Bozo and Me

Tom C. Erb

© Copyright 2018 by Tom C. Erb

Photo of the Beatles.

First grade was not as good as kindergarten because I didn't really have as many friends. One day my father came to me and says, “I'm going out to sea in a couple of weeks and I need you to be the man of the house.” I'm thinking to myself that's not a good thing because the last time he did that, I got another sister nine months later.

He wouldn't dare do that again. He wouldn't dare do that to us again. They wouldn't do that to us again. They wouldn't do that to ME again! Sure enough he was going to be gone for nine months, and my mother announced we're going to have another baby. 

I was just completely blown away, and the whole idea it could be a brother didn't even work this time. I was just going with the worst. It was going to be another sister. That was my determination, and there was no way that this was going to come out in my favor, as I watched my two sisters playing with their dolls. I didn't really play with dolls, at least not yet. Life was pretty boring and normal.

One day my mother says, “We're going to take the bus to downtown Norfolk”. I am thinking downtown? This is going to be fun packing my sisters and me on a bus, at the bus station, and off to downtown Norfolk Virginia.

Once there mom was dragging us along the city sidewalks. I notice across the street that there was a big long giant line. This line has a bunch of people, with a bunch of kids. It was mostly mothers and their kids all dressed up like they were going to church.

I ask my mom, “Can we go find out what's going on over there”? I had a feeling it must be something pretty important. We crossed the street. My mother asked one of the mothers, "What's going on here”? The woman said, "This is the children's auditions for the Bozo the Clown Show”.

Well, I can tell you that I watched Bozo the Clown every day religiously. The next words out of my mouth were "Mom I want to go to audition to be on the "Bozo" show. My mother in true form didn't think of me at all. She looked at the long line and said, "There is no way I'm getting in this line and standing here all day long for you to audition for the Bozo the Clown Show."

I was very upset! I was visibly upset. I mean I didn't really ever get upset in front of my mother, or didn't really throw a tantrum, but this was one of those times I came close to a tantrum.

What happened next was the most unbelievable thing that to this day completely leaves me questioning my mother's thought process. The woman in line whose name we learned was Sandy and her son’s name was Ronald, not Ron, not Ronnie, but Ronald, and it was clear that this was something that could not be questioned. Anyway, she says to my mother, “If you want to leave your son with me he can go in with us”. Now remember that this was 1960, and the world wasn't as crazy as it is now. 

So, the dilemma is what to do? I knew I wanted to do an audition, but I wasn't sure I wanted to hang with Sandy and Ronald. My mother, on the other hand said, "Well that is very nice of you. I could go down to the Mall, and on my way back pick him up. What do you think Tommy?" It all sounded good to me, so I said, "Sure". In a matter of seconds I watched my mother walk away with my sister's in tow leaving me with a complete stranger she had just met on the street.

So, I decided to make the best of it. Ronald showed me this paper he had received from some of the crew working for the people running the auditions. It was a script that all the kids needed to memorize. It wasn't a lot of words, but it was obvious, at least to me the point was how you said them. Since I watch the show so much I figured they wanted it to be big and happy. So that’s what I went with. 

When we finally got inside the building there was more paperwork to fill out. Since my mother wasn't there I had to guess at some of the information. Sandy helped me as well. We were instructed to wait for our names to be called. Ronald was getting nervous as the time got closer. However, I wasn’t nervous at all, and was ready. To be honest I was more concerned that my mother hadn’t returned. 

Finally, a short funny looking guy came out and called four more names, Ronald and I were on the list. It was at this point that I became a bit anxious. After we entered the room that looked like a regular ballroom, with a table at the front of the room that had five people sitting and shuffling papers. The short funny guy said, "Please, go and stand on one of the stars on the floor and wait quietly." I choose the one at the far end.

After what seemed like an eternity the man in the middle stood up, walked over and paced in front of us. He introduced himself as the director of the show. He went on to say, "How many of you watch the show?" I was quick to raise my hand along with the boy on the other end. He walked back over to the table, and asked all of us. "Starting from the left side, I would like each of you to step forward and say Gee Bozo! I am so excited to be here with you today, and then step back."

OK, let's start. The boy on the other end was a pretty boy wearing designer clothes, and his name tag said, "Preston". He steps forward, and has a very good delivery of the dialog, and stepped back. The director then said, "Next." 

