Red Skelton (July 18, 1913 - September 17, 1997), born Richard Bernard Skelton, was an American comedian who was best known as a top radio and television star from 1937 to 1971. Skelton's show business career began in his teens as a circus clown and went on to vaudeville, Broadway, films, radio, TV, night clubs and casinos, all while pursuing another career as a painter.
Born in Vincennes, Indiana, Skelton was the son of a Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus clown named Joe who died in 1913 shortly before the birth of his son. Skelton got one of his earliest tastes of show business with the same circus as a teenager. Before that, he caught the show business bug at 10 years of age from entertainer Ed Wynn, who spotted him selling newspapers in front of the Pantheon Theatre, in Vincennes. After buying every newspaper Skelton had, Wynn took him backstage and introduced him to members of the show with which he was traveling. By age 15, Skelton had hit the road full-time as an entertainer, working everywhere from medicine shows and vaudeville to burlesque, showboats, minstrel shows and circuses. While performing in Kansas City, in 1930, Skelton met and married his first wife, Edna Stillwell. The couple divorced 13 years later, but Stillwell remained one of his chief writers.
Skelton caught his big break in two media at once: radio and film. In 1938 he made his film debut for RKO Radio Pictures in the supporting role of a camp counselor in Having Wonderful Time. Two short subjects followed for Vitaphone, in 1939: Seeing Red and The Bashful Buckaroo.
Skelton was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to lend comic relief to its Dr. Kildare medical dramas, but soon he was starring in comedy features (as inept radio detective "The Fox") and in Technicolor musicals. When Skelton signed his long-term contract with MGM in 1940, he insisted on a clause that permitted him to work in radio (which he had already done) and on television (which was in its infancy). Studio chief Louis Mayer agreed to the terms, only to regret it later when television became a threat to motion pictures.
In 1945 he married Georgia Davis. They had two children, Richard and Valentina. Richard's childhood death from leukemia devastated the household. Red and Georgia divorced in 1971 and he remarried. In 1976, Georgia committed suicide by gunshot. Deeply affected by the loss of his ex-wife, Red abstained from performing for the next decade and a half, finding solace in painting clowns.
After appearances on The Rudy Vallee Show in 1937, Skelton became a regular in 1939's Avalon Time on NBC, sponsored by Avalon Cigarettes. On October 7, 1941, Skelton premiered his own radio show, The Raleigh Cigarette Program, developing a number of recurring characters including punch-drunk boxer "Cauliflower McPugg," inebriated "Willy Lump-Lump" and "'Mean Widdle Kid' Junior," whose favorite phrase ("I dood it!") soon became part of the American lexicon. That, along with "He bwoke my widdle arm!" (or other body part) and "He don't know me vewy well, do he?" all found their way into various Warner Bros. cartoons.
Skelton himself was referenced in a Popeye cartoon in which the title character enters a haunted house and encounters a "red skeleton." The Three Stooges also referenced Skelton in "Creeps": Shemp: "Who are you?" Talking Skeleton: "Me? I'm Red." Shemp: "Oh, Red Skeleton."
Other characters included "Con Man San Fernando Red," cross-eyed seagulls "Gertrude and Heathcliffe" and the singing cabdriver "Clem Kadiddlehopper," who was a country bumpkin with a big heart. Clem had a knack for upstaging city slickers, even if he couldn't manipulate his cynical father: "When the stork brought you, Clem, I shoulda shot him on sight!" Skelton would later consider court action against the apparent usurpation of this character by Bill Scott for the voice of Bullwinkle.
The comedian helped sell World War II war bonds on the top-rated show, which featured Ozzie and Harriet Nelson in the supporting cast, plus the Ozzie Nelson Orchestra and announcer Truman Bradley. Harriet Nelson was the show's vocalist.
It was during this period that Red divorced his first wife, Edna, and married his second wife Georgia. Red and Georgia's only son, Richard, was born in 1945. Georgia continued in her role as Red's manager until the 1960s.
Skelton was drafted in March 1944, so his popular series was discontinued on June 6. Shipped overseas to serve with an Army entertainment unit as a private, Skelton led an exceptionally hectic military life. In addition to his own duties and responsibilities, he was often summoned to entertain officers late at night. The perpetual motion and lack of rest resulted in a nervous breakdown in Italy. He spent three months in a hospital and was discharged in September 1945. He once joked about his military career, "I was the only celebrity who went in and came out a private."
On December 4, 1945, The Raleigh Cigarette Program resumed with Skelton introducing some new characters, including, "Bolivar Shagnasty" and "J. Newton Numbskull." Lurene Tuttle and Verna Felton appeared as Junior's mother and grandmother. David Forrester and David Rose led the orchestra, featuring vocalist Anita Ellis. The announcers were Pat McGeehan and Rod O'Connor. The series ended May 20, 1949. That fall, he moved to CBS, where the show ran until May 1953.
