Bozo - Bill Britten - in New York City
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Bill Britten biography [Bozo the Clown]

William Cohen (1928 – February 4, 2020) was an American actor born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He’s better know as Bill Britten, the Bozo the Clown in the New York City market in the 1950’s and 60’s.

Army and College years

Bill Britten (or more accurately, William Cohen at the time) served in the US Army. where he wrote, performed and produced shows for Special Services, then earned a Master’s in Drama from the University of Washington

He began his career by working his way through Temple University as a performer at children’s events throughout the metropolitan area.

New York, New York …

In 1954, Bill Britten moved to New York City to work in nightclubs. Around this time, he met ventriloquist Doris Faye and they formed Britten-Faye Productions. One of their joint creations was Britten’s tramp clown character Professor Oakey Doakey. As the tramp clown, Britten entered and won the Funniest New Clown Of The Year (about 400 candidates) audition with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He received national publicity as the schoolteacher turned clown after performing a pantomime routine where he attempted to sit in a collapsible chair. He performed with the Ringling Brothers circus at Madison Square Garden during the spring of 1954. When the circus moved to the next destination on its itinerary, Bill Britten remained in New York City.

TV Time

In 1954, he made his NYC TV debut as the second head puppeteer and cartoonist on Jolly Gene & His Fun Machine on WJZ TV Ch. 7 in New York City.

Bill Britten as Jolly Jellybean in New York City
Bill Britten as Jolly Jellybean in New York City

From 1956-1958, Bill Britten appeared on Time For Fun! WJZ/WABC TV as “Johnny Jellybean“. Oddly, Corny the Clown also appeared on Time for Fun. He’s better known as Bob Keeshan, the original Clarabell from The Howdy Doody Show and, of course, the original Captain Kangaroo.

From 1958-59, he was the third host/performer of WABD TV Ch. 5 NYC’s Looney Tunes Show. In addition, he co-hosted Wonderama in 1958.

Bozo the Clown in New York

Bozo - Bill Britten - in New York City
Bozo – Bill Britten – in New York City

Bill Britten began performing as Bozo the Clown for WPIX in New York, beginning in 1959. In 1961, the show title changed to Bozo’s Big Top Circus! where he continued to perform on camera through 1964. He also made numerous personal appearances over these years as Bozo in parades, TV specials, etc.

A newspaper incident points out Bill Britten’s character, and how he presented Bozo. A parent from Westchester County, New York, in a letter published by the New York Daily News, accused him of teaching her children to utter the phrase “Aw, shut up.” In a brief reply that appeared in a subsequent issue of the newspaper on June 5, 1960, Britten replied:

“…I must emphasize that she is greatly mistaken in asserting that they are acquiring the expression from me. Apart from many years of performing for children, I have spent many enriching years as a schoolteacher and educator, and I am doubly aware of the influence we performers have on young viewers and our responsibility in that connection. I have never used, nor will I ever use, expressions in bad taste on any of my programs. I feel certain that if (the woman) were to investigate the situation more thoroughly she would find that her children are getting these expressions from other sources.”

Later acting credits

Bill Britten’s acting credits included key roles in the original Broadway production of Man from La Mancha as the Barber, and the 1980 film Fame. Later in his career, he served as Programming Director for WNYC and taught drama to generations of students at the Performing Arts High School in New York.

Film and TV appearances

  • 1970 – Husbands
  • 1980 – Fame (Mr. England)
  • 1992 – Appearance on MathNet
  • 1985 – The Mad Ave Wizard
  • 1987 – Once Again
  • 1989 – The Bill
  • 1992 – Square One Television

Death of Bill Britten

Bill Britten passed away on February 4, 2020. He is survived by his wife, Mary Louise Jones of 48 years, and a brother.

Bibliography

  
        
          

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