The next boy was a country boy. His shoes were dirty, he was wearing overalls, had bright red hair and freckles. His name tag said, "Henry." Henry’s delivery had a deep southern twang, and a stutter. Then it was Ronald's turn. I looked over at him, and he looked like he was going to cry. He was shaking from head to toe. With a small step forward Ronald delivered a very quiet lackluster performance. He stepped back and look at me like what he had done was the winning performance. I almost burst out laughing at him.

This was my first lesson on why it was best to be last at an audition. I was lucky enough to see all the other guys. I stepped forward looked at all the people at the table and blurted out "Gee Bozo! I am so happy to be here today," and stepped back. I watched the director lean over, look at some papers, and had a conversation with two of the people. He stepped forward and said, “Thank you very much. You all did a great job. I would like for you all to wait out in the holding room, and we will be deciding who will get a call back." Ronald raises his hand and ask, "What is a call back?" The director responded, "A second chance, Ronald."

The short funny looking guy escorted us to the holding room. Ronald's mom was glad to see him. She had all kinds of questions. "How did you do? Were you scared? What happened in there?" Ronald just answers her with "Oh Mom, it was OK. I did great." I took this chance to ask Ronald's mother, "Did my Mom come back? Have you seen her? It is getting late; she should have come back by now." She replied, "No, I haven't seen her, and hope she gets back soon, or I will have to leave you here."

The prospect of being left there by myself was a bit alarming. At that moment the short funny looking guy comes into the holding area and says, "When I call your name please come to me to get your callback slip." He started to call the names out. The first one was Preston. I know he would be in the running, he was good. Then, the two boys I didn't know or see, but they all looked the part. The last name called sounded very familiar. "Thomas Erb".

At first, I didn't recognize the name cause no one called me Thomas, except my mother when she was mad at me, or I did something wrong. When I realized it was me, the first thing I did was look at Ronald, and his Mom. They both looked very disappointed. I walked up to get my callback slip, and I realized that my mother wasn't there to celebrate with me.

Ronald's mom calls over the short funny looking guy and says, “We got a problem. I was only watching this boy for his mother because she didn't want to stand in line, because she was pregnant, and had two other children. I don't know her name, or how to contact her." He looked confused and responded, "Are you responsible for him? Will you be staying with him for callbacks?” She laughed and said, "Not unless my son has a call back." He looked at her with disdain on his face and says, "I will be right back. 

While he was gone she decides to ask the questions any responsible adult should have asked at some point. "Tommy do you know your telephone number? Do you know where your mother was going? Is there someone we can call? Where is your Daddy? Do you know where you live?” I told her, "I know my telephone number. I made up a song for it so I could remember it, 504 and 685 makes 1278." She laughs and says, "That is good Tommy, I will have to teach Ronald how to do that."

The doors opened, and the funny looking short guy comes out and says, "Ronald can stay for call backs if you continue to except responsibly for Thomas. It was at this point that I realized my charm was working on Sandy. She told him, "Yes, I will watch out for him, and try and contact his mother."

Suddenly, the lobby door opens and entering was an awkward very thin tall man dressed in a suit and tie. He strutted into the room. I felt like he looked very sad. The funny looking short guy rushed over to him, and was excited to see him, "Hello Mr. Kerr", he snapped back "Call me Stu!" The short funny looking guy then said "OK Stu, we have everything all set inside with four (realizing his mistake after getting a dirty look from Sandy), I mean five boys to audition with you". Stu says, “Let’s get this show on the road". Even at six years old I knew what just happened. Stu was "Bozo"! Plus, the five remaining boys, really four, were going to be auditioning with him. Now I was getting nervous.

I have to say that seeing him out of costume was weird. I really liked him better in costume, because he was happier, funnier and high energy. After what seemed like forever, the funny short guy came out and explained what was going to happen, so that we wouldn't be surprised, and also to help it move faster. He said, "You will each go in by yourself, and meet "Stu" Kerr the man who plays "Bozo" the Clown", and you will take some posed pictures with him. Also, you will be asked to read an easy scene with Stu, and whatever else the director would like to see, or ask."

