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story.lead_photo.caption Gary Weir looks through some memorabilia from his days as Bozo, Arkansas’ most famous clown. - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

Same complication every year.

Photo by John Sykes Jr.
Gary Weir and his wife, Linda, show a still from his days as Bozo the Clown.
Photo by Courtesy of Gary Weir
This undated publicity photo was taken to promote Bozo’s Big Top, which starred Gary Weir as Bozo the Clown.
Photo by Courtesy of Gary Weir
This shows Bozo the Clown’s first day on TV, Sept. 5, 1966.
Photo by Courtesy of Gary Weir
Bozo the Clown and his team made an annual visit to Ray Winder Field to play the Arkansas Travelers. Gary Weir, who played Bozo, also aspired to be a professional baseball player.

Bozo's All Stars versus the Arkansas Travelers at Ray Winder Field.

Bottom of the fifth. (They play five innings.)

Game tied.

Bozo at bat.

The grown-ups in the stands were pretty sure how this would end.

Bozo, however, wasn't batting for the grown-ups. But he wasn't playing only for the kids, either.

When Bozo pulled on that uniform every year, he was living out his dream even as he lived out his destiny.

Baseball was Gary Weir's dream, but Bozo was his destiny. Once a summer at Ray Winder, Weir had it all.

...

For more than 40 years, in one guise or another, Gary Weir was an electronic presence in central Arkansas. Disc jockey. Television booth announcer. TV weather report reader. Horse-race reporter.

But for all his serious work, people remember Weir for his 25 years as Arkansas' No. 1 clown.

Mention Bozo to any former kid who grew up watching Little Rock television during the '60s, '70s and '80s, and the former kid likely will quote Bozo's trademark question: "Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?"

Every Monday through Friday, from 1966 to 1991, Bozo's face -- his Titanic orange hair and greased-on smile, eyebrows that out-arched the Golden Arches -- filled TV screens for as far as KATV could broadcast it.

In grocery stores, Bozo smiled from packages up and down the aisles -- frankfurters, bread, vitamins, soft drinks, cereal, Coleman Dairy milk. Banks opened Bozo savings clubs.

At 3:30 p.m. weekdays, his hourlong after-school show distracted kids from the things kids are expected to do after school. But in central Arkansas, kids enjoyed an implicit understanding with their parents that after school meant after Bozo.

The children of central Arkansas so dearly loved Bozo that the waiting list to appear on Bozo's Big Top was two years. Lore holds that some parents reserved a spot for newborns within days of birth -- if not the day of.

Weir was the state's only Bozo, a job he held longer than any other Bozo in the United States. Bozo's Big Top aired for more years in other cities than in Little Rock, but more than one actor played the part.

No one but Weir filled the Size 83-AAA shoes of Bozo in the Natural State. He was the first, the last, the only.

...

Tommy Weir wanted his son to play baseball. "Every day when he would come home from work, he and I would throw the baseball until ... dark."

Gary Weir and Nick Avants, who attended the University of Oklahoma on a baseball scholarship, tried out for the Kansas City Athletics at Ray Winder Field when they were teenagers. "Gary was a pretty good ballplayer," says Avants, a former umpire in the Pacific Coast league who left baseball to return to his family's pest-control business in Little Rock. "He could have played minor league ball."

The Athletics' camp liked the Arkansas boys. "The Athletics offered Nicky and me to go and play ball," Weir says.

A scout sent them home with the paperwork. "I was excited, rode my bicycle home. 'Mama, look, the Athletics want me.'"

Mama was Eva Jane Weir, who operated a beauty shop next to the Weir home at the corner of A Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard in North Little Rock. (The Weirs had a second son, Randy, a chef who was seven years younger than Gary and died at 45.)

"Mother looked at [the paperwork] and tore it up. 'You're not going anywhere. You're going to Arkansas State Teachers College.' My daddy ... got upset, but ... Daddy knew better than to fight with her. He just said, 'I'm sorry son.'"

...

Even as the 17-year-old mourned his baseball dreams, he was building -- without intending to or realizing it -- toward his lifelong career in radio, television and advertising sales.