In 1951, NBC beckoned Skelton to bring his radio show to television. His characters worked even better on screen than on radio. TV also led to one of his best-remembered characters, "Freddie the Freeloader," a traditional tramp whose appearance suggested the elder brother of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown Emmett Kelly.
Announcer and voice actor Art Gilmore, who voiced numerous movie trailers in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, became the announcer on the show, with David Rose and his orchestra providing the music. A hit instrumental for Rose, called "Holiday for Strings", was used as Skelton's TV theme song.
During the 1951-52 season, Skelton broadcast live from a converted NBC radio studio. When he complained about the pressures of doing a live show, NBC agreed to film his shows in the 1952-53 season at Eagle Lion Studios, next to the Sam Goldwyn Studio, on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. Later the show was moved to the new NBC television studios in Burbank.
Declining ratings prompted NBC (and sponsor Procter & Gamble) to cancel his show in the spring of 1953. Beginning with the 1953-54 season, Skelton switched to CBS, where he remained until 1970.
Biographer Arthur Marx documented Skelton's personal problems, including heavy drinking. An appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show began a turnaround for Skelton's television career. He curtailed his drinking and his ratings at CBS began to improve, especially after he began appearing on Tuesday nights for co-sponsors Johnson's Wax and Pet Milk Company.
Many of Skelton's television shows have survived due to kinescopes, films and videotapes and have been featured in recent years on PBS television stations. In addition, a number of excerpts from Skelton's programs have been released in VHS and DVD formats.
Sometimes during sketches, Skelton would break up or cause his guest stars to laugh, not only on the live telecasts but on taped programs as well. Skelton's weekly signoff "Good night and may God bless" became as familiar to television viewers as Edward R. Murrow's "Good night and good luck," or Walter Cronkite's "And that's the way it is."
In the early 1960s, Skelton became the first CBS host to tape his weekly programs in color. He bought an old movie studio on La Brea Avenue (once owned by Charlie Chaplin) and converted it for television productions, as well as forming his own company, Van Bernard Productions, which also was a partner in Irwin Allen's Lost In Space.
He tried to encourage CBS to do other shows in color at the facility, although most were taped in black-and-white at Television City near the Farmers Market in Los Angeles. However, CBS president William S. Paley had generally given up on color television after the network's unsuccessful efforts to receive FCC approval for CBS' "color wheel" system (developed by inventor Peter Goldmark) in the early 1950s.
Although CBS occasionally would use NBC facilities or its own small color studio for specials, the network avoided color programming except for telecasts of The Wizard of Oz and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella until the fall of 1965, when both NBC and ABC began televising most of their programs in RCA's compatible color process. By that time, Skelton had abandoned his own studio and moved to the network's Television City facilities, where he resumed programs until he left the network. In the fall of 1962, CBS expanded his program to a full hour, retitling it The Red Skelton Hour.
At the height of Skelton's popularity, his son was diagnosed with leukemia. In 1957, this was a virtual death sentence for any child. The illness and subsequent death of Richard Skelton at age 9 left his father unable to perform for much of the 1957-58 television season. The show continued with guest hosts that included a young Johnny Carson, who had served as one of Skelton's writers a few years earlier. CBS management was exceptionally understanding of Red's situation, and no talk of cancellation was ever entertained by Paley. Skelton would seemingly turn on CBS and Paley after his show was cancelled by the network in 1970.
Skelton was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1989, but as Kadiddlehopper showed, he was more than an interpretive clown. One of his best-known routines was "The Pledge of Allegiance," in which he explained the pledge word by word. Another Skelton staple was a pantomime of the crowd at a small town parade as the American flag passes by. Skelton frequently employed the art of pantomime for his characters, using few props. He had a hat that he would use for his various bits, a floppy fedora that he would quickly mold into whatever shape was needed for the moment.
In his autobiography, Groucho and Me, Groucho Marx maintained that comic acting is more difficult than straight acting. Marx rated Skelton's acting ability highly and considered him a worthy successor to Charlie Chaplin.
One of the last known on-camera interviews with Skelton was conducted by Steven F. Zambo. A small portion of this interview can be seen in the 2005 PBS special, The Pioneers of Primetime.
Off the air
Skelton kept his high television ratings up to 1970, but he ran into two problems with CBS. Demographics showed he no longer appealed to younger viewers, and his contracted annual salary raises grew disproportionately thanks to inflation. Since CBS had earlier decided to keep another long-time favorite, Gunsmoke, whose appeal was strictly to older audiences, it's possible that without Skelton's inflationary contract raises he might have been kept on the air a few more years. However, between 1970 and 1971, CBS moved away from its traditional weekly variety shows hosted by veterans Skelton, Jackie Gleason, Ed Sullivan, and others whom network programmers thought were alienating younger audiences and resulting in lower ratings (see rural purge for more information on this topic). Remarkably, CBS continued with Carol Burnett's highly popular show until 1978 and aired variety programs hosted by younger entertainers such as Sonny and Cher. Years later, Burnett told reporters that network variety shows had become too expensive to bring back.
