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FIXATIONS / ORANGE COUNTY

Wowie Kazowee--She Is Bonkers for Bozo

November 29, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FULLERTON — It's not easy being a collector. Whether it's cowboy-themed dinnerware, G.I. Joes or Boy Scout slacks you collect, people are going to look a bit askance at you. When you obsess on obtaining stuff , friends treat you with patronizing bemusement, collectibles dealers mark up prices when they see you coming and relatives would just as soon shoot you.

And, in particular, if it's Bozo items you collect, don't expect to get much respect.

"One time, wearing a Bozo costume I'd made, I was driving from Anaheim to Costa Mesa to visit my sister," said Bozo collector Edie Bonk. "And I was stopped by a Highway Patrol officer, because, he said, he's always wanted to pull over a real Bozo. It's scary being pulled over by the Highway Patrol. He didn't want to ticket me for anything. He took a picture of me, and I found out later it was hung on the bulletin board at the patrol station."

Family members laugh at her. Friends laugh at her. Strangers on the Metrolink train laugh at her Bozo pin. She has gone into shops specializing in clown items--that's clown items , mind you--and been dissed.

"When I ask about Bozo in these clown stores I usually get laughed at. They say, 'No, no, he's not even a real clown! He sold out on us!' Instead they're really big on Emmett Kelly and Red Skelton. They just think Bozo is too commercial," she said.

It's difficult not to notice when you put the receiver of her Bozo phone to your ear, that, given where the mouthpiece is, you're talking into a clown's butt.

Respect or no, Bonk is proud of Bozo and her 200-piece collection of red-nosed, canoe-shoed memorabilia. She grew up loving Bozo, though at age 30 she isn't sure why she feels driven to buy lunch pails and jelly jars bearing his likeness.

"I don't know why other people feel they have to own things. And for me there's no rhyme or reason to it. I don't know how to explain it; I just see it and I've got to have it," she said, which leads nicely into the title of the pending Fullerton Museum Center exhibit: "Gotta Have It! The Nature of Collecting."

The exhibit, which opens Sunday, features Bonk's Bozo collection along with the troves of 16 other county collectors--including several previous Fixations subjects--in a presentation designed to explore the relationships between those collections and their owners.

*

It isn't often that the Highway Patrol has occasion to catch Bonk in full regalia. She passes for normal most of the time. No life-size Bozo punching bags lurk in the ivy outside the condo she and her husband, Mike, share. The inside is given over to tastefully arrayed antique furniture, with nary a clown in sight except for their Bozo phone, which produces a grating laugh rather than a ring.

"That's why it's on my side of the bed, so if it starts laughing in the middle of the night I'm the one who has to wake up and answer it," Bonk said.

Does it ever start to laugh at, shall we say, inopportune moments?

"Luckily we haven't had anyone call late at night."

She says her husband is supportive of her collecting and helps her find items, which she stores in boxes until the couple get a larger home with a room in which to display them. They collect the furniture together, as well as antique valentines, while Mike has a collection of children's books.

They met in 1982 over trays of shrunken heads and rubber snakes while working at a Disneyland Adventureland souvenir stand. Today they both work for the Southern California Automobile Club's Westways magazine.

Bonk became aware of Bozo while as a preschooler growing up in Garden Grove.

"By the time I was 5, I was watching Bozo a lot. It was my main staple, along with Sheriff John (she can still sing the Sheriff John birthday song). I loved Bozo. He always made me feel good. I'd sit right in front of the TV set until it was over. So my father bought me my first Bozo puppet when I was sick once. I had the chickenpox, but I was happy because I had my Bozo puppet with me. I slept with it for years, and I still have it."

*

Bozo wasn't an escape for her, she said, because she had a happy childhood with a good home life. Garden Grove was not then the cultural bouquet it is today, and Bonk was the only Asian student in her grade school. When she saw this pointed out in a school census, "I asked my friends if they ever thought of me as being different, and they said no."

She never got to be in the audience for Bozo's TV show, nor did she ever meet him, though she did meet wiener rep Little Oscar once, as well as Mickey Mouse.

"My mother worked at Disneyland, and she brought me backstage this one time, right by where the characters came out of the park. And here comes Mickey Mouse, pops off his head and its a little old man with a real gravelly voice who sticks a cigar in his mouth and starts smoking away. I never looked at Mickey the same way again," she said.

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