I remember the roar of the crowd as I confidently gripped the ball and took aim—the way the noises faded as I focused on my target—and the broad smile on Bozo the Clown’s face during my successful run on the Grand Prize Game.
Though I am competitive, I’m not well coordinated or graceful. You probably wouldn’t have guessed that my greatest victory was even vaguely athletic. After all, I was the pitiful child who crossed the finish line dead last in my elementary school’s Turkey Trot one-mile race. I eliminated myself from field hockey tryouts because I gagged on the mouth guard. I made exactly two baskets in two seasons of intramural basketball. At least the TV cameras turned me into a winner.
My shining moment happened at a taping of The Bozo Show in Philadelphia around 1990. Bozo (played by Bob McCone) built suspense, asking audience members to raise their hands in support as I threw ping-pong balls into six buckets. The first four buckets were easy, but I overshot the fifth. Bozo asked my father to try the last two buckets to win the grand prize, a 13-inch color TV. Dad made a perfect toss into bucket number five . . . and the ball bounced back out! Game over. Even Bozo looked shocked.
Was the experience everything I’d hoped it would be? Not really. Let’s be honest here—Bozo’s bodacious hair was not real. The show wasn’t the same without the glitzy graphics added in post-production, either. I also learned that clowns make mistakes; Bozo got ahead of himself when I went for the second bucket and accidentally revealed the third-round prize. The flustered clown struggled to correct himself. Fortunately, I clinched the third bucket and won the prize after all, a children’s cookbook, along with a Bozo bendy toy, Crayola Markers, a My Little Pony, and Friendly’s Ice Cream. When Bozo filled my arms with goodies, the ice cream box was surprisingly empty. Had I actually expected him to hand me a melting container of cookies ‘n cream? Of course the box was just a prop.
These revealing details were my reward—and punishment—for peeking behind the proverbial curtain. Thanks to my experience on The Bozo Show, I stopped believing in the inherent truthfulness or infallibility of television at an early age. Today I know that television’s other sleights of hand include cooking shows, where the host prepares a pot roast and serves it before the credits roll, and reality TV, where sensationally dramatic moments consume the participants’ waking hours. But every time I run into a Bozo toy in the museum’s collections, I still get a glimmer of my moment of glory—such as it was.