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October 10, 2008

Charles Runyon Dies at 86

L.A. regional television star known as "Chucko the Clown"
during the 1950s and '60s

Charles M. Runyon, who became a Los Angeles television star in the 1950s and ’60s as Chucko the Birthday Clown, died October 4 in an assisted-living facility in Grants Pass, Ore. He was 86.

The cause of death was respiratory failure.

On KABC-TV Channel 7 from 1955 to 1963 and on KTTV Channel 11 from 1963 to 1964, Runyon’s Chucko the Clown was a familiar sight to a generation of young Southern California viewers.

Among his signatures was an elaborate and ornate costume that included a spinning merry-go-round hat with his name on it, a half red and half red-and-white-striped clown suit with a fluffy Elizabethan-style collar and cuffs, and white gloves. His face was covered in white makeup, with blue eyebrows, a rhinestone-tipped nose and an upturned red smile.

His live, hour-long show included cartoons, special guests and games with his studio audience, which consisted of two children celebrating their birthdays and their young friends.

At the end of the show, the camera would show a large birthday cake, and Chucko would sing: “Here’s a hap, hap, happy birthday from me (that’s me), to you (that’s you)…”

In his heyday, Chucko would open the television coverage of the annual Santa Claus Lane Parade by jumping through a bass drum head.

Chucko also made countless personal appearances at supermarkets and shopping centers. For his personal appearances, Runyon created a circus wagon—a converted delivery truck with a stage on top.

In addition, he made personal appearances as the star attraction of a mini circus called Chucko’s Big Top.

Runyon was born in San Diego on August 10, 1922. He worked at Hughes Aircraft before World War II. While serving in the Army Reserve he was summoned for active duty and was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed by the Japanese.

Runyon returned to Hughes after the war, and in the early 1950s, he and his wife, Millie, launched a home birthday party business in Long Beach with a mobile merry-go-round that Runyon had built in his basement and that they towed behind their car.

He was inspired to create Chucko when, after one birthday party, a parent said, “All you need is a clown.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, Runyon’s wife Millie said the idea behind Chucko was “if Christmas has Santa Claus, and Halloween has a witch, and Easter a bunny, why shouldn’t kids’ birthdays have a clown?”

Runyon, whose mother sewed all of Chucko’s costumes, scored his television position when he prevailed among 28 clowns who auditioned for a children’s show on Channel 7 in the mid-’50s.

After leaving television, Runyon opened Chucko’s Party House at Jungleland in Thousand Oaks, where he hosted three or four birthday party groups at a time on weekends until 1969, when the wild animal park closed.

Runyon and his family then moved to Oregon, where he portrayed Chucko for a closed-circuit educational TV channel for a few years in the early 1970s.

Runyon’s son Randy, who as a boy dressed in a replica of his father’s clown costume and rode in the Santa Claus Lane Parade as Chucko Jr., took over as Chucko the Birthday Clown in the early 1980s. He retired from clowning in 1995.

Millie Runyon, who wrote the 1994 biography of her husband Are Clowns Hatched?, died in 2000.

In addition to Randy, Runyon is survived by another son, Dan; six grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

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