How cartoonist came to create 'Bozo' When Francis Xavier "Foxo" Reardon lost his job in 1921, he prayed.
The Richmond native was 16 at the time, and he had held the position of sports cartoonist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch for less than a year. Reardon's disappointment was profound when his dream job vanished in a budget cut.
Almost as soon as he shut his eyes to pray, he envisioned a cartoon character -- a silent, comic Everyman that Reardon thought of as a hapless "nobody." He named him "Bozo." A little more than two decades later, "Bozo" had become a "somebody" loved by millions of newspaper comic-strip fans.
Today, 53 years after the cartoonist's death, Michael T. Reardon has told the story of his father's life and career in "Whistling Down the Halls," a book published this year by BearManor Media. The book was a labor of love for the author, and it provides a generous sampling of the cartoonist's most memorable work from the 1920s to the 1950s, including "Bozo." It also offers insight into what drove the artist. "I think the characteristic that stands out in my memories of him the most is his integrity, his complete honesty and good will," his son Michael said recently via e-mail.
His father was a born cartoonist. "Francis Xavier Reardon never took a drawing lesson in his life, but has learned a lot by talking to other artists, and has a deft touch all his own," said a 1945 Times-Dispatch profile of the artist. "He did a presentable picture of a Richmond Blues parade as far back as 1908, when he was only 3."
After he lost his job in 1921, Reardon went north and worked as a freelance illustrator. An editor at a New Jersey newspaper dubbed him "Foxo" because Reardon signed his drawings "F.X. Reardon," using small circles as periods after his initials. The result resembled "FoXo." Reardon liked the new name so much he brought it with him when The Times-Dispatch rehired him in 1923.
By 1924, Reardon had introduced Richmonders to "Bozo," and the strip ran in The Times-Dispatch almost every Sunday for the 22 years Reardon worked at the newspaper. In a 1935 reader survey, it was named the newspaper's second most popular Sunday comic strip. In 1943, The Times-Dispatch called the cartoon "the world's first pantomime comic strip," predating "Henry," "The Little King" and a host of wordless imitators that arrived in the 1930s.
In addition to "Bozo," Reardon created other comic strips for The Times-Dispatch and for a few years served as chief editorial cartoonist. Reardon also gave Richmonders a long-running illustrated feature that was uniquely Virginian. It was inspired by the popular Robert L. Ripley's "Believe It or Not!" syndicated feature.
Originally called "Local Oddities," and later "Old Dominion Oddities," Reardon's twist on the strange-but-true concept was unveiled by The Times-Dispatch on Sunday, April 21, 1935. The inaugural panel included a drawing and story familiar to many Richmonders of bees nesting inside the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue, causing honey to drip from the mouth of Lee's horse.
Reardon drew "Old Dominion Oddities" until Nov. 11, 1945, when he left The Times-Dispatch to devote full time to drawing "Bozo" strips for daily syndication. Within six weeks, "Bozo" was carried in more than 20 newspapers, including The Times-Dispatch, and seen in 2.3 million households.
When Reardon died of cancer in Richmond in 1955, "Bozo" ceased publication.
Ten years before his death, The Times-Dispatch asked Reardon if he considered himself a great artist. "The great artists are those who draw things for the enjoyment of only a few, but I maintain that the greatest artist is the artist who can draw for the enjoyment of many," he said. "If I can contribute a smile a day for many, then I will be happy."