon, and making the 100+ mile trek east into Chicago to the WGN studios.

* * *

When I make the mistake of telling people that I was on “The Bozo Show,” as I recently did with my co-worker, I quickly add that I was not selected to play The Grand Prize Game; however, I was one of many other children pre-selected before the taping began to take part in another challenge.

When we entered into the WGN studios, production staff approached families with children almost immediately, and I was asked if I wanted to participate in a game during the day’s taping. I realize now as a terribly anxious adult that I was an anxious child as well—but somehow I was able to keep it together after my parents were shuffled off to their seats and I was lined up in a narrow, dark hallway with other children as we waited to practice the game we were chosen for.

The group of selected kids was split into two teams, and we were racing against the clock in a game where you would stand on one piece of cardboard, cut out and colored to look like a chunk of ice, and you’d place an identical piece of cardboard in front of you, then stand on that one—you’d keep standing and placing the cardboard until you reached some kind of stopping point, then you’d return the cardboard to the next kid in line, and they’d have to do the same thing.

We rehearsed the game before the taping began, and during the taping, against a clock running out of time, the team I was on lost. No one really loses on “The Bozo Show”—my team was given the consolation prizes of a sack of Saf-T-Pops, and three slim picture books about dinosaurs.

* * *

My wife and I were on vacation recently in the Pacific Northwest, and while were in Seattle, we took a “Twin Peaks” tour—which is exactly what it sounds like. A man drives you around for a few hours, pointing out various locales in and outside of Seattle that were used in the filming of the original “Twin Peaks,” the just concluded third season, and the prequel film from 1992, Fire Walk With Me.

Some of the locations are a bit of a stretch—like, here’s where this recognizable thing used to be; and some of them are detrimental to your willing suspension of disbelief. Twede’s Café, otherwise known as the Double R Diner, is much, much smaller, and frankly, exponentially less friendly in person than it is depicted on film.

The set of “The Bozo Show” wasn’t exactly uninviting, but it bordered on dingy, but I guess what are you supposed to expect from a locally produced children’s television program? Even as an eight year old, I was surprised by just how much smaller everything appeared in person when compared to how it looked on television.

A bulk of the studio was dedicated to the seating for the audience, with a performance space for the show’s skits and other bits to the left of that. Directly across from the seating was where the cameras, monitors, and other equipment were—it was dark and cavernous, with the camera operators and other production crew members lurking in the shadows as the actors, D’Auria as Bozo, joined by Michael Immel as Spiffy The Clown, Bozo’s foil, and Andy Mitran—aka Professor Andy—wearing a Sargent Pepper-style coat, sporting sunglasses inside and a weird ponytail, mullet haircut, hunkered down behind a wall of keyboards, playing goofy, instrumental versions of songs like Go West’s “King of Wishful Thinking” or Phil Collins’ “Two Hearts.”

* * *

Every episode of “The Bozo Show” ended with “The Grand March”—a long procession of the studio audience leaving the space, getting the chance to wave at the camera. Following the March, people who wanted photos with the cast could wait around off camera.

For some reason, as a kid, I had an autograph book—it’s not like I was encountering famous people everyday, so from what I can recall, the pages never filled up. But Professor Andy, Spiffy, and Bozo were kind enough to each sign pages, and my mother took a photo—in it, Bozo is pointing at a button attached to my sweatshirt that reads “Bozo For President.”

There’s a good chance that the autograph book, and the button, are both long gone. Maybe they are in a box of childhood artifacts that I haven’t been able to part with yet, piled up underneath the steps leading down to the basement. I don’t know. I don’t really look in those boxes very often. The prizes that I won as an at home player—the Boggle, the Radio Flyer wagon—haven’t been in my possession in years, more than likely sold at a garage sale, or just simply thrown away in a downsizing at some point.

The trio of dinosaur picture books that I won as a consolation prize on the show—their covers practically plain white with a simplistic drawing of each dinosaur in question in the center? I know what happened to those. I managed to hang onto those for roughly a decade; surviving three moves, shuffled around between boxes and the wobbly bookshelves I had throughout my childhood, they were sold at a moving sale when I was 18, and my mother was relocating.

It was around Christmas, and a woman and her young child were browsing through the box of children’s books for sale. They

Smashing Bozo

found one of the dinosaur books, and seemed content with just the one—or at least, were only able to purchase the one. “There’s two more that go with it,” I told them, rummaging through the box until I found them both. “You can just have these two.”

“The Bozo Show” itself had just ended less than six months before this. The final episode was a retrospective special, airing in prime time. One of Chicago’s favorite sons, Billy Corgan, was a guest star, performing a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” with an early incarnation of the band Zwan backing him. After they finished, Corgan’s guitarist, who was celebrating a birthday, got a pie in the face.

That was a running gag throughout the history of “The Bozo Show”—people were always getting pies thrown at their faces. But they weren’t real pies. They were just flimsy, aluminum pie tins filled with whipped cream.

* * *

Being on “The Bozo Show” when I was eight is not something I think about very often. Mentioning it at work, off-handedly and accidentally, is the first time I had thought about it in years.

Whenever I do bring it up, the first thing people ask is if I played The Grand Prize Game; the second thing they ask is if I still have a copy of the tape from when my episode aired.

The answer is yes, I do. And when I tell them this, I quickly follow this with that I will “take it to my grave.” For some reason, I’ve never felt comfortable letting anyone watch it—not close friends, not the girl I was involved with in college, not my wife. Nobody.

It’s not like the tape is in a safety deposit box, or hidden somewhere and only I know how to access it. It, like so many other artifacts from the past, is in the basement. It’s not in a box in the space underneath the steps—it’s on a shelf with all of our other VHS cassettes. On the white label along the spine, in my mother’s handwriting, it reads “Kevin’s Bozo Telecast. Do Not Tape Over.”

I’m not sure why I’ve been so hesitant to let other people in my life watch my “Bozo Show” telecast. There’s nothing inherently shameful about it, but maybe I’m embarrassed; maybe looking through old photographs of myself is one thing, but a video recording is something else entirely. Save for subjecting my third grade classmates to the telecast after it aired, to my knowledge, I’ve haven’t watched it in 25 years, but I’ve held onto that tape, and I’ve heeded my mother’s handwritten instructions.

The truth is I also probably never even cracked the spine on the dinosaur books I won. I just held onto them for so long for purely sentimental reasons until I had no choice and it was time to really let go. Our lives are full of things like that, though; relics that we know, deep down, we’re never going to use but cannot bring ourselves to actually part with them and you keep all those things in boxes that are underneath the stairs, where you put all of the things you don’t want to think about very often.

This article was edited by Jennifer Severtsgaard


Kevin Krein has been operating the award winning music blog, Anhedonic Headphones, since 2013, and he contributed the back page column to the Southern Minn Scene magazine for roughly three years. His writing has appeared on Bearded Gentlemen Music, Spectrum Culture, and in River Valley Woman. He prints out all of his tweets and stores them in a box in the basement, just in case he needs them: @KevEFly.


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