Christine O'Donnell's dad: A local Bozo

Christine O'Donnell, seen here in her recent campaign ad, grew up in South Jersey and her father had a part-time stint as Bozo the Clown on a Philadelphia television station.
Christine O'Donnell, seen here in her recent campaign ad, grew up in South Jersey and her father had a part-time stint as Bozo the Clown on a Philadelphia television station. (Frank Kummer)
Posted: October 08, 2010

America may still be searching for solutions for high unemployment, the outsourcing of jobs to Asia and our addiction to foreign oil.

But we're finally getting to the bottom of "Bozogate" - one of the more bizarre political kerfuffles of a bizarre 2010 midterm election.

No joke - the TV clown "scandal" loomed as a new controversy flaring this week over whether GOP Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell, under fire for past statements on everything from her college resume to witchcraft, was at it again.

The issue: Whether her dad, now 70 and living in South Jersey, really played "Bozo the Clown" on Philadelphia TV in the 1960s, as claimed in a profile of the candidate.

Yesterday, in a telephone interview from his home in Moorestown, a bemused Daniel O'Donnell filled in the blanks about his very brief stint as a substitute "Bozo the Clown" on the small Jenkintown UHF station that eventually became Fox 29.

The father of the 41-year-old Senate candidate - who raced from Delaware obscurity to national obsession in a few weeks - said he was only a short-timer in the late 1960s when the regular actor who played Bozo on WIBF-TV was called away to a gig on Broadway.

"I was doing things in community theater and a friend of mine worked there who knew that I could relate to children very well," said O'Donnell, explaining what was supposed to be a very minor detail from a New York Times article last weekend.

Except nothing is minor in today's 24-hour news cycle.

When Times reporter Mark Leibovich described Bozo - the TV clown made famous by Larry Harmon but ultimately franchised in the 1960s to local channels in dozens of cities, including Philadelphia - as Daniel O'Donnell's "signature role," the blogosphere pounced.

Why, asked online critics, did the name "Daniel O'Donnell" not turn up in online directories of the other actors who played Bozo? Was this another "gotcha" for Christine O'Donnell, who's been accused of exaggerating her academic record, including long claiming a degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University that she did not receive until last month?

Not so - although the senior O'Donnell admits that it was hardly a "signature role" but a short-term gig; in fact, any full-time actor who played Bozo was required to attend a special clown school led by Harmon in Texas.

"They gave me a book with 60 pages on how to be a 'Bozo,' " O'Donnell recalled. Even though it was only a few weeks, the experience provided the part-time actor with lifelong memories of a golden era in Philadelphia TV when live shows still flourished. He said the "Bozo" episodes were taped in a small studio in an apartment building owned by the founders of WIBF, the Fox family of Jenkintown.

One day the producer told him that the show would be canceled because snow had sidelined the bus driver who was supposed to bring in schoolchildren for that day's audience.

But O'Donnell said he called his wife and rounded up a studio full of kids from the neighborhood. He said they were counting down to start the live telecast when one of the children ran into the booth and blurted out, "That's not Bozo - that's Mr. O'Donnell!"

He said he also played Bozo at some live appearances, but clearly there was a learning curve. On the way to the first event, he said, they stopped for gas and he got annoyed at some teens who tweaked his red nose - until he was informed that that meant he was supposed to blow his clown horn.

O'Donnell said he was "always on the periphery" of the TV and theater scene in Philadelphia - which may not have prepared him for the hypercharged cable TV bubble that's engulfed his daughter in 2010.

His wife even tried swearing off the news coverage the other night, he said, but then came running down the stairs 20 minutes later to complain about a new report. "It's addicting," he sighed.

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