Art Cervi shaped the musical tastes of Detroit baby boomers as talent coordinator for the dance show “Swingin ‘Time” and then found a new career by hiding behind the bulbous red nose of Bozo the Clown and entertaining countless thousands of younger fans.
Cervi, who reached a huge audience that never knew his name, died on Monday at his home in Novi. He was 86 years old.
Between 1959 and 1980, several bozos appeared on Detroit television. Cervi played the character the longest – from 1967 to 1975 on Channel 9 (CKLW-TV) and then on Channel 2 (WJBK-TV) until he and Bozo went off the air in 1980.
The size of Cervi’s audiences as Bozo makes him likely one of the greatest stars in Detroit TV history. No one in Detroit would have recognized Cervi on the street, however. He had written a clause in his contract that stipulated that he had to be chauffeured to the train station in full gear – not because he was celebrity, but because he feared that if the children saw Bozo without his clown insignia, it would be their bond set fire to their humorous hero.
Cervi wasn’t just another bozo.
“He seemed to be having a good time,” said Ed Golick, the curator detroitkidshow.com Page? ˅. “That wasn’t always the case with everyone who played the character. Some of these guys looked like they wanted to be somewhere other than in front of the kids. The art enjoyed that. “
Cervi, born in Mount Pleasant, New York, began his professional career in the 1950s as a manager at the Pleasure & Leisure Shops furniture stores in Redford and Garden City. He later took a position as a board operator at WKMH-AM, which turned into WKNR-AM. Under these callsigns “KEENER 13” accompanied a generation of teenagers and young adults into the rock era.
While at WKNR, he and disc jockey Robin Seymour developed Swingin ‘Time, a teen dance show that aired six afternoons a week on Channel 9 in Windsor and featured the day’s best rock acts. The Lovin ‘Spoonful, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Bobby Sherman, Bobby Goldsboro and local acts like Bob Seger and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels were among the guests who dubbed themselves on the show, as well as the Supremes and Marvin Gaye from the flourishing Motown squad.
Cervi’s role as an invisible force in Detroit’s musical culture also included getting teenagers onto the show’s dance floor and onto television.
“It was the hippest thing in town,” said disc jockey Pat St. John in a Detroit Public Television documentary about Robin Seymour. According to Cervi, around 200 teenagers would hope to land one of 40 to 50 dance spots on the show.
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Sometimes Cervi could be too hip. He booked Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in 1966 on “Swingin ‘Time”. The group had a new two-disc LP entitled “Freak Out!” This included songs like “Who Are The Brain Police?” “Help I’m a Rock” and “Trouble Comin ‘Every Day”. The latter, though written about the 1965 uprising, predicted Detroit’s own civil unrest in 1967.
Channel 9 attendant was flooded with positive and negative calls. Zappa later explained his musical mission to a Detroit Free Press reporter: “We are systematically trying to remove the creative barriers our helpful American education system has put in place to ensure that nothing creative gets to the masses.”
Cervi was later quoted as saying, “We’ve never had anyone on the show who brought anything close to the controversy that caused it.”
“Swingin ‘Time” was last broadcast in 1968, in the midst of changing times and a more edgy music scene.
Cervi had now made the improbable transition from rock and roll to children’s television, hiding for the first time under Bozo’s wild red hair (which came from a yak), oversized shoes, and an oversized red nose.
The Bozo figure first appeared as a voice in a children’s read-along protocol published by Capitol Records in 1946. Capitol sold the rights a decade later to Clevelander and Larry Harmon, graduates of the University of Southern California.
Harmon, not a Bozo business, turned the clown person into an empire. He has given the character to television stations in virtually every major city in North America, including Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Flint, collecting royalties in each. According to Larry Harmon Pictures Corp. 183 people played Bozo in cities around the world.
Each Bozo has been trained in the art of the clown at Bozo Boot Camp. When a Bozo performed publicly, Harmon received half the fee. All Bozo characters would have to buy the costume exclusively from Harmon. Willard Scott, who became famous as a weatherman on NBC’s “Today”, played Bozo in Washington, DC in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The show was a money machine. Once it was seen on Channel 9 for an hour every weekday morning, an additional hour each weekday afternoon, a half hour on Saturday, and an additional hour on Sunday.
The viewers usually watched cartoons and the participants played games, sometimes assisted by Mr. Whodini, a magician. And there were songs that were often performed by Bozo, who was accompanied by Mr. Calliope (pronounced CAL-ee-OP-ee) and sometimes sung by the young guests.
In Detroit, Bozo first aired on Channel 4 (now WDIV-TV) with Bob McNea in a clown suit. When Channel 4 lost the rights of the show to Channel 9, McNea appeared on Channel 4 almost immediately as Oopsy! Up who was billed as Bozo’s cousin. McNea was happy to put Bozo in the rearview mirror. “That bozo wig was horrible,” he later recalled. “It was like having your head in a truck.”
Bozo’s flight over the Detroit River to Windsor was no small feat. This was perhaps the pinnacle of children’s television in Detroit. Advertisers were desperate to reach a huge demographic of boomers (and their parents’ paperbacks). On the local list of talents in the early days of television: Soupy Sales, Wixie the Pixie (played by Marv Welch), Captain Jolly, Poopdeck Paul, Ricky the Clown, Johnny Ginger and Milky the Clown.
Channel 9 struggled to fill the bozo gig. Jerry Booth, who became famous as Jingles the Jester, played the role without enthusiasm for a while. Another actor turned on his bozo wig after just a day.
Cervi had to be persuaded to audition. “They kept following me because I worked so well with children. They kept telling me that it might take 15 minutes. So I put on the suit, cut a ribbon and forgot, ”he said once.
Later he was called to the corner office of the CKLW. “He (the manager in charge of hiring the next Bozo) was sitting in front of two stacks of duct tape, each about a foot high. And he said to me, “I don’t know what we’re going to do with you. You are by far the best of all candidates. However, they have the least amount of experience in front of the camera. Let’s try for 30 days. ‘”
The month-long experiment lasted almost a decade and a half, and Cervi became a local hero.
Cervi’s success with the job could be due to the respect he showed the youth. They respected him back.
“In a way, I’m a teacher,” he once said. “I teach love and respect. If that’s not educational I don’t know what it is. “
After his television career ended, Cervi hosted “Let’s Talk Cars”, a radio show about automobiles.
Survivors are his 47-year-old wife Suzanne; Sons Mike, Nick and Jon; and a daughter, Patricia. A memorial service will be private.
Tim Kiska is Professor of Language, Culture and Communication at the University of Michigan – Dearborn.