Tribute To Johnny Jellybean
And NYC's First Bozo Bill Britten
by Kevin S. Butler
In 2020, NYC kids' TV suffered another loss. Entertainer Bill Britten, best remembered as the third host/performer of WABC TV's "Time For Fun!" and as "Bozo The Clown" on WPIX TV Ch.11 passed away on February 4, 2020. The Son of an opera singer and actor, he was born William Cohen in Philadelphia, Pa. In 1928.
From his earliest days, Bill had a natural ability to perform for his family and friends…"The first thing that I use to do around the neighborhood and at parties. "I would do imitations of Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen and Jimmy Durante." Britten recalled in a January 24, 1988 interview.
Bill was also influenced by the film comedies of Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, The Ritz Brothers and The Marx Brothers, which he watched at the local bijou and later in film society gatherings that were supervised by film historian and lecturer Prof. William K. Everson.
He was also influenced by the classic comedy skits of the host/performer of Max Leiberman's and NBC TV's "Your Show Of Shows" Sid Caesar. During his hiatus from college, he worked as a social director at ", pantomiming lip syncs to Spike Jones' "Cocktails For Two" and other popular recordings, creating activities and performing zany stunts for the guests.
"We had shows seven nights a week, we had a staff of three or four [on] Saturday's big show, on Wednesday a smaller show, and then on Monday we had "Can You Top This?" night where everyone would try to top each other by telling jokes and we'd have costumes balls, all kinds of comedy skits, [I] never had a night off".
Bill even performed the classic routine "Niagara Falls / Slowly I Turn" and the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis rendition of "Sonny Boy".
His college studies and his work as a social director were interrupted by serving in the U.S. Air Force during WWII. Instead of fighting in the infantry he created, produced, wrote and performed in stage shows for the US military "All around the country".
After the war, Bill returned to college to complete his studies and he continued working as a social director at Wantashanta Lodge. He later enrolled at The University of Washington in Seattle where he performed as a nightclub comedian and he also took lessons in puppetry with the first puppeteer of "Howdy Doody", Frank Paris. He soon performed with the college's puppet theater around the state.
It was also during this time that he was first introduced to clowning. "The first job that I had as a clown, I was in graduate school at The University of Washington in Seattle in order [for me] to pay to make my living expenses. I would play club dates as a comic and I found out that there was a chain of gas stations out there and they needed clowns for gas station openings," he explained.
Bill found an old dress suit and a beat up black top hat and a large red ball at the local Salvation Army store in Seattle and made himself up as a tramp clown. He added some skits and won an audition to perform for the gas station franchise. He was also in demand for birthday parties in the Seattle area and his tramp clown character was utilized to promote the kids' TV shows that were debuting on KING TV Ch. 10.
His talents in puppetry, pantomime, comedy and creating games and activities came in handy when he moved to NYC and won a job as the puppeteer on Chuck and Jack Luchsinger's kiddie show, "Jolly Gene & His Fun Machine".
"I use to subscribe to books, I would go to the library to look at children's books," Britten explained. "I would buy and read anything that I would get my hands on for the kinds of games I would create for the shows".
During his tenure on "Time For Fun" Bill would have a "Construction Day" where he would encourage his viewers to create simple items from construction paper, cardboard, and other items around the house.
In a recently found TV kinnie film print of "Time For Fun," Johnny Jellybean (Bill) showed his club members (viewers) how to make a crumb catcher (a dust pan) from a paper plate that was cut into two sections with safety scissors then colored with crayons.
He also played games with the kids watching at home and would read off the viewers' birthdays from his birthday book on his desk.
Meals during the lunchtime segment were prepared by a nutritionist and they were listed on the bulletin board on the wall of the clubhouse the meals were healthy except for the mixing of either "Cocomarsh" or "Bosco" into the glass of milk that were served on every program.
"Johnny Jellybean" would also perform comedy skits and have contests. He would also screen Walter Lantz cartoons featuring "Oswald The Lucky Rabbit" and performed puppet skits with two characters "Oscapuss" and "Slowky Pokey" the puppets were manipulated and voiced by Bill, created by Sandy Pop and by sculpture Dom Facci.
Britten's version of the program..became the top rated local kids TV series in the NYC viewing area with the young viewers and with adults.
He continued to mc the show until he left in the summer of 1958 and joined WABD/WNEW TV 5 to serve as the third host & performer of Ch.5's popular series "The Looney Tunes Show", "Bugs Bunny Presents" and Ch.5's Sunday morning kids variety program "Wonderama".