This was the first of many times in my life I found myself in holding knowing what was about to happen in the other room. I am here to tell you that funny little man's statement about making it easier, is a lie! The call back audition is one or two steps away from achieving your goal to get cast, which makes the stakes extremely higher.

This first experience was not any different than the possibly hundreds of times I would be in this situation over the next fifty plus years. The first thing I did was pace back and forth, and picture in my mind, what was going to happen and take deep breathes. This would send my anxiety level skyrocketing. I would then start to whisper to myself that I am fine, I can do this. A practice that always served me well in my dramatic, traumatic, and stressful situations throughout my life.

I looked over at the other four boys, the only one who is preparing is Preston. Remember he is the "pretty boy." I noticed he was watching me as well. I imagined high noon in a great western movie, like the ones my dad would watch. The two of us squaring off to see who would beat the other. It was obvious, to be on "Bozo" was as important to him, as it was for me.

Preston made his way to me and we paced around each other. He asked me, "Did your agent send you this call?" I had no idea what he was talking about. I thought very deeply about how to answer that question. But all I could come up with was, "No, I saw the line on the street." The look on his face was priceless. The fact that I could be in the same position he was in just because I saw the line on the street, really blew him away. In fact, I think it knocked him off his game. He immediately paced back over to his mother, and left me standing there alone.

Sandy came over to me and said, "I was able to get a hold of your mother, and I told her I would drop you off at home when we were done, since you only live about a mile from us." While I was deep in thought the funny looking short guy came out and gave us a card with our number on it. When he stepped over to me he bent down, looked me in the eyes, and said, "You are number four, and we understand your situation. We are also trying to get a hold of your mother. Whatever happens, you will be safe, and will get a ride home. We just want you to know that we are watching, and you need to just focus on this audition. OK?”

I just shook my head, and said, "Yes." He rose and went to the door, and called Number One. One of the boy’s I didn't see was Number One. He got up and disappeared into the room. I figured he would be in there for quite a while. Surprisingly, it was just few minutes, and out he came in tears. He ran to his mother. The funny short guy followed him, and said to his mother, "Sorry and thank you for coming."

He called out Number Two, which was the other boy I didn't see. After witnessing what just happened, the second boy had a look of fear on his face. His mom pushed him off to go into the room. To all of our surprise, this kid came out in less than five minutes balling his eyes out. When the funny short guy opened the door to let him out you could hear a voice coming from inside the room yelling "Grow up you little brat." The voice continued, but the door quickly shut. All we could hear was a muffled noise. The kid’s mom packed up and stomped out of the holding area. She wasn't happy, and she made us all know it, with a look that could literally sink ships.

A voice broke the scary silence calling Number Three, which I knew to be Preston’s number. He jumped up out of his seat like a jack in the box, and rushed to the door. He couldn't wait to get in that room. The door shut, and I was left with Sandy and Ronald. It was interesting the conversation the two of them were having right in front of me. Ronald honestly thought he had a chance to get this, and so did Sandy. He said, "Mommy when I become a "Bozo" kid, will I be famous?” She said, "Of course you will be baby. Every week people will see you doing commercials with Bozo the Clown, and will want your autograph."

I tried very hard to hold back the laughter. It took everything I had to not say anything. But what I wanted to say was, "Hey the only reason you are still here is that you are my ride!" But you never know. Stranger things have happened.

At this point "Preston" had been in there longer than anyone else. I was up, and pacing again. After what seemed like an eternity Preston came walking out the door with an "I just kick your ass" look on his face.

The sound of Number Four filled the air. My number! Believe it or not, I was so ready. I remember clearly how I felt at that time and moment. I moved to the door, crossed the threshold, and heard the door shut behind me. The room was no different than it before except, there was a chair in front of the table, and Stu was sitting at the table with the director and producers.

I decided even at this young age my best foot forward was to try and control as much of the situation, as I could. I approached the table where Stu was sitting and offered him a handshake and said, "My name is Thomas Erb. You can call me Tommy. Are you Bozo the Clown? If you are, I am a huge fan. I have seen every episode." I think I surprised him, because he had to sit back in his chair and clear his throat before he spoke. "Yes, I am. It is great to meet you, Tommy".

