Frank Avruch, 89; was a Boston institution, from Bozo to ‘The Great Entertainment’
If Frank Avruch had done nothing more than dress up as Bozo the clown and entertain hundreds of thousands of children across the nation and in other countries, his place in history would have been assured.
That was his most famous role, but it was neither the beginning nor the end of a career that was among the most diverse and warmly received in Boston TV — in 1981, a Globe critic called him “one of the most decent, gentle, and likable people in television.”
Mr. Avruch, who was 89 when he died Tuesday in his Boston home of heart disease, became famous while wearing an orange wig and oversized shoes on Channel 5 for about a dozen years, beginning in the late 1950s, and for starring in the first nationally syndicated Bozo program.
His success was due in no small part to hard work as he became an expert in all things Bozo, studying how to best portray the clown’s voice and mannerisms. He was attentive to everything else, too. “I had to be very careful about the kinds of products advertised and the kinds of things that I asked the kids to do,” he told the Globe in 1976. “It was a kind of awesome responsibility to a certain extent, but it was fun.”
After he set aside Bozo, Mr. Avruch became well-known to older audiences for donning a dapper tuxedo and hosting “The Great Entertainment,” a classic movies weekend offering on WCVB-TV. In addition, his news program interviews drew a loyal following, and generations of viewers recognized his rich disembodied voice, which held sway in countless advertisements and station promos he recorded for decades.
At times his roles overlapped, which could create a sort of cultural whiplash. “It was nothing for me to slip out of my clown makeup, wig, and shoes and start interviewing, say, Sir John Gielgud,” he recalled in 1989, the year after the British actor starred in the sequel to the hit movie comedy “Arthur.”
As part of his duties as Bozo — his run ended in 1970 — Mr. Avruch traveled to countries in Asia and South America for the UNICEF organization, and he recorded segments to encourage children to donate their pennies and nickels and dimes.
His daily shows in Boston were an hour, and from them producers culled a half-hour program to run in prime time for national audiences. “We had Brownie meetings, birthday parties, and other special occasions right on the air,” he said in the 1989 Globe interview. “There was a lot of excitement, a lot of fast-moving games and treasure hunts, lots of audience participation, circus acts, and, of course, Bozo’s goodie bag, which was filled with Twinkies.”
During an Emmy Award-winning career that stretched for more than 40 years, he also hosted or contributed to shows such as “Good Day,” “Sunday Open House,” “New England Sunday,” and — earlier in his career — “Dateline Boston” for WCVB’s predecessor, WHDH-TV.
Mr. Avruch enjoyed unusual longevity on the air, which he attributed to his versatility and to something not many on-air personalities in Boston TV could say on their resumes: He was homegrown.
“I’ve been lucky,” he told the Globe in 1985. “People from outside the Boston area find it an adjustment coming here because Bostonians take their time in getting to know you. I’m lucky because I come from this area, Winthrop, originally. I think people know my roots are here.”
Frank Bernard Avruch was the son of Jack Avruch and the former Lydia Katz, and he recalled in an interview that among his fondest childhood memories was dropping 35 cents to see movies at the Winthrop Theatre. “I loved going to the musicals,” he said in 1980. “I’d go to the movies every chance I got. And I’m still a fan. I like to see at least two new movies a week.”
At Winthrop High School, he received a special best actor award, and he performed in summer stock in Gloucester before graduating in 1949 from Boston University, where he studied communications.
After working as a radio announcer in Boston and Worcester, Mr. Avruch landed a job at WHDH-TV. One day, the station’s managers asked him to audition for the role of Bozo. “I had some acting ability so I tried,” he recalled in 1976. “And they said, ‘OK, you’re it.’”
The show’s popularity quickly grew. “We started out with 20 kids in the audience,” he said in 1989. “Later, when the studios moved to Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester, we’d have 150 to 200 kids a show. There was a wait for tickets. I had to change my voice — ‘Hi, boys and girls, this is your old pal Bozo’ — and I learned to put on my own makeup.”
During the 1970s, in his post-Bozo years, Mr. Avruch began developing a new fan base among cinephiles in the era before video stores, when catching a classic film meant setting aside time to watch perhaps its only Boston TV broadcast for an entire year — or longer.
Clad in a tuxedo, he introduced “The Great Entertainment” from a set designed to mimic the luxurious lobby of a movie palace. “Even before the cable movie channels, we offered quality films to our viewers,” he recalled in 2002.
Mr. Avruch also interviewed stars such as Henry Fonda, Myrna Loy, and Anthony Quinn, and he would drop movie trivia tidbits into his commentary, though he dismissed suggestions that he was a stand-in for film critics and historians. “I’m a fan, a fan who loves movies,” he said in a 1980 interview.
Mr. Avruch was married for 61 years to the former Betty F. Greenman. They previously lived for decades in Newton, where she had taught in the public schools and was an accomplished photographer.
Services are private for Mr. Avruch, who in addition to his wife leaves their two sons, Steven of Boston and Matthew of Westlake Village, Calif.; his sister, Evelyn Goodell; and two grandchildren.
Though Mr. Avruch spent nearly twice as many years hosting “The Great Entertainment” as he did portraying Bozo, the indelible clown role was difficult to shake. “When I meet people today and they hear the name ‘Frank Avruch,’ they say, ‘Didn’t you used to play Bozo? Oh my God . . .’’ It’s that kind of reaction that I continually get from people who are married and have kids of their own now,” he told the Globe.
He wasn’t the only one who portrayed Bozo. Those who filled the clown’s floppy shoes years ago in other venues included Willard Scott of NBC’s “Today Show.” But Mr. Avruch had a particular affinity for the role.
“I still have my suit tucked away in the attic,” he mused. “I haven’t worn it since 1970. Maybe I will someday. I think I got the closest to him of anybody who played him.”