Clowning around for almost 44 years

Sunday, June 13, 2004

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Every kid at one time or another has tried to imagine what a clown's home looks like. Day-Glo red, green, purple, yellow and orange confetti running from every faucet. House plants squirting water in your eye. Fluorescent balloons floating and bobbling through every room.

But Al and Jo Smith's bright, airy apartment doesn't have any of that stuff.

Sure, clown figurines sit on the windowsill in the den. And a Hagar the Horrible doll overlooks a smattering of penciled cartoons spread out across an artist's desk.

Then there's this brilliant orange wig.

"This is my hair, man, my working hair," said a comically familiar and excited voice.

It's a voice from weekday afternoons past. It's Barney the Clown's voice, but it's coming from Al Smith.

From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, Smith played Barney the Clown on local television. Every weekday after school, St. Joseph kids ran home and turned on Channel 3 to watch a funny, black-haired hobo clown.

Barney cracked jokes with the kids both in the studio audience and out in TV land. He twirled his multicolored umbrella in front of the camera and "Krazy Kat" would magically appear on the screen.

At one time, Smith's wife, Jo, joined him on the show. She became Clyde, and for about five years the show became known as "The Barney and Clyde Show."

Clyde, like the silent comedian Harpo Marx, never spoke a word. Clyde's forte was sight gags and pranks.

"I just wandered around and made a fool of myself," Jo Smith said. "I'd sit in the back and irritate the kids. They loved it."

In those days, kids' TV moved at a much slower pace.

Kids sat still in faraway studio galleries and laughed at clown jokes. They watched Popeye, the Little Rascals and other cartoons.

The host wore everything from captain suits to sweaters to buckskin and talked to stuffed animals and puppets.

Barney the Clown just brought this closer to home for St. Joseph kids, said his alter ego, Smith.

"You had Fred Rogers and Captain Kangaroo going then. We had a local touch with the kids," Smith said. "It was an era I doubt will ever come back again."

Today, Clyde wears sensible clothing. Now 68 years old, his wife put the daffy clothes and crazy makeup away long ago.

The memories she keeps close enough to retrieve occasionally.

"I had fun doing it when I did it," she said. "We really got good at it."

There is no longer a Barney, either. But Smith, 76, still rubs white grease paint on his face, puts on huge red and yellow shoes and wears orange wigs from time to time. Now it's all birthday parties and company picnics.

Cartoons to clowns

Still, a laugh stands always ready at Smith's lips. A child-like twinkle still gleams from his eyes. The lines in his face are sharply defined from years of laughter.

"I've been a very lucky man, my health's been good and I do thank God for that," he said.

As a young boy, he loved cartooning. He studied the art of cartooning for a year at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. To this day, his desk is always covered with penciled one-gag jokes.

He's sold some to magazines, including the National Enquirer, but not too many.

"Most magazines don't pay a lot," Smith said. "And today when people could use a laugh, they're cutting back."

Smith became bored and restless at 32. He still had his day job as a bookkeeper, but he wanted something more exciting and challenging.

That's when his wife made a fateful suggestion that he remembers vividly to this day.

"Jo said, 'Why don't you get into that clown thing you've always been interested in?"' Smith said.

In the late 1960s, cable TV was beginning to take off. Stations were looking for more children's programming.

Smith went to the local cable television station and was soon hired to do its afternoon kid's show. Soon after, Barney and Clyde were born.

Smith only remembered one mishap from the show. It involved a nervous little boy in the audience.

"He peed his pants," he said.

Luckily, it was time for a station break. This gave him time to speak to the rest of the kids, he said.

A new generation of kids may soon get to see Barney the clown. Chris Fleck, producer and director for St. Joseph Cablevision advertising, said the station is planning a Barney retrospective.

"It will be a reunion of people who were on the show back in the day. And we'll possibly put together an actual program," he said.

"Captain Kangaroo passed away, (Mr.) Rogers is gone and they do these things after they're dead," Fleck added. "I think it would be better to celebrate the man while he is still alive."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: