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Jacksonville's 'Pinto' recognized as original Bozo the Clown

He's not around to appreciate it, but longtime Jacksonville character Vance Pinto Colvig finally got the recognition he deserved as the first Bozo.

The International Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee, Wis., on Friday inducted Colvig as the one who first played and developed the grinning, red-haired clown in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The Hall of Fame took down the plaque of Larry Harmon, who had been credited with creating Bozo, but who, in fact, bought the identity from Columbia Records in the mid-1950s and went on to train many Bozos and splash the clown face all over network television, according to Kathryn O'Dell, the Hall's executive director.

Capital Records Inc. developed the clown for a series of top-selling storytelling record albums and read-along books that helped kids learn to read. Colvig starred in Bozo's Circus, a TV series broadcast only in the Los Angeles area, and made appearances at children's hospitals and orphanages.

His descendants have said Colvig was displeased with being denied credit for originating Bozo, whose character is almost synonymous with the word clown, but he didn't want to make a stink about it and cloud his acting career.

Descended from Rogue Valley pioneers on both sides of his family, but with no descendants remaining here, Colvig was a good example of the local characters that made Jacksonville so unique, said Dawna Curler of the Southern Oregon Historical Society. Curler researched his life and wrote an article on him for the Table Rock Sentinel in 1992.

He always said he was born under a crazy quilt and was clowning ever since, said Curler. Whenever the vaudeville came to town, he would try to get a part. He was very much the extrovert and would do anything to get attention, like riding a calf through the main street.

Colvig, born in Jacksonville in 1892, got the nickname Pinto because of a face full of freckles, Curler said. He studied art at Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University), joined the circus as a clown, acted in silent films and became an animator in the pioneering days of film cartoons.

He always wanted to be somebody and have some distinction besides belonging to the Jacksonville Fire Department and playing in the Silver Coronet Band, said Carol Harbison-Samuelson of SOHS. He always kept his local connections and a fondness for where he came from, returning many times for the Gold Rush Jubilee parade and serving as the grand marshal of it.

Alice McGee of Jacksonville said Colvig took a shine to her, as he did to many children of the town, writing her letters adorned with cartoons over the years.

It was fun, she said. He'd do all the voices and entertain us.

With the arrival of talking movies and cartoons, Colvig became the voice of Walt Disney's animated Goofy, Pluto, Grumpy and Sleepy.

He said that he put all the hicks in the world into Goofy and all the mean old codgers of Jacksonville into Grumpy, said Curler.

A heavy smoker who contracted lung cancer in his early 70s, Colvig joined Oregon's U.S. Sen. Maurine Neuberger in a successful campaign to put health warnings on cigarettes. He died of the disease in 1967.

The Hall of Fame's O'Dell said the organization was duped into believing Harmon created Bozo ' and didn't find out the truth until ABCnews.com columnist and entertainment producer Buck Wolf reported Harmon was wrongly laying claim to the character.

It was something that was hinted at and hinted at and we started to do research and sure enough the information we were getting from outside sources was true, O'Dell said.

Harmon is the one who made Bozo as popular as he is today, O'Dell said, but why take credit for something you didn't do?

Colvig's voice was used in the first recordings of Bozo and he wrote some of Bozo's first songs, made the first live appearances and was the first Bozo on television.

Capitol Records Inc. sold all the rights, except the masters for the previous records, to Bozo the Capitol Clown in the mid 1950s to Harmon, who a few years earlier had answered a Capitol casting call to be a Bozo.

Harmon ended up training more than 200 Bozos over the years and turning Bozo into a character for 156 cartoons that he sold in the United States and around the world.

Harmon, 79, said from his home in Los Angeles that he's saddened to have the hall remove his plaque and he denied misrepresenting Bozo's history.

Isn't it a shame the credit that was given to me for the work I have done they arbitrarily take it down, like I didn't do anything for the last 52 years, he said.

What I created for the world was me and my image..., he said.

John Darling is a free-lance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

The late Vance ?Pinto? Colvig, a Jacksonville native, finally has been recognized as the original Bozo the Clown at the International Clown Hall of Fame in Milwaukee, Wis. Southern Oregon Historical Society photo