Weir's first taste of radio was as a fan at KXJR in his hometown of Russellville, where the station owner's son was a disc jockey. "There'd be eight or 10 of us in there, dancing around. We'd give him notes -- 'Dedicate this from Beth to Gary.'"

Weir's first broadcast job was as an after-school DJ at KEEV in Benton. Tommy Weir, who advertised his Goodyear Tires store on KXLR in North Little Rock, mentioned his son to the station manager, who invited Gary to audition. Within a week, Weir was on the air.

His next job was at KAJI; he was on the air when The Associated Press teletype clattered out the news that someone had shot President Kennedy. Jerry Sims, whose radio names included Larry London, was in the newsroom.

"Jerry ... had this look on his face. He brought the bulletin to me. I sat down. I was so shocked. Jerry was ripping it, and I was reading it."

In his short radio career, Weir worked with other icons of Little Rock radio, including A.J. Lyons, Bob Bray and Stan Steel.

It was during his time at KLXR that Weir became John Scott, named for the heroic character in Jimmy Dean's song, "Big Bad John." He was 19 when he went to KATV, Channel 7, to apply for a summer job as an announcer.

"I open the door, and there's Dale [Nicholson] coming down the stairs," Weir recalls. Nicholson, who died in June 2013, was a booth announcer who retired as the station's general manager.

Nicholson greeted Weir: "How are you, pard? Who are you?"

"I go by John Scott on the air."

"John Scott? I listen to you every day coming to work. What can I do for you?"

"You can help me get a job."

"Let me introduce you to Mr. Doubleday."

That meeting set the trajectory for the next 30 years of Weir's career. After Weir's audition, station manager Bob Doubleday (who died in 2001) offered him a six-week job as a TV booth announcer.

Weir didn't have the job he wanted, but Bozo-to-be had his size 83-AAA in the door. From the booth, Weir read commercials for his father's Goodyear store, Sallinger's department store and Hansen's Drive Inn, home of Whoppa-burger.

Six weeks turned into a full-time job. For the next three years, Weir did a bit of everything, including the weather reports, which is what he was doing that day in 1966 when Doubleday set Weir's career on fire.

"I was standing by the weather board," Weir says. "He comes walking over. He's got this picture in his hand. 'Have you ever heard of Bozo the clown?'"

...

Weir spent three days in Boston to learn the intricacies of Bozo's Big Top, a franchise that more than 200 TV stations broadcast. Each station employed its own Bozo. (NBC weatherman Willard Scott is among many who have filled Bozo's big shoes.)

Larry Harmon, the actor who bought the rights to Bozo, applied Weir's makeup the first time. "He was quite a man," Weir says of Harmon. "He was all excited all the time. He thought Bozo was everything there ever was to be in the world. He gave me a few critiques. ... He said, 'You got it. You do it just like I did when I was Bozo.'

"Bozo became something inside. I loved the show. I loved walking into the studio and seeing those faces, hugging those kids. It meant more than just being a clown, acting a fool."

Weir had kids of his own -- Mandy and Cami. (Weir and his first wife divorced when Cami was 13.)

"In school, all my friends wanted to be on the show," says Cami Weir, who lives in New Orleans. "I loved to see my dad interview kids. He always listened to them. Even if they were uncooperative or shy, he went the extra mile to make them talk and smile."

Life as the daughter of a celebrity ultimately was tiresome. "I got to the point where I wished people would leave my dad alone. I wished we could just be us."

Her favorite times with her father, then, didn't involve Bozo. "My special memories of him are going to the backstretch at Oaklawn and walking through the stables with my dad," Cami Weir says. "Going to the Kentucky Derby."

Ron Sherman, a TV weatherman famous for the Gusty character he drew on his weather reports, worked with Weir at KATV and made personal appearances with him.

"He was an icon," says Sherman, founder and CEO of an agency that produces advertising nationwide. (Guinness World Records recently crowned Sherman as the most prolific producer of TV commercials in the world.) "Moms and grandmas would stop him in restaurants. He was a rock star."

...

The baseball field wasn't the only place Weir played hardball. After 11 years as Bozo, Weir decided the station wasn't paying him enough to clown around.

