Art Cervi shaped musical tastes of Detroit baby boomers as talent coordinator for the dance show "Swingin’ Time," then found a new career by hiding in plain sight behind Bozo the Clown’s bulbous red nose and entertaining countless thousands of younger fans.
Cervi, who reached an enormous audience that never knew his name, died Monday at his home in Novi. He was 86.
Several Bozos appeared on Detroit television between 1959 and 1980. Cervi played the character the longest — from 1967 until 1975 on Channel 9 (CKLW-TV) and then on Channel 2 (WJBK-TV) until he, and Bozo, left the air in 1980.
The size of Cervi’s audiences as Bozo probably makes him one of the biggest stars in Detroit TV history. No one in Detroit, however, would have recognized Cervi on the street. He had a clause written into his contract requiring that he be chauffeured to the station in full gear — not because he enjoyed celebrity but because he worried that if the kids saw Bozo without his clown regalia it would torch their bond with their humorous hero.
Cervi was not just another Bozo.
“He seemed like he was having a good time,” said Ed Golick, curator of the detroitkidshow.com site. “That wasn’t always true with everybody who played the character. Some of these guys looked like they wanted to be anywhere but out in front of the kids. Art enjoyed that.”
Cervi, born in Mount Pleasant, New York, began his professional career as a manager at the Pleasure & Leisure Shops furniture stores in Redford and Garden City in the 1950s. He later took a job as a board operator at WKMH-AM, which morphed into WKNR-AM. Under those call letters, “KEENER 13” escorted a generation of teens 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 top rock acts of the day. The Lovin’ Spoonful, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Bobby Sherman, Bobby Goldsboro and local acts such as Bob Seger and Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels were among the guests who lip-synched on the show, as well as the Supremes and Marvin Gaye from the thriving Motown roster.
Cervi’s role as an unseen force in Detroit’s musical culture also included shepherding teenagers onto the show’s dance floor and onto TV.
“It was the hippest thing in town,” disc jockey Pat St. John said in a Detroit Public Television documentary about Robin Seymour. According to Cervi, some 200 youngsters would hope to land one of 40 to 50 dance slots on the show.
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Sometimes, Cervi could be too hip. He booked Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention on "Swingin’ Time" in 1966. The group had a new two-disc LP titled "Freak Out!" that included songs such as “Who Are The Brain Police?” “Help, I’m a Rock” and “Trouble Comin’ Every Day.” The latter, though written about the 1965 Watts rebellion, presaged Detroit’s own 1967 civil disturbance.
The Channel 9 switchboard was flooded with calls both positive and negative. Zappa later explained his musical mission to a Detroit Free Press reporter: “We are systematically trying to do away with the creative roadblocks that our helpful American educational system has installed to make sure nothing creative leaks through to the masses.”
Cervi was later quoted as saying: “We’ve never had anyone on the show that brought anything near the controversy they caused.”
"Swingin’ Time" aired for the final time in 1968 amid changing times and an edgier music scene.
Cervi, meanwhile, had made the improbable transition from rock 'n' roll to children’s television, going on air for the first time concealed beneath Bozo’s wild red hair (which came from a yak), oversized shoes and an outsize red nose.
The Bozo character first appeared as a voice on a children’s read-along record released by Capitol Records in 1946. Capitol sold the rights a decade later to Clevelander and University of Southern California grad Larry Harmon.
Harmon, no business Bozo, turned the clown persona into an empire. He spun the character off to television stations in virtually every major city in North America, including Detroit, Grand Rapids and Flint, collecting royalties from each. According to Larry Harmon Pictures Corp., 183 people played Bozo in cities all over the world.
Every Bozo was schooled in the fine art of clownmanship at Bozo Boot Camp. When a Bozo made a public appearance, Harmon received half the fee. All Bozo characters would have to buy the costume exclusively from Harmon. Willard Scott, who became famous as the weatherman on NBC's "Today," played Bozo in Washington, D.C., in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The show was a money machine. At one point, it was seen on Channel 9 for an hour every weekday morning, another hour every weekday afternoon, a half hour on Saturday and another hour on Sunday.
Viewers would typically see cartoons, and contestants would play games, sometimes assisted by Mr. Whodini, a magician. And there would be songs, often performed by Bozo, who was accompanied by Mr. Calliope (pronounced CAL-ee-OP-ee), sometimes sung by the young guests.
In Detroit, Bozo initially aired on Channel 4 (now WDIV-TV), with Bob McNea in the clown suit. When Channel 4 lost the show’s rights to Channel 9, McNea reappeared almost immediately on Channel 4 as Oopsy!, who was billed as Bozo’s cousin. McNea was happy to put Bozo in the rearview mirror. “That Bozo wig was awful,” he later recalled. “It was like having your head in a vice.”
Bozo’s flight across the Detroit River to Windsor was no small business matter. This was, perhaps, the apex of Detroit kids television, with advertisers eager to reach an enormous demographic bulge of boomers (and their parents’ pocketbooks). On the local roster of talent during 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 had trouble filling the Bozo gig. Jerry Booth, who became famous as Jingles the Jester, played the part for a while with no enthusiasm. Another actor turned in his Bozo wig after only one day.
Cervi had to be talked into auditioning. “They kept hounding me because I worked so well with kids. They kept telling me it’d take maybe 15 minutes. So I put the suit on, cut a tape and forgot about it,” he once said.
Later, he was summoned to the CKLW corner office. “He (the executive charged with hiring the next Bozo) was sitting in front of two stacks of tape, each about a foot high. And he told me, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do with you. You are, by far, the best of all the candidates. But you have the least on-camera experience. Let’s try this for 30 days.'”
The monthlong experiment lasted almost a decade and a half, with Cervi becoming a local hero.
Cervi’s success with the job might have resulted from the respect he gave the youngsters. They respected him back.
“In a sense, I am a teacher,” he once said. “I teach love and respect. If that’s not educational, I don’t know what is.”
After his television career ended, Cervi hosted "Let's Talk Cars," a radio show about automobiles.
Survivors include his wife of 47 years, Suzanne; sons Mike, Nick, and Jon; and a daughter, Patricia. A memorial service will be private.
Tim Kiska is a professor of Language, Culture, and Communication at the University of Michigan — Dearborn.