Day 797: ‘Twas A Good Time For The Great Taste

originally published March 7, 2014

I read a story last week – an actual news story, written and published by actual news people who weren’t pranking their employers – that our world is entering into an actual clown shortage. There are people (mostly people who run clown schools, I imagine) who are worried about this. Perhaps this is predictable fall-out from an age entranced by online distractions and hand-held toys that ooze a non-stop viscous goo of entertainment and fun. Maybe Stephen King is to blame for sticking a clown in the fictional sewers and frightening a generation of readers.

Maybe, like disco dancing and earthquake movies, clowns are merely part of an entertainment cycle that swells and wanes with the syncopated breath of a culture. My daughter was creeped out by clowns, as were many of her young friends. Gone are the days when Clarabell, Bozo, and Flunkie the Clown would tickle funny bones on TV. There’s no street-cred in clowning anymore.

But we’ve still got Ronald. Oh Ronald, that trans-fat-peddling scamp who was born in McDonaldland and has a permanent address in our hearts (probably near the blockage). He still pops up to remind kids that healthy food isn’t as much fun as McNuggets, even though his cronies have mostly been driven into advertising obscurity. Perhaps that’s for the best.

This photo pops up in various Buzzfeed retro-galleries – it’s the first incarnation of Ronald McDonald, prior to the crafted look that presently echoes the McBrand. Underneath all of that make-up is a man named Willard Scott. You probably know Willard as the one-time weatherman who still shows up on The Today Show to wish centenarians a happy birthday. Maybe you remember him from hosting the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade broadcast on NBC for ten years. Maybe you have no idea who I’m talking about. That’s okay too.

In 1962, Willard was a huge TV superstar, or at least his alter-ego – Bozo the Clown – was. According to Willard’s memoir, he was asked by McDonald’s to develop a new Bozo-like character they could use to shill their foodstuffs to children. He came up with Ronald McDonald, the Hamburger-Happy Clown. Willard planted his flag in fast-food-clown history with three 1963 TV spots as Ronald, which prompted the company to enlist a heap of actors to show up at their restaurants or at events around the country, spreading the Ronald brand into every young pair of eyes they could. Willard moved on to other things.

In 1966, Michael Polakovs – known around the country as Coco the Clown – designed the Ronald look we all grew up with. And while hundreds of actors could snip ribbons on new franchises or shake hands awkwardly with US Presidents, only a select few were fortunate enough to bask in the warm successful glow of a national TV spot. Ray Rayner, a Chicago-area kids’ TV personality, donned the McGreasepaint in 1968 and 69. George Voorhis was the flagship Ronald for a number of major store openings, national commercials, and even for the 1968 launch of the Big Mac.

King Moody was the top McClown from 1975 to 1984, so he’s the one my stomach was seduced by when I was a kid. You might remember him as Siegfried’s goon Shtarker on Get Smart. You probably don’t.

After King came Squire. No really, the #1 Ronald from 1984 to 1991 was Squire Fridell, who had played “The Toyotaman” in a series of late 1970’s commercials. No, I don’t remember those either.

In 1971, McDonald’s introduced us to McDonaldland, the magical place where shakes oozed from volcanoes, French fries were plucked from bushes and hamburgers sprouted up from a patch of dirt. Grimace and the Hamburglar were the pictures of greed, foils to Ronald’s inherent heroism (I guess), and destined for their comeuppance within the course of a 30-second commercial. Grimace stole shakes while the Hamburglar swiped burgers, all of which they no doubt planned to divvy up back at their wicked lair.

In 1974, Grimace was re-tooled as a good guy. His uncle (O’Grimacey) was introduced to pitch Shamrock Shakes in 1977. Mayor McCheese, based on the classically trippy character H.R. Pufnstuf, was constantly getting fooled by the Hamburglar, which likely led to his removal from office (and from McDonald’s commercials) in the mid-80’s. In fact, the Mayor’s similarity to Pufnstuf was at the heart of a 1973 lawsuit in which Pufnstuf creators Sid and Marty Krofft cried copyright violation. The case was settled in 1977 with over a million bucks headed to the Kroffts.

Birdie the Early Bird, who presumably was not allowed to eat after 10:30am (11:00 on weekends), showed up in the early 80’s to help sell the new McDonald’s breakfast menu. She was voiced by Russi Taylor, who is currently voicing Martin Prince, Üter, and a number of other kids on The Simpsons. Right around that time, a number of characters were phased out and actual human kids began entering the McDonaldland picture. It was the beginning of a decline in the concept that by 2004 had left no one but Ronald in charge of appealing to the kids.

Just Ronald. Just the damn clown. Captain Crook, the crazed pirate who apparently required pilfered Filet-O-Fish sandwiches for sustenance, was gone. The Fry Kids, who suffered from the same discomforting reality as Mayor McCheese – that they can only be truly enjoyed once devoured – were gone. The Happy Meal Gang, the McNugget Buddies, even Officer Big Mac was history.

Officer Big Mac, by the way, was voiced by Ted Cassidy, who played Lurch on The Addams Family. Awesome.

The stunning thing about the McDonaldland characters is that they didn’t show up in their own series until Klasky Csupo released a videotape set in 1998. This is likely why the characters were gradually dropped from the lineup – it was hard for kids to develop any attachment to them in a handful of Saturday morning commercials. This delayed-release act of synergy kept the McDonaldland critters on the periphery of youth, when a more aggressive attack might have bumped them to the forefront.

This might be the one stumbling point in McDonalds’ otherwise stellar resume of powerful advertising. Not that I can imagine their capturing a larger portion of the food market. Despite our collective dismissal of the corporate giant’s food as merely an alternative to ‘real food’, McDonald’s pulls in billions each year. Part of that success is due to so many of us incorporating fond, French-fried memories of the place into the mosaic of our youth. We may not have dressed like Grimace for Halloween, but we still remember these creatures.

I still don’t know what they were thinking with Mac Tonight though. Maybe the lesson here is that the true measure of their success is the guy in the clown paint. Maybe we really do need more of these guys.

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