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In Licensing Business, This Clown Is No Bozo

September 14, 1986|MARTHA GROVES and DR

Clowning around is serious business for Larry Harmon, whose real name, as far as millions of youngsters are concerned, is Bozo. Thanks to a recent spate of licensing agreements, his Larry Harmon Pictures Corp., with studios in Hollywood, is poised to grow well beyond 1985 sales of $10 million.

"Three investment brokers called to ask if they could take me public," Harmon, 61, said in a telephone interview from his New York office. "They figured we'd be grossing in the next five years probably between $500 million and $750 million a year."

That may not be completely (custard) pie in the sky. Over the last 2 1/2 months, Harmon's company has signed licensing agreements with more than a dozen companies, including Hallmark. The deals will put likenesses of the world's most famous clown on greeting cards, sheets, beach towels, bedspreads, children's clothing, gumball machines, maternity clothes, phones--you name it, it'll have Bozo on it. (The phone doesn't ring; it laughs, its bulbous red nose flashing to announce the call. To answer, just speak into the oversize clown shoes, please.)

Sales of those products would be in addition to the company's current revenue from the long-running Bozo television program, which is beamed by satellite to nations around the world, and other licensing arrangements. Those cover Laurel and Hardy properties as well as the No Bozos decals that swept the Southland three years ago. Part of Bozo's resurgence is a result of BozoStuffs, a new clown family devised by Harmon's crew in Hollywood.

"They resemble his Bozoness but have personalities all their own," Harmon said in his rapid-fire way. The 10 new characters, who hail from Bozopolis, include Bozorina, Bozette, Bozo Bendy and--with a bow to the robot craze--BozBot.

All the interest by licensees and Wall Street is gratifying to Harmon, who has seen Bozo upstaged over the years by Muppets, Care Bears, Smurfs and other characters--some more fleeting than others. Bozo himself has proved quite durable, having started as a voice on Capitol Records in 1940 and as a TV personality in 1949, with Harmon beneath the riot of red hair and behind the red and white makeup. (The Bozo name, by the way, is derived from an 11th-Century Gypsy name uncovered by Harmon in years of research into clowns, jesters and other humorists. That original Bozo painted his face with raspberry juice.)

As Harmon tells it, it was nudging from the likes of Cary Grant, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Milton Berle that helped him decide against a lifelong dream of becoming a gynecologist, in favor of being Bozo. Harmon's acting connections came from his years at USC, where William deMille, Cecil B.'s brother, headed the drama department. Harmon even had small roles in a couple of Cecil's pictures, including "Samson and Delilah."

To Harmon, all this fuss over licensing, a $52-billion-a-year industry, makes him yearn for the good old days, when Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and Bozo composed a three-ring merchandising circus. Now, he says, licensing has gone to the dogs--literally--with Greyhound licensing its hound.

Even Charles Schulz, whose Peanuts people beam out from all kinds of merchandise these days, is making light of the hoo-ha with a new cartoon-strip character called Tapioca Pudding, whose father intends to make a quick million by licensing her name.

But it obviously doesn't hurt that some of this bonanza is rubbing off on his Bozoness. Harmon is negotiating for a Bozo shoe line, books, maybe even a motion picture. So far, he isn't ready to take anybody up on an offer to go public. Why should he? "Every Walter Mitty dream I ever had came true," Harmon said.

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