Clowns in the Magic Kingdom
by Todd James Pierce
So what do we have here? A clown, battery-powered model boats, and two-dozen Mousketeers. An odd event that would happen only once in the history of Disneyland.
In partnering up with outside companies, Disneyland opened its gates to many businesses during its early years—including K&O FleetLine Model Boats. Featured here is the one-and-only model boat regatta pitched just downstream from the Castle. This photo set is from early 1956. At first I thought this event was hosted on a day the park was closed to the public, but after scanning the pics, I learned that my theory was wrong. Now that the photos have been enlarged, you can easily see curious and confused guests peeking around in the background. The boat races could’ve been easily held over in the flight circle—where there was a pond set up for model boat demonstrations—but instead the races were held here, in the picturesque shadow of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.
Here’s why I like these photos: In an era before all of Disneyland was carved up into firm walkways, guests could actually venture out into the greenery. (Notice the lack of fences!) Disneyland, then, held the community intimacies of a public park. As such, this little stream between the castle and the fort is an ideal place for a model boat race. In all likelihood, the Mouseketeers are on property to perform the Mickey Mouse Club Circus. Notice the clown prominently featured in these photos?
Now for the fun stuff: That clown is Bob-O, who not only appeared at the circus held at Disneyland but was a regular character on the Mickey Mouse Club TV show. In the early days of the Mickey Mouse Club, Bob-O appeared on the regular Circus Day segments which were part of each Thursday’s themed show.
Now you’ll need to roll with me down a strange path. Everyone over the age of 35 likely remembers that the original Mickey Mouse Club (either through the original airings or the subsequent revivals in the 1970s or 1980s) had two adult entertainers: the wide-grinned Jimmy Dodd and the old “Moose”-keteer, Roy Williams. You can even spot Jimmy in the riverside group photo, dressed as the circus ringmaster. But during the first two seasons, there was a third (and mostly forgotten) adult host: Bob Amsberry. Amsberry was the actor who played, among other regular characters, Bob-O the Clown.
During those months while the circus performed at Disneyland, Bob-O would wander through the park and talk to guests. As the character had appeared on TV and was now a minor celebrity, Bob-O would be immediately recognized by younger park guests. I’ve seen photos of Bob-O ambling through Fantasyland and posing out in front of the castle. But Bob-O wasn’t the only clown in the live Circus to get into the meet-and-greet act. Some of the other clowns got into the walk-around routine as well. Themed areas be damned, here’s one of the other clowns from the Circus posing on Main Street: http://tinyurl.com/3vt7ynl . That’s down right horrifying, no?
But to get back to the photos posted here, Bob-O and the kids sputtered their boats through the water, with Disney cameras capturing the whole thing on film. (Bob-O “accidentally” put his batteries in backwards so the boat ran in reverse.) The footage was then edited into a short segment for the Mickey Mouse Club that was then aired in the spring of 1956. I’ve never actually seen the finished footage. As it was a sponsored segment to promote the 1956 line of K&O boats, it might’ve only been aired once. And well, 1956 is way before my time. But if you happen to have a copy of this footage, shoot me a note. I’d love to see it.