The director asked me to sit in the chair. I turned and didn't take my eyes off of Stu, and sat down. The director started to ask me question after question, which I answered honestly, energetically, positively, and used my facial expressions I practiced in the bathroom mirror. After each question, everyone at the table would write something down, except Stu.

I was totally in control because all the questions he asked me were about people, and shows on television. My favorite topic! Suddenly, Stu pushes his chair away from the table, stands up and walks over to me and asked me, “Stand up.” When I stood up, he took my chair, and sat in it, which put us eye-to-eye, I didn't flinch.

Stu and I sat there for what felt like forever in this long stare. I don't think either one of us blinked at all. Finally, he said, "Do you know how to do a make up scene?" I really didn't know what that meant, but I figured it was a scene we made up on the spot. I responded, "Yes I do." He countered, "OK, we are starting now." His face completely changed, and he became "Bozo" right before my eyes and said, "Tommy is this your first day on the Bozo Show?" I came back with a big face, a huge smile and dimples, and said, "Yes, Bozo this is my first day on the show. Are we going to do all the games you always play on the show? How about the fun toothpaste commercials? I think I could do them really well. I watch your show every week with my sisters. We fight over who gets to sit right in front of the television, and now I am here really meeting you. I hope I can get an autographed picture of you to show my friends. Do you think that would be possible?"

I took a breath, and looked around the room. Stu, and everyone else were speechless. I wasn't sure if it was because they couldn't believe how over-the-top this kid is, or they really liked what I did. Stu got up, walked over to the director, and spoke to him with his back to me. They were whispering. I couldn't hear what they were saying. The people at the table were all leaning in the director’s direction trying to listen to what Stu said.

A few minutes later Stu came back and sat on the chair next to me. The director came over in front of me and started asking about my situation, with me being with Sandy, and where was my mother. I explained it all to them, and gave them my home phone number. I was instructed go out and wait in the holding room. When I got up, I heard the director call out the name "Charlie" and the funny looking short guy said, "Yes Boss." That was the first time I heard him called by name, and now I knew what it was. As I approached the door, he opened it for me. I said, "Thank You Charlie." 

Out in the holding area, Preston is really checking me out to see if he can get some kind clue as to how it went in the room. Sandy and Ronald just gave me a look like I was really nobody. I kept a straight face, so none of them knew that I had just hit an out of the park home run. At least that was what I felt. Sandy did come over and say, "You were in there a long time. What happened?" I just said, "Nothing really."

Just then Charlie calls out Number Five, and Ronald walks to the door. Before he goes in he looks back at his mom, and then me. I just smiled at him, and in the room he went.

It was killing Preston not knowing what happen, and how I felt I did. His mom was looking pretty sure as well. I just sat and waited. In less than five minutes the door opened. Ronald comes running out of the room, on the verge of tears. Now, I knew why a couple of the boys were about to cry. It was those make up scenes. They just couldn't do it. I didn't know it at the time, that knowing how to do that, was a lifesaver in many ways.

Charlie then comes out and tell us all, including the parents to come into the room. Now there were three chairs in front of the table and a couple of chairs for the parents. After we all got settle down the director stood and introduced Stu as Bozo the Clown. Stu stood, bowed, and sat back down. The director went on to tell us that, "We all did a good job, but they were only looking for one boy who would be Bozo's principal sidekick. He would do the commercials, and skits with Bozo. In his attempt to soften the news he explained that it was a very tough decision because all of us were really good.

Both Preston and I, knew that he was talking about us. I think we even looked at each other when he said that. He went on to say that, "The boy that was picked will have an alternate who will fill in when the principal is sick, or can't do the live performances." I remember thinking that is cool. I am in no matter what. I wouldn’t mind being an alternate.

He went on to say, "We have chosen Thomas or Tommy as we would prefer to call him, to be the principal, and Preston to be the alternate." I looked over at Preston, and shrugged my shoulders. Almost immediately Sandy jumps in and says, "OK, were leaving and since I promised his mother (pointing at me) I would give him a ride home, I guess I will.”

Stu stands up and said, "That won't be necessary. We have spoken to his mother, and she has instructed us to take him from you, and bring him home." I looked at Stu, he smiled and winked at me. It was at this moment that my special two year, chaotic, extraordinary, demanding, and dramatic, educational and crazy relationship with Bozo the Clown began.

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