Uncle Bobby was a legitimate local institution: a real-life Krusty the Klown whose alleged misadventures involving scotch, mothers, and school buses have been the stuff of legend since the 1970s—even though the conversations about him shifted long ago from the playgrounds to the pubs around Toronto. (He’d heartily approve.)
March 1970 was the height of Robert “Bobby” Ash’s career, while playing the mischievous character of Uncle Bobby. Hot off a nationally broadcast series, the release of two best-selling LP records, and kids wear at Simpsons department stores, it’s safe to say that Canada had come as close as possible to the throes of Uncle Bobby Fever.
The Uncle Bobby Show began as a 90-minute local children’s show filmed at CFTO’s Agincourt Studios (9 Channel 9 Court) in 1964: Playtime With Uncle Bobby featured cartoons, singers, puppets, animals and magic tricks. (It replaced CTV’s popular Professor’s Hideaway, the show in which Ash caught his Canadian break, playing a clown.)
In 1968, it was picked up by the national CTV network, which aired it as the trimmed-down 30-minute Uncle Bobby and Friends, notably the first children’s series in North America to show sign language, via co-host Bev Marsh.
Ash wielded a pied-piper-like grip over young people, served by his background in the pirate circuses of Britain with his family of vaudevillian performers: “Be good, but not so very, very good that someone comes up to you and asks ‘What have you been up to?’” was but one sage bit of wisdom.
Magic was always a favourite for Ash, who became ubiquitous at area charity events, performing tricks as Uncle Bobby. His weekly show was devoured by a legion of devotees, whom he called “Bobby Soxers.” And, for many Novembers, he covered the Eaton’s Toronto Santa Claus Parade for CTV.
The seventies started off like dynamite for Ash: Arlington Bloggs: Accidental Astronaut, the second in a series of storytelling LPs, was released months earlier, and Simpsons launched his unisex clothing line:
Not long afterwards, CTV quietly killed the national broadcast, and The Uncle Bobby Show returned to its local CFTO roots.
Filmed mostly live (with film inserts), the series remained a fortified Southern Ontario phenomenon. Ash’s wack pack included ventriloquist Cy Leonard, magician Ron Leonard (Cy’s brother) and “Officer Big Big” John Patterson. Alex Laurier was another regular, who also became familiar from TVOntario’s Cucumber and Polka Dot Door.
The breakaway star, however, was Bimbo the Birthday Clown, a nightmarish cardboard clown accompanied by three dancing string puppets who arrived to the tune of “Bimbo” by Jim Mortimer, followed by more antics:
Ash’s popularity was such that he openly discussed his rate card in a 1972 interview. For $10, Ash would attend your party and be “amusing.” For $50, he’d perform magic tricks and/or a puppet show. But for $150, he’d do all that, and bring along his trademark red double-decker party bus:
Bus driving was a passion for Ash, and as the 1970s wore on—and his clout cooled off—he took a part-time job as a school bus driver in Oshawa. Over the years, many people have wrongly insisted this is an urban legend.
(Two years ago, during a taping of Richard Crouse’s Pop Life, in the same Agincourt Studios, Degrassi legend Stefan Brogren confirmed to Retrontario that he’d been a passenger on a Bobby-driven school bus.)
Other stories have emerged over the years about Ash’s fervent lust for ladies—typically, mothers of children attending Uncle Bobby tapings—and drinking plenty of scotch.
His double-decker bus was infamously dubbed “the shaggin’ wagon” when it was parked outside of Channel 9. The internet also has multiple unconfirmed tales of his drunken antics. Nothing too shady! Uncle Bobby just liked women, and also alcohol.
(But, during one episode of Toronto Mike’d, we discussed a melancholy anecdote from a Halloween giveaway in his waning years.)
The Uncle Bobby Show remained a hallmark of CFTO—first at lunch hour, and then early mornings—until his presence was diminished during a 1979 makeover of the franchise.
Kid’s Corner tried to capitalize on the Star Wars craze by adding a shameless R2-D2 knock-off, called 2E. After 15 years, Uncle Bobby had his screen time reduced to the introduction and conclusion of the show.
No one seems quite sure when Kid’s Corner actually ended (it was sometime in 1980), but repeats of the blissful earlier era appeared daily until at least the early 1990s, via endless Canadian content reruns on YTV.
Ash retired to Elliot Lake, Ontario, wrote a children’s book called Corky the Clown’s Halloween, and he died in 2007 at age 81.
A distant relative of Ash then asked CTV to send all master tapes of anything and everything related to Uncle Bobby to the U.K., with the promise of digitally transferring the entire series and releasing the results on DVD. But there’s no evidence of any such effort. The current whereabouts of that stash remains unknown.
Click to read the entire text of this obituary from the Globe and Mail of May 25, 2007.