Killian Charbonnet; Bozo & Cap Canaveral in N.O.

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Mar 25, 2007, 1:16:53 PM3/25/07
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Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
March 25, 2007 Sunday
Dave Walker

A clown and a prince;
Former WVUE kidvid host was a character to the end

New Orleans buried a real Bozo last week, and I'm not
writing this column just to get that line in the paper.

Killian Charbonnet played Bozo the Clown on WVUE-TV in the
late 1950s, one of dozens if not hundreds of men to portray
the franchise clown in cities all over the world.

Charbonnet's death notice in The Times-Picayune didn't
mention his Bozo work, because he was much prouder, family
members said, of a later kid-show creation, Cap Canaveral,
who worked on WVUE in the early 1960s.

According to a photo displayed at the visitation that
preceded Charbonnet's funeral, Cap wore a space
capsule-shaped hat accessorized with small booster rockets
and a pinwheel.

The painted stage set was a mock spacecraft, from which he
would emerge to entertain his TV audience.

Some observers remember that he'd play cartoons, but I'm not
sure. It was a long time ago. That's what a lot of kid-show
hosts did, back when most stations around the country
carried live daytime programming targeted at an audience
they knew would be home and available to view commercials
for sugary breakfast cereal.

Most of whatever WVUE archival material that might've
existed from that era was destroyed in post-Katrina
flooding.

The only reference I could find to Bozo in the newspaper's
clip files was a story recounting the character's local
coming-out party in June 1959.

"The mass juvenile humanity filled the City Hall plaza
waiting expectantly for the city's newest television
personality," said the unbylined story, which also described
the oversized key to the city presented to Bozo by acting
Mayor Victor Schiro.

A live telecast from the Panorama theater followed.

There is a photo with the story, though I can't tell if it's
Charbonnet under the greasepaint and nose bulb. Some cities
had several Bozos.

There's an easy joke to be made here about how some things
never change at City Hall, but that would be an insult to
the true clown I'm celebrating.

There was nothing in the newspaper morgue about Cap
Canaveral. I don't know how long the show ran or many of the
details of its production. Most of what I know about the
character I learned from Charbonnet's family.

Cap Canaveral may not be as well-remembered as other beloved
local kid-show hosts -- my own informal survey of people who
would remember struck out -- but the passing of such a
figure shouldn't go unrecognized by a column called On the
Air.

Because that's what these shows were -- on the air, usually
live and often freewheeling to the point of splendid chaos,
as anyone who came of age during TV's first couple of
decades so well remembers.

I have such memories made in two cities, Chicago (Ray
Rayner's zany wakeup show on WGN-TV) and Phoenix (the
immortal Wallace and Ladmo on KPHO-TV).

New Orleans had many, from Miss Muffin to the Great McNutt
to a former Bozo tapping the new-frontier vibe of the age.
(Juicy synchronicity: Killian's brother was working on
rockets at NASA's Michoud facility while Cap Canaveral was
wearing his space-capsule hat on WVUE.)

Like many of the better kid-show hosts, Cap Canaveral
pitched his comedy both at the kids who'd for sure be
watching but also to the adults who'd wander in front of the
TV set, too.

"Very sophisticated," said one nephew, now age 60, who
watched the show as a child.

Killian Charbonnet died at age 86 of what old men die of.
Your bones get brittle and your softer parts fail and then
you're in the emergency room at Ochsner and a doctor is
asking you if you know where you are.

If you're Killian Charbonnet you said, "Galatoire's."

In that triage exchange is a life story.

Family and friends who gathered Wednesday to see Charbonnet
off will carry memories of a relative and neighbor who had
an artist's soul and a favorite uncle's sense of humor.

To the very end, and despite odds.

New Orleans-born, he attended Tulane University, where his
passion for the school's dramatic productions apparently
hampered his academic progress. He served in the Army Air
Corps in World War II, duty reflected by the American flag
that draped his coffin during the visitation.

At the foot of the coffin was a stuffed feline doll that
Charbonnet had adopted from a Maison Blanche display window.
It was there because one of his last requests to family was
to include in his casket a Christmas card photo he'd once
taken of him with Sam the stuffed toy, toasting the camera
with champagne.

A nephew at the service remembered another Christmas card.
Loathe to pay to reproduce a single perfect shot, Charbonnet
shot a whole roll of the same basic pose using a shutter
timer. Every shot was unique that way, though close enough
that recipients comparing cards might not notice. One did,
and he still laughs about it.

During his years after his stint in local broadcasting -- he
also worked as a staff announcer at WVUE, and on the radio
at WJMR AM-990 -- Charbonnet continued to create.

Family members say they've seen hundreds of manuscripts for
short stories and screenplays. One, a screenplay titled
"Return to Chicken Island," was submitted on spec to Bob
Hope. Charbonnet kept the rejection letter.

I don't know if he was proud of it, but I would be. A
neighbor said she'd recently been helping Charbonnet get his
computer working so he could edit and update some of his
earlier manuscripts.

Charbonnet built a darkroom and office into the attic of his
Uptown home, and even though the journey up there was
perilous -- thin steps that switched back and forth inside
an old closet -- he kept making it much longer than he
probably should've.

His last years were a challenge, as they can be, but
Charbonnet never lost the spark of humor that once propelled
him into Bozo's wig and oversized shoes.

He also never lost his love for children, as a neighbor who
attended his funeral fondly recalled.

"For Halloween, he would rig up a witch on his front porch
with a sheet and a rope and maneuver it from inside his
house when children came up the steps so the witch would
dance as they approached," Kathleen Crighton said.

"Last Halloween he sat in his wheelchair by his front gate
with a bowl of candy in his lap to greet the
trick-or-treaters on our street. Alas, they didn't show up
until after he had gone inside. I stood out there with him
for awhile, but the mosquitoes were eating us alive so we
had to go back indoors."

Charbonnet spent some time in a nursing home a couple of
years ago to recuperate from one or another of the maladies
that send you to a nursing home. He moved back home in time
to stay through the storm and was evacuated by a neighbor to
Memphis, Tenn., a few days after landfall. He was eventually
reunited with family, and eventually moved back home.

Again. For someone his age, Charbonnet was two-for-two in
unlikely homecomings.

André Waguespack, his caregiver for the past several months,
accompanied him to the hospital when his health recently
worsened.

After meeting with doctors, he and she had a moment to
acknowledge that his prognosis didn't look so good.

"Well, I guess I won't have to worry about this hurricane
season," he said.

He also quipped that he wouldn't have to worry about who to
vote for in upcoming elections.

Though clearly failing quickly, he held on till several
family members could arrive, and they were there when the
old kid-show astronaut offered a summation we're all aiming
for:

"It's been a great ride."

. . . . . . .


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