Editor's Note: This is the fourth of a series of interviews with veteran television stars who are featured in the PBS series Pioneers of Television. The series runs through Feb. 8.
Before he was a Today show weatherman, Willard Scott was Bozo the Clown. And it is that credential that gives him a part in the PBS series Pioneers of Television, airing its last episode Tuesday.
Scott, now 77, was in the forefront of TV programming for children back when baby boom viewers — a huge new audience of youngsters — came home from school and tuned in to local shows. Scott was one of about 50 Bozos in kids' shows around the country in the 1950s.
TV's contemporary landscape is populated by national sensations such as Hannah Montana on Disney and the Carmen Sandiego shows on PBS. But back in Scott's day, local kids were in the audience and on the show.
"When we filmed the pilot, they sent the wrong bus to the studio," Scott recalls of his first day as Bozo. "They sent the bus from the senior home. So, my first Bozo show wasn't for kids at all. It was for people who were my age now." The retirees loved the show, but it was kids who made Bozo a long-running success.
"What was special was that kids could come to the show, be on it and see themselves. That local connection was really important," Scott says.
But, as with all things television, "important" eventually meant getting high ratings. For example, in Los Angeles, so many people fell in love with another kids show, Beany and Cecil, Albert Einstein among them, that at one point 7 out of 10 viewers were tuning to the show's telecasts. And high ratings also meant that soon there would be commercials.
Pioneers of Television chronicles the transition of children's shows from pure entertainment to mass marketing. Eventually, Congress intervened and hosts such as Scott were barred from devoting show time to promoting cereal and toys.
"I love commercials," Scott says when asked about his long association with on-air selling. "I saw one the other day with elephants dancing to Benny Goodman's Sing, Sing, Sing. I nearly fell out of my chair." (The ad is for GE).
He is proud also of having been the first Ronald McDonald, a kids' character created solely as a marketing entity. Though that was nearly a half-century ago, the pitchman remains devoted to his brand. "I go to McDonald's at least once a week. I always get a No. 2."