Just who is the Bozo anyway? Clown battles Weststate barbecue restaurant over rights to name. Mason, Tenn. – Over the years, plenty of clowns have appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court.
But now the court has been asked to hear what could be called Bozo vs. Bozo, a case pitting the “World’s Most Famous Clown” against what some say is Tennessee’s best barbecue.
Larry Harmon was about to be born in Toledo, Ohio, when, In 1923, Thomas Jefferson (Bozo) Williams opened his first barbecue restaurant in this hamlet in cotton-farming country 30 miles northeast of Memphis and named It after himself.
Nearly three more decades would pass before Harmon first donned his corona of orange hair, his bell-bottom pants and size 83-AAA shoes, and unveiled his crowning creation: Bozo the Clown.
Until 1982, Bozo’s Hot Pit Bar-B-Q and Bozo the Clown co-existed profitably. The restaurant survived Bozo Williams’ death and the construction of nearby Interstate 40, which siphoned off much of the community’s traffic.
Meanwhile, Harmon and his clown clones charmed millions of American children. One was Caroline Kennedy, who successfully lobbied her father to let Bozo march in his parade on Inauguration Day.
The trouble started In 1982 when Williams’ daughter, Helen Williams, moved to register the trademark. Miss Helen, as she is known to everyone here, was considering opening a branch of Bozo’s on Beale Street In Memphis, and she wanted to make sure no one else could use the name for a restaurant.
Enter Harmon, who had registered Bozo as entertainer but not as a restaurateur. For a time In the 1970s and ’80s, one heard more of Bebe Rebozo and Bonzo than Bozo. But with yuppies bred on the clown raising children of their own and cable television now carrying a Chicago-based Bozo to millions of homes, Bozo Is resurgent.
Harmon is training a new generation of Bozos and has licensed an entire line of Bozo baubles: Bozo pillowcases, Bozo bologna for Bozo lunchboxes, Bozo telephones that go “Yuk, yuk, yuk!” Instead of rlng-a-ling.
Harmon figures that if Ronald McDonald can hawk hamburgers, so can he. So he has challenged Miss Helen’s application all the way to the Supreme Court.
The world of lawsuits and depositions Is unseemly terrain for a character who extols peace and understanding, who has told millions that while it is nice to be important it is more important to be nice. At the same time, the clown’s lawsuit raises important questions about trademark law and policy, an arcane legal sub-speciality In which landmark cases have names like “Abracadabra International Ltd. vs. Abracadabra Creations Inc.”
Lawyers for Harmon argue that because they are enforced nationally, federal trademarks should be awarded only to businesses engaged in significant and demonstrable interstate commerce.
Should a modest restaurant with a largely local clientele qualify for a trademark, they warn, so could any small business – creating gridlock In the application process and further aggravating the already difficult task of finding a name to which someone somewhere has not already laid claim.
“We’ve never objected to their using the name Bozo’s In their restaurant and wish them only well,” said Harmon’s lawyer, David Ehrlich of the New York firm of Weiss, Dawid, Fross, Zelnick & Lehrman.
“But the idea of little mom-and-pop businesses whom nobody has ever heard of being able to register their trademarks for the whole country Is a prescription for paralysis.”
Though the restaurant has never used Bozo the Gown in any of its advertising, Harmon argues, patrons would inevitably blame the clown for dirty silverware or rude waitresses or a case of trichinosis. The very prospect bends his red bulb nose out of joint
“I’ve put more than 40 years of my life Into Bozo, and I don’t want anything that could hurt this wonderful, lovable, laughable, beautiful character in any way, shape or form,” Harmon said In a telephone Interview from his office in Los Angeles.
“If something Is wrong. If the food isn’t good, it’s not hurting them; they’re not Bozo. It’s like what Gertrude Stein said: Bozo is Bozo is Bozo is Bozo Is Bozo, and he’s not a barbecue restaurant in a little bitty town somewhere.”
The restaurant’s lawyer, Susan Flohr of the Washington firm of Lalos & Keegan, counters that any business that Congress can regulate under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause is entitled to a trademark.
Citing rulings from the civil rights-era upholding laws barring segregation in restaurants and hotels, she argues that Congress’ reach is virtually limitless. Both the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit In Washington have agreed.
J. Thomas McCarthy of the University of San Francisco Law School, who wrote a leading treatise on trademark law, said he thought it highly unlikely that the Supreme Court would hear the case.
But he noted that even if Harmon could prove that consumers might be confused about which Bozo was which, he would still have other legal avenues under the trademark law.
To Jeff Thompson, Bozo Williams’ great-grandson, who bought the restaurant from Miss Helen in 1988, Bozo the Gown Is a bully, an egomaniac, and a poor sport whose clown costume has deep pockets.
“It’s our privilege to expand the business however we wish,” he said, adding that with all of its regional permutations, barbecue Is actually the least franchlseable of foods. “What’s driving him is his ego and his wallet”
Indeed, lawyers in the case have collectively rung up $150,000 in fees enough to buy nearly 24,000 of Bozo’s barbecue plates.
With its square wooden Formica-topped tables and green vinyl stools, Bozo’s Bar-B-Q has changed little since (Marvelous) Marv Throneberry, who lives in nearby Colllervllle, roamed Yankee Stadium and Estes Kefauver’s star was rising over Washington.
A recent visitor there detected little sympathy for Harmon, to whom customers refer to as “that clown.”
“Very frankly, I think Bozo the Clown should stay with the kid business.” said Margaret Bogue of nearby Garland, who has been coming to Bozo’s with her husband for 54 years.
In the firebox at the rear of the restaurant pork shoulders from Iowa have begun their 10-hour odyssey from cooler to customer. An anvil chorus comes from the kitchen, as Mamie Taylor, the veteran barbecue cook, chops the meat.
The decor In the dining area includes University of Tennessee geegaws and some plastic pigs. But nowhere does the clown’s cheery image appear, nor, Thompson said, will It ever.
Thus far, much of the skirmishing between the Bozos has been over whether, for the purposes of the Lanham Act which governs the award of trademarks, Bozo’s Bar-B-Q is truly engaged in interstate commerce. And that in turn, comes down in part to whether Bozo’s barbecue is worth crossing state lines to eat. Harmon’s lawyers argue that few people travel very far to eat at Bozo’s, both because good barbecue is plentiful in the Memphis area and because the food is not all that good.
But no less an arbiter of Southern folkways than Shelby Foote of Memphis, the historian and much-discussed commentator on the Public Broadcasting System’s series on the Civil War, says Bozo’s serves the best pork barbecue he has ever eaten.
“Why the clown should have a lock on it I don’t understand,” he said. “We’ve called people ‘Bozo’ or ‘a bozo’ for years. I don’t know why people would fight over it. It’s not a very complimentary term.”
[ Just Who is the Bozo Anyway , The Tennessean, Nashville, Tenn., 8 Aug 1991]