Clown themes

Have you ever felt that clown themes, characters, and motifs in restaurants were a mistake? A good number of Americans – estimated as many as 12% of children and adults — experience fear that clowns are deranged maniacs in disguise.

But that wasn’t always true. The 1950s and 1960s were the era of jolly clowns. Several clowns, particularly Bozo, won a children’s audience on TV, redeeming a character that had a sometimes dark history in past centuries. In 1963 Ronald McDonald got his start on television, played by Willard Scott who became better known in subsequent years as a weather forecaster.

Scott’s Ronald, a character he claims to have created, was costumed differently than later and more familiar Ronalds. Ronald has, in fact, gone through numerous costume changes over the years — as have many corporate mascots.

Whether because of clowns’ popularity on TV or some other source of inspiration, quite a few drive-in restaurants (and some drive-in movies) of the 1950s and 1960s adopted clown names, signs, and motifs. Taking on a clown theme suggests a wish to attract children in hopes they might bring the whole family along. The drive-ins’ menus of hamburgers and ice cream were certainly in tune with children’s tastes.

As was true of drive-ins generally, clown-themed drive-ins got their start in the warmer climates of California and Texas. The original Jack In The Box, previously called Oscar’s, was one of the first, opening in 1951 in San Diego, California, with the Jack figure looming over a low roof.

Another early California drive-in of the 1950s was the Big Clown Drive-In, again describing itself as a “hamburger operation.” The Clown Burger, in Fort Worth TX, opened in 1959 serving what are now regarded as surprisingly small, thin burgers and fries.

The innocent appeal of clowns began to wane in the 1970s.

It was a blow to the clown image when juvenile and teen-age murder victims of John Wayne Gacy began to be discovered in 1978. Gacy sometimes wore a Bozo the Clown costume to aid in luring his victims. After his conviction he sold crude paintings of himself dressed as Bozo that he painted in prison.

The disclosure of Gacy’s crimes didn’t put a total end to the clown theme, but it may have accelerated its decline. A year earlier Jack In the Box had already simplified and stylized its clown logo which had been in use for nearly a decade (shown here as a charm).

Somehow, though, Ronald McDonald survived. In 2011 the chain’s mascot was criticized for peddling an unhealthy diet to children, but the company decided to keep him nonetheless.

In the 2000s, around two dozen movies with scary clowns were released. Then, in 2016 clown fears increased due to a number of incidents where knife wielding men wearing clown masks marauded in public. After that Ronald became less visible.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018


Filed under atmosphere, chain restaurants, drive-ins, family restaurants, restaurant fads

9 responses to “Clown themes

  1. Larry C. Brown

    In 2014, I met the owner of “The Clown Burger” (even shot a few photos). He retired in 2019. The original building is long gone but the current restaurant (a couple of miles away) is still in operation with long lines during the noon hour.

  2. JR

    The Ground Round restaurant(s) had live, Bingo the Clown.

  3. jimmy woo

    John Wayne Gacy had two clown “personas.” He used them at hospitals and entertaining children’s parties, I think. One was “Patches,The Clown” and the other was “Pogo,The Clown.” He is sometimes called “The Killer Clown.”

    He enjoyed painting himself in these costumes, as well.

    I never really liked Ronald McDonald. He appeared on TV, in non-cartoon form, the year super hero cartoons disappeared and those “live action” Saturday morning shows took over. Mother’s groups against violence. My eight year old mind couldn’t take that. Ronald represents H.R. Puf N Stuf and Sigmund And The Sea Monsters over Spiderman and The FF.

  4. Anonymous

    Does anyone recall the name of a long-ago restaurant chain that used a sad clown image like that of Emmett Kelly’s “Weary Willie” character. There was at least one location in Winnipeg in the late 1960’s.

  5. Fascinating post as always. Thanks!

  6. Never been a fan of Clowns…at the circus I used to really dislike when the clowns came on, it spoilt a good evening. (that was of course in the days when Circuses were not considered bad). Never stopped me liking the occasional Big Mac as a treat…..even now at my ripe old age 🙂

  7. Years ago there was a Clown Alley in the financial district in San Francisco that had wonderful hamburgers. I was in high school in 1968 there and I would take the bus down for lunch. They were fabulous!

    On Mon, Nov 12, 2018 at 3:16 PM Restaurant-ing through history wrote:

    > Jan Whitaker posted: “Have you ever felt that clown themes, characters, > and motifs in restaurants were a mistake? A good number of Americans – > estimated as many as 12% of children and adults — experience fear that > clowns are deranged maniacs in disguise. But that wasn’t al” >

  8. Samuel Albert

    An interesting and sadly now gone Clown themed drive-in:

    Sam Albert

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