To the kids who watched “Bozo’s Circus,” Don Sandburg was an amiable, nimble mime they knew as Sandy the Clown. Behind the scenes of the long-running children’s television show, he was anything but.
Amid all of the pie-throwing, animal acts, magicians, marionettes and grand marches seen on screen, Mr. Sandburg was the creative force behind the scenes, producing and writing classic skits influenced by vaudeville and burlesque that were so successful the “Bozo” cast recycled them for years.
“He left in 1969; they were still using his stuff in 2001,” said Steve Jajkowski, a Museum of Broadcast Communications archivist.
Mr. Sandburg also came up with the idea of the Grand Prize Game, in which “magic arrows” superimposed over the screen picked lucky girls and boys from the Bozo studio audience to toss balls into a series of pails to win such prizes as Schwinn bikes and a bucket full of silver dollars.
Going in person to the WGN-TV show, which ran from 1960 to 2001, was a rite of passage for many Chicago Baby Boomers and members of Gen X and Gen Y. It was so popular that parents would put their names on the list to get tickets as soon as their kids were born, knowing that could take years.
Mr. Sandburg, who modeled his character of Sandy the Clown on Harpo Marx, the silent member of the Marx Brothers, was the last surviving member of the original cast. He died Oct. 6 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at the Springfield, Oregon, home of his son Douglas. Mr. Sandburg, who’d live in Oregon for about 20 years, was 87.
“I’ve lived in 40 states, and everywhere I go, I meet people who know my dad” through Bozo, Doug Sandburg said.
“He didn’t want to play down to children,” said Mark Yurkiw, co-author of “Chicago TV Horror Movie Shows, from Shock Theatre to Svengoolie.”
Mr. Sandburg left “Bozo” in 1969 for bigger TV circuses in Los Angeles, according to his son. Another former WGN staffer, the legendary TV executive Fred Silverman helped him make connections. Mr. Sandburg worked on the frenetic Saturday morning Hanna-Barbera kids’ program “The Banana Splits,” a “Star Trek” cartoon, a talk show with Virginia Graham and the variety series “Shields and Yarnell,” which featured a couple of mimes so skilled that they resembled animatronic figures.
He was born in Rocky River, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, and grew up near Cincinnati, where he absorbed the flourish of touring big bands and Barnum & Bailey circus performers, his son said. He studied at Miami University of Ohio.
He got his TV start as a prop handler in Cincinnati. AT WLW radio, he worked with future Bozo Bob Bell and Wally Phillips, who would became a famed deejay in Chicago. All three were invited to come to WGN to develop programming, Mr. Sandburg said in an interview on chicagotelevision.com.
He said that, on “Bozo,” “I thought I’ll be a silent clown because there’s enough conversation on the show.”
Renowned clown Emmett Kelly, creator of the silent character Weary Willie, “was sort of an inspiration to him,” Jajkowski said.
“He was the closest in spirit to what a true clown is,” said Ted Okuda, who co-authored the book “The Golden Age of Chicago Children’s Television.” “He was, in many ways, the most poignant of the group. Bozo was kind of the braggart, and Oliver O. Oliver was kind of the fall guy. He was the spirit of the silent clowns from the circus.”
And though “Bozo’s” ringmaster Ned Locke called him Sandy the Tramp, he preferred Sandy the Clown.
He also insisted that Bozo wear a red clown suit because he thought it looked better on TV, Jajkowski said. After Mr. Sandburg left the show, Bozo started wearing blue.
Occasionally, as Sandy the Clown, he had to wrestle an animal act. One time, “They had an alligator on, and he swung it around to keep its mouth away from him,” his son said.
Eventually, Mr. Sandburg wanted a break. “After seven years, 250 days per year, four sketches a day and 3 million words on paper, I was mentally stagnant and exhausted,” he said in an interview with Jajkowski for the website Chicagotelevision.com. At 39, he relocated to California and network TV.
In 1978, he moved to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, where he ran the Island Center performing arts theater.
A skilled sailor, he also participated in the Mackinac race and brokered yachts in Florida and Marina Del Rey, California, according to his son.
His wife Gabrielle died before him. In addition to his son, Mr. Sandburg is survived by three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His son said he is being cremated and that his ashes might someday be scattered from a sailboat.