Food History

If You Think Ronald McDonald Is Terrifying Now, Flash Back to 1963

October 12, 2016

Folks, this is no "laughing matter"—yesterday, McDonald's announced that it'd temporarily bar mascot Ronald McDonald from making public appearances throughout the United States following a spate of clown sightings, our era's satanic panic. Per AP, the company would like to remain "thoughtful in respect to Ronald McDonald's participation in community events," especially given the "current climate around clown sightings in communities." The anxiety started this August in South Carolina with reports of groups of clowns trying to coax kids into the woods. Reports analogous to this have since spread across the country, with some hoaxers capitalizing on the fear these incidents have inspired. Clowns have long been a silently terrifying fixture of our popular imagination, though—even the sentient McDonald's mascot himself. Consider, for a moment, Ronald McDonald's original avatar in 1963.

The first person to inhabit the role of Ronald McDonald was Willard Scott, perhaps best known as the Today Show's longtime weatherman beginning in 1980. In 1960, Washington D.C.-based McDonald's franchisee Oscar Goldstein sponsored a regional version of Bozo's Circus, starring Scott as Bozo the Clown himself. The company saw a 30% spike in sales in the D.C. metro area as a result of their sponsorship of Bozo's Circus.

Upon the show's cancellation in 1963, Goldstein scooped Scott up and asked him to create a mascot similar to Bozo for McDonald's. In his long out-of-print 1987 memoir, The Joy of Living, Scott recalls, "At the time, Bozo was the hottest children's show on the air. ... There was something about the combination of hamburgers and Bozo that was [sic] irresistable to kids." He appeared in three television spots broadcast in the area in 1963.

"The world's newest, silliest, and hamburger eating-est clown, Ronald McDonald—now, where is that clown?" the narrator inquires in the first commercial, above. Scott's McDonald emerges from the darkness. "Here I am, kids," he tells us, his voice resembling a Malibu surfer's. "Hey, isn't watching TV fun?"

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Admire, if you will, his striped suit the hue of mayonnaise and ketchup; the food tray replete with burgers, fries, and shakes perched atop his noggin; nose obscured by a styrofoam cup. He's Ronald McDonald, some men sing as a flute toots. The hamburger-happy clown. A McDonald's drive-in restaurant is his favorite place in town. Ronald accompanies this with a little jig of his own, wiggling and flailing his limbs with reckless abandon.

Here he is skating down a sidewalk before—whoops! The hamburgers soar into the sky and into the paws of a small child, who rightly contends that Ronald McDonald is a stranger. Ronald forces a handshake out of him and brags about the burger-churning belt he's outfitted with. And in the commercial below, you'll see Ronald fancying himself a stowaway on a "moon rocket," all to prove a political point—to show that McDonald's hamburgers are "out of this world"! Sheesh.

Scott's tenure was rather short-lived. McDonald's deemed Scott too portly for the role of a fast food mascot, imagining Ronald McDonald as being "extremely active." Scott involuntarily stepped out of the role in 1966 just before Ronald McDonald would make his first national appearance at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade that year. The former Bozo was replaced with another bisyllabic clown, "Coco," played by Michael Polakovs, creating the mascot in his current iteration—face caked in flour dust, lips smacked with red paint.

Time hasn't been especially kind to Scott's Ronald McDonald, no doubt because he deviates so jarringly from America's present-day understanding of the character. "Scary," scribes Serious Eats. "Really creepy," moans Consumerist. Ugh.

The Today Show, Scott's former employer, is considerably kinder, reading no murderous ideations into his "larger-than-life smile." Meanwhile, McDonald's took serious umbrage with the Huffington Post's reasonable assessment three years ago that the original ad "will give you nightmares." The company went so far as to email the publication a statement chiding them for their mean-spirited take.

"To label a 50 year old picture as a “nightmare” is a clear overstatement," an unnamed McDonald's rep wrote the Huffington Post. "Ronald McDonald has been and is a much loved figure to families for more than 50 years. That picture represents the simple era of the times. A provocatively labeled headline won’t change that, nor impact all of the good Ronald McDonald will continue to do for years to come."

A #smile a day keeps the bad mood away! #funnyquotes #TGIF

A photo posted by Ronald McDonald Official (@ronaldmcdonald) on

Hm. This is quite intriguing, considering advocacy group Corporate Accountability International has repeatedly demanded that McDonald's retire the clown as its mascot, arguing that his very presence in the brand's advertising encourages obesity. McDonald's has staunchly refused to cave to these pressures (instead kowtowing to clown-based fears), and they've defended Ronald as "a force for good." He, this sacrosanct corporate idol beyond reproach, is the face of a charity, after all.

The statement seems a touch disingenuous given the rather ungainly circumstances under which McDonald's let off Scott, the man who effectively authored this mascot. “It was the first time I was really screwed by the mass media,” Scott would comment of his firing for being overweight. A sign of the times, as McDonald's might say.

Do you remember Willard Scott's Ronald McDonald? Do you find him terrifying? Let us know in the comments!

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


I U. October 16, 2016
Most of us have a clown for a boss too.
amysarah October 13, 2016
I also have fond childhood memories of Bozo, but even then, I was generally clown-averse. My father's company endowed a Ronald McDonald House (great organization, btw) and naturally Ronald McDonald appeared at the opening festivities (not Willard Scott - I think it was like Lassie, there were dozens.) Traumatic. I also recall a family friend taking us to Ringling Bros circus, a very big deal. More clown-induced anxiety, couldn't wait for it to end. Also, the elephants made me sad.

But clown phobia way predates John Wayne Gacy - interesting article about its history/psychology:
Alexandra V. October 12, 2016
I think we live in a time where clowns are no longer viewed in the same respect that they were in the old days. Blame John Wayne Gacy, or Stephen King's "it", or trashy "juggalo" culture, clowns are no longer childhood joy givers, it's sad to me as I spent many years of my childhood watching "Bozo" on cable t.v. and working with the Shriner's who would dress as clowns to visit the kids at the hospital. I think it's hysteria and if you look at many years of Halloween induced mischief creepy clowns have been the scapegoat for many of the best urban legends. McDonald's has to have mass appeal and Ronald ain't winning any popularity contest. Good read...I think Ronald deserves this.
Mayukh S. October 13, 2016
I swear I was trying so hard not to stick a John Wayne Gacy reference in there! I blame him, too.