The remedy, he decided, was to buy the franchise. Weir didn't ask Doubleday for a raise nor did he alert him to his intentions. He went straight to the top and met with Harmon, who agreed to a 10-year contract for $100,000. On the plane home, Weir sat next to an acquaintance who happened to be president of a bank in Arkadelphia.

"I am trying to buy the Arkansas franchise from Bozo," he said to his friend.

"How much?"

"A hundred thousand."

"Come down to the bank tomorrow. We'll send him a cashier's check."

So Weir took out the loan, and Bozo was his.

The next step was to wait for Doubleday to hear the news. "Boy," he recalls Doubleday saying as he approached his desk. "I need to talk to you."

"I figured you would."

"What do you think you're doing?"

"The only way I'm going to get paid properly," Weir answered, "is to own it and sell it back to you."

In the end, whether Doubleday liked it or not, if he wanted Channel 7 to keep Bozo, he had to accept Weir's terms.

"He said I'd done my homework," Weir says. "He stuck out his hand. 'You got a deal.'"

Cal Dring, once the host of a morning show at KATV and a friend of Doubleday's, recalls that Doubleday didn't like the curve Weir threw him. "Doubleday was pissed," Dring said. "It was kind of a devious move. I think Doubleday, after Gary pulled that little number, had a little animosity.

"Gary was looking after Gary. From a business standpoint, he should have."

...

Weir turned in his wig in 1991. Three years later, he created Clowntown, a short-lived show in which he starred as Candy, a blue-haired clown. In the mid-'90s, he started reporting on the races at Oaklawn, which combined his broadcast talents with a sport he loved as much as baseball. That show lasted until the spring of 2013, when Weir's career ended even more rapidly than it had ascended.

On what would be Bozo's last trip to the Kentucky Derby, Linda Gilliam knew something wasn't right. (Weir and Gilliam worked together in the 1990s and married in 2003). Early on, the infrequent slip of the mind or the occasional stumble didn't alarm her. "I thought he was clowning," she recalls.

Back home in North Little Rock, however, the symptoms grew worse. Bozo's hands and feet twitched. He slurred his words.

"Something happened that I wasn't aware of," she says. "He didn't have a stroke where he just fell out."

But it was a stroke, and it laid him low.

Weir remembers the moment. "I hadn't been sick or anything," he says. "I was on the phone with Linda. Next thing I knew she came in. I was watching TV but I couldn't see anything. Everything was black and white and green spots. I didn't think I was going to make it."

Three years later, Weir, 74, still moves slowly, tires easily. He is weepy occasionally and unexpectedly. He doesn't leave home often, and when he does, he always takes his walker. During one of several visits to their home, Gary and Linda pulled out the cardboard boxes in which they store the photographs and newspaper clippings from his career.

He picked up a photo and paused while he lined a face up with his memories. Once he recognized a face and dredged up the name, he paused for a half a beat until his brain transferred the name onto his vocal cords.

"Ben Combs," he says. Combs is an advertising executive.

He picked up another photograph: "Dale Nicholson." Nicholson had been general manager and chairman of KATV.

A guy in a Globetrotters basketball uniform. "Geese Ausby."

Lots of faces, famous and otherwise, from lots of events over three decades.

One face, though, is common to all of the photographs.

"That's me right there," Weir says, pointing to his red-bulb-nosed self each time he pulled out a picture.

"There I am," he says and points again.

And: "That's me."

As if you couldn't spot him yourself.

...

Ray Winder Field: Every year, the Bozo's All Stars-Travelers' game came down to this moment, the late Bill Valentine, longtime manager of the Travelers, said in a 2014 interview.

Bottom of the fifth.

Game tied.

Bozo at bat.

Bozo's All Stars were the best of the local Little Leaguers. To make the game fair, the Travs who threw and batted right switched to left; southpaws vice versa.

"Gary Weir ... was a pretty good hitter," Valentine said. "He hit the ball to the fence every time to win the game."

And the kids went crazy for Bozo.

Style on 07/31/2016

Print Headline: Rooty kazooty ... and wowie kazow, Bozo (Gary Weir) fondly recalled

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