Marvin Fishman(1927 - 2006)

Flippo, beloved King of Clowns, dies at age 79

Monday, June 12, 2006

The laughter is gone.

Marvin Fishman, who entertained generations of Columbus TV fans as Flippo, the King of Clowns, died Saturday.

He was 79.

As readily recognized during his heyday as Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, Fishman, whose stage name was Bob Marvin, was called "a comic genius" by co-workers during his career at WBNS-TV (Channel 10) and the pioneering cable service Qube.

For three decades, he delivered a mix of humor that drew off-duty firemen, college students, moms and schoolchildren to the TV.

"He was never corny or went for the cheap laugh. He was hip with a capital H," said Fritz "The Nite Owl" Peerenboom, who worked with Fishman for nearly two decades.

"Flippo would do his live stuff, and it existed on three levels: The kids picked up on it, the adults picked up on it and the hipsters picked up on it. There were so many ways to read between the lines."

The future TV star was born Jan. 6, 1927, in Cleveland. He made his first media appearance, singing on the radio, at age 8.

After an Army stint in Korea, Fishman enrolled at Ohio State University, starting in optometry, switching to journalism, then music.

While still at OSU, he was playing saxophone with a group appearing at the Neil House in 1950. A Channel 10 producer offered him a job singing and performing in sketches on the Homemaker’s Hobnob morning show.

In 1952, the Ward Baking Co. and J. Walter Thompson ad agency asked WBNS to produce a clown show for children.

When a circus clown chickened out, Fishman auditioned and a legend was born.

Chuck White, public-affairs director at WBNS, called Fishman "a comic genius."

"It was basically adult humor, but, because he was a clown, it was funny to kids. If you were an adult, you could hear the subtext."

Tales of his antics on and off the set were legion, typically involving pranks and slapstick stunts with an adult twist.

In one gag, staff announcer Don Riggs as Santa Claus was reading letters from children — until Fishman, just out of camera range, poured a glass of cold eggnog into his boots.

"Oh, boys and girls," Riggs responded, "I’m up in the North Pole, and — oh! — it is cold and wet."

Ola Hanson, a trombone player with the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, played with Fishman in the 1960s and with a group that recorded an opening for Flippo’s The Early Show.

"We recorded the music 10 or 12 times," Hanson said. "On the last one, I blew a note — I missed it completely. That’s the one he used. And every day when the music finished, he’d say, ‘Hey, Ola missed that note again.’ "

Fishman "made an art of the not-so-subtle," said John Markus, whose career as a sitcom writer and producer with such programs as The Cosby Show was inspired by childhood visits to see Flippo in action.

Despite being from the Midwest, Fishman had "a big component of the Borscht Belt, the Catskills in his cadence and joke-telling," Markus said. And, Fishman took risks: "It was television at its most robust."

In a 2004 Dispatch profile, Fishman spoke of seeing his enduring effect on central Ohioans in unlikely places. "I drove into a gas station, and a guy comes up to me and says, ‘You’re the guy who came up with ‘Nerk’ for Newark, and I want to shake your hand,’ " Marvin recalled.

"I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Look at my license plate.’

"It said, ‘Nerk.’ "

In December 2005, Fishman donated his clown costume, photographs and other memorabilia to the Ohio Historical Society.

Although Fishman was indisputably a star, friends noted that he was humble despite his celebrity. He spent 27 years at Channel 10 and six more at Qube, ending in 1983.

In recent years, Fishman was unable to enjoy his musical talent because of breathing problems — "all the places have smoke," he complained — and he missed performing. He said last year, "If there’s an afterlife, I want to be playing tenor sax on a cloud with Glenn Miller’s band."