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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Miamisburg Celebrates a Real Bozo (the Clown)

Three people pose for a picture at the Miamisburg History Center, which has a new exhibit celebrating Ralph "Bozo" Harrell.
J. Reynolds
The Miamisburg History Center has a new exhibit about Ralph Harrell, who they call "The Original Bozo."

When Ralph Harrell died in 1979, he left behind a funny legacy. Harrell spent most of the 20th century clowning around with the Ringling Brothers and Shrine Circuses.

Now, the Miamisburg History Center is celebrating the clown they call “The Original Bozo.”

Over a hundred people recently gathered at the Miamisburg History Center to celebrate the life of Ralph “Bozo” Harrell.

There was circus music, popcorn, cake, and lots of Harrell’s family and friends.

Harrell’s clown name was “Bozo,” but he wasn’t the smiley faced, red-haired clown from TV. Harrell was a sad faced, hobo clown that got his start way back in the early 1900s—long before the TV Bozo.

Phylis Brush, Harrell’s niece, said it’s a story you’ve likely heard before. Her uncle ran away from home and joined the circus.

“He was a roustabout when he first started,” she said. “He took care of elephants, and he had a dog show for a little bit, and he put up the tents. And then he went on and became the clown.”

Harrell was Bozo most of the year while touring with the circus, but when he wintered in the south, he had a very different act.

“He wrestled alligators,” Brush said. “And he became Captain Harrell at the time.”

A flyer for one of Harrell's alligator wrestling shows.
Miamisburg Historical Society
A flyer for one of Harrell's alligator wrestling shows.

When he was home with family in Miamisburg, Harrell liked to put on a show too.

“We had a big oak dining room table—because there was 11 kids—and oak dining room chairs," his great niece Mary Stout said. "And he balanced those chairs on his chin, and that's what I remembered of him until just recently when I started doing research.”

Harrell's great nephew Greg Powell said Harrell was always coming back home, though it could take a while.

“He’d send letters back home saying he was in Cuba or Alaska or New York or California, but home base was Miamisburg,” Powell said.

Powell is the one who spearheaded the Bozo exhibit. He reached out to the Ringling Museum and the International Clown Hall of Fame to track down Bozo memorabilia.

The Hall of Fame had a lot to say about Harrell, who they called “the original Bozo” and “the clown prince of tomfoolery.”

They noted that he performed with Roy Rodgers, traveled the globe, and was held captive in Cuba for five days because he happened to be there when Fidel Castro took power.

Influencing the a generation

They say Harrell’s Bozo influenced a generation of clowns.

That includes Nick Gatrell, who works as Scraps the Hobo Clown.

Scraps the Hobo Clown works the crowd at the opening of the Ralph "Bozo" Harrell exhibit.
J. Reynolds
Scraps the Hobo Clown works the crowd at the opening of the Ralph "Bozo" Harrell exhibit in the Miamisburg History Center.

Gatrell says he was a teenager when he found Harrell’s photo online, which led to Gatrell becoming friends with Stout — Bozo's great niece — and the rest of the family.

“She filled me in and actually gave me the blessing to perform in his honor,” Gatrell said. “So I fashion my makeup somewhat after his, with the dots on the eyes and the lines and whatnot. And he has, I would say, very greatly influenced me.”

Like Bozo, Scraps took to working everywhere, and his hobo clown act took hold.

“I started out doing events in my hometown,” Gatrell said. “I just kind of walked to different places—chili parlors, the library. And from there I expanded. I started doing state fairs, things of that such.”

In addition to being a clown, Gatrell is an artist. One of his paintings of Bozo is now part of the collection at the Miamisburg Historical Society.

And Gatrell is passing down the art of clowning.

At the opening, he was working with a brand new clown, his niece Patricia, who is seven.

“I wanted to copy my uncle because he’s clowning today,” Patricia said, with a real smile under the one she had painted on.

Nick Gatrell, who performs as Scraps the Clown, and his niece Patricia, who doesn't have a clown name yet. This event was her first performance.
J. Reynolds
Nick Gatrell, who performs as Scraps the Clown, and his niece Patricia, who doesn't have a clown name yet.

It was hard to get much more out of Patricia or her uncle because they’re clowns who mime. So, they don’t speak when on stage or working the crowd.

Bozo isn’t even the only famous clown from Miamisburg. Kim Izor, the History Center’s curator, said there was another.

“Larry Benner was also a gentleman who ran away from home and joined the Ringling Brothers Circus,” Izor said. “He was famous for a flea circus. He actually had a flea on a leash. We have photos to prove it. He also had a lot of other schticks. He could play any song you wanted on a handsaw using a violin bow.”

In addition to the saw, Benner also played circus bells. After his death, a large set of those bells wound up with the Saint Jacob Lutheran Church in Miamisburg. Pastor Mike Hout brought them to the opening to help pay tribute to "The Original Bozo."

“They were famous in the circus because not many people had these kind of things. They could go into a tent and give a little presentation or a little concert, and people would just be enthralled,” Hout explained as he played circus music on the metal bells.

Miamisburg Mayor Michelle Collins showed up with a proclamation from the city celebrating Bozo.

“We were just saying Miamisburg is full of clowns,” she joked. “But most of us don’t get famous for it.”

Ralph Harrell as Bozo the Clown.
Miamisburg Historical Society
A photo of Ralph Harrell as Bozo the Clown.

For more information about Miamisburg history, visit the Miamisburg Historical Society.