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As Chucko the Clown, performer was popular L.A. television show host

OBITUARIES : Charles M. Runyon, 1922 - 2008

October 09, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Charles M. Runyon, who as Chucko the Birthday Clown was a popular Los Angeles children's TV show host in the 1950s and '60s, has died. He was 86.

Runyon died Saturday of respiratory failure in an assisted-living facility in Grants Pass, Ore., said his son, Randy Runyon.

On KABC-TV Channel 7 from 1955 to 1963 and on KTTV Channel 11 from 1963 to 1964, Runyon's Chucko the Clown was a familiar -- and welcome -- sight to thousands of young Southern California viewers.

The jovial and genteel clown wore a spinning merry-go-round hat with his name on it, a half red and half red-and-white-striped clown suit with a fluffy Elizabethan-style collar and cuffs, and white gloves; and he had arching blue eyebrows on a white face with a rhinestone-tipped nose and an upturned red smile.

His live, hourlong show included cartoons, special guests and games with his studio audience, which consisted of two children celebrating their birthdays and their young friends.

At the end of the show, the camera would show a large birthday cake, and Chucko would sing: "Here's a hap, hap, happy birthday from me (that's me), to you (that's you). . . ."

During his heyday, Runyon's Chucko would open the television coverage of the annual Santa Claus Lane Parade by jumping through a bass drum head.

"They'd say, 'And now from Hollywood, the Santa Claus Lane Parade' -- and BOOM! -- he'd bust through the drum and usually bow and salute," recalled Randy Runyon, who said his father spent most of his time during the parade outside the car that was provided for him and danced along with the marching bands.

Chucko also made countless personal appearances at supermarkets and shopping centers. "He'd pull into, say, the Topanga Plaza or whatever and there'd be thousands of people as far as you could see," his son said.

For his personal appearances, Runyon created a circus wagon -- a converted delivery truck with a stage on top.

"He'd go up through a hole in the roof and do the show from there," his son recalled, "and then we'd give out the goodies out the back door." The "goodies" were samples of the Chucko show's sponsors' products such as Barbara Ann bread and Flex Straws.

Chucko also made personal appearances as the star attraction of a mini circus called Chucko's Big Top.

Randy Runyon said his father loved being a clown. "It was a combination of enjoying the kids and comedy," he said. "One of his favorite sayings was: 'If you can see life through the eyes of a child, they'll allow you into their world. And through the clown, you can do that.' "

Runyon was born in San Diego on Aug. 10, 1922. He worked at Hughes Aircraft before World War II and was serving in the Army Reserve. He was called up for active duty and was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed by the Japanese, his son said.

Runyon returned to Hughes after the war, and in the early 1950s, he and his wife, Millie, launched a home birthday party business in Long Beach with a mobile merry-go-round that Runyon had built in his basement and that they towed behind their car.

After one birthday party, a parent casually made the fateful remark, "All you need is a clown."

"As the story goes," Randy Runyon said, when his parents returned home, Millie went into the bathroom and told Chuck to come in and sit down. "So he did, and between lipstick and mascara and different things she had there, they created the beginning of Chucko the Clown."

In honor of legendary clown Joseph "Joey" Grimaldi, who is considered to be the father of modern clowning, they borrowed the "o" from Joey and added it to Chuck's name.

The idea behind Chucko, as Millie Runyon once put it, was "if Christmas has Santa Claus, and Halloween has a witch, and Easter a bunny, why shouldn't kids' birthdays have a clown?"

Runyon, whose mother sewed all of Chucko's costumes, was among 28 clowns who auditioned for a children's show on Channel 7 in the mid-'50s and, to his surprise, he landed the job.

A year after his show moved from Channel 7 to Channel 11, Runyon was asked to stop doing his live show and become a videotaped cartoon host.

"It was going to be like an emcee between cartoons with no kids," said Randy Runyon. "That's where he said, 'No kids, no clown.' "

After leaving television, Runyon opened Chucko's Party House at Jungleland in Thousand Oaks, where he hosted three or four birthday party groups at a time on weekends until 1969, when the wild animal park closed.

Runyon and his family then moved to Oregon, where he portrayed Chucko for a closed-circuit educational TV channel for a few years in the early '70s.

Randy Runyon, who as a boy dressed in a replica of his father's clown costume and rode in the Santa Claus Lane Parade as Chucko Jr., took over as Chucko the Birthday Clown in the early '80s. He retired from clowning in 1995.

Millie Runyon, who wrote the 1994 biography of her husband "Are Clowns Hatched?," died in 2000.

In addition to Randy, Runyon is survived by another son, Dan; six grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren. No service is planned.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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