Skelton moved to NBC, in 1971, for one season, in a half-hour Monday night version of his former show, then, ended his long television career after being canceled by that network.
Skelton was said to be bitter about CBS's cancellation for many years to follow. Ignoring the demographics and salary issues, he bitterly accused CBS of caving in to the anti-establishment, anti-war faction at the height of the Vietnam War, saying his conservative politics and traditional values caused CBS to turn against him. Skelton invited prominent Republicans, including Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen to appear on his program.
His ex-wife Georgia committed suicide in 1976, five years after their divorce and on the tenth anniversary of their son's death years before. That was her second attempt at suicide. Georgia left a note that said, "The reason I chose this day, is so you wouldn't feel bad twice in one year."
When he was presented with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Governor's Award in 1986, Skelton received a standing ovation. "I want to thank you for sitting down," Skelton said when the ovation subsided. "I thought you were pulling a CBS and walking out on me."
Clown and circus art
Skelton returned to live performance after his television days ended, in nightclubs and casinos and resorts, as well as performing such venues as Carnegie Hall. Many of those shows yielded segments that were edited into part of the Funny Faces video series on HBO's Standing Room Only. He also spent more time on his lifetime love of painting, usually of clown images, and his works began to attract prices over US$80,000.
Red married for a third and last time in 1983 to the much younger Lothian Toland. She continues to maintain a website and business selling Skelton memorabilia and art prints.
In Death Valley Junction, California, Skelton found a kindred spirit when he saw the artwork and pantomime performances of Marta Becket. Today, circus performers painted by Marta Becket decorate the Red Skelton Room in the Amargosa Hotel, where Skelton stayed four times in Room 22. The room is dedicated to Skelton, as explained by John Mulvihill in his essay, "Lost Highway Hotel":
Marta Becket is the magic behind the Amargosa Hotel. For the past 32 years, it has provided both a home and a venue for her lifetime ambition: to perform her dance and pantomime works to paying audiences. Since 1968, she's been doing just that, twice a week, audiences or no. The hotel guest's first encounter with Marta is through her paintings in the lobby and dining area. Once she and her husband had upgraded the structure of the hotel and theatre, she made them unique by painting their walls with shimmering frescoes (not real frescoes but the effect is the same) in a style uniquely hers. Some of the paintings are deceptively three-dimensional, like the guitar leaning against a wall that you don't realize is a painting until you reach to pick it up. Some are evocative of carnival art from the early part of this century. All are vibrant, whimsical. If you're lucky, your room will be graced with similar wall paintings. Room 22 is where Red Skelton used to stay. He visited once to catch Marta's show and, like so many others, fell victim to the Amargosa's enchantment and returned again and again. He asked Marta to illustrate his room with circus performers and though he died shortly thereafter, she did so anyway. Staying in this room, with acrobats scaling the walls and trapeze artists flying from the ceiling, is a singularly evocative experience, one I wouldn't trade for a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Writing and music
Near the end of his life, Skelton said his daily routine included writing a short story a day. He collected the best stories in self-published chapbooks. He also composed music which he sold to background music services such as Muzak. Among his more notable compositions was his patriotic, "Red's White and Blue March."
Red Skelton died in a hospital in Palm Springs, California, of pneumonia, on September 17, 1997. At the time of his death, he lived in Anza, California. He is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in Glendale, California.
Red Skelton was a Freemason, a member of Vincennes Lodge No. 1, in Indiana. He also was a member of both the Scottish and York Rite. He was the recipient of the General Grand Chapters Gold Medal for Distinguished Service in the Arts and Sciences. On September 24, 1969, he was coroneted an Inspector General Honorary 33 Scottish Rite Mason. Skelton was also a member of the Shriners in Los Angeles, California.
The Red Skelton Bridge spans the Wabash River and provides the highway link between Illinois and Indiana, on U.S. Route 50, near his hometown of Vincennes, Indiana. Immediately after the bridge-dedication ceremony came to a close, Red proclaimed in his normal comical style to the crowd, "Ok, now everybody, off of my bridge!"
At a cost of $16.8 million, Red Skelton Performing Arts Center was built on the Vincennes University campus. It was officially dedicated on Friday, February 24, 2006. The building includes an 850-seat theater, classrooms, rehearsal rooms and dressing rooms. The grand foyer is a gallery for Red Skelton paintings, statues and film posters. In addition to Vincennes University theatrical and musical productions, the theater hosts special events, convocations and conventions. Work is underway on the Red Skelton Gallery and Education Center to house the $3 million collection of Skelton memorabilia donated by Lothian Skelton. As of June 2009, part of the museum including a gift shop is open.
The Red Skelton Festival, June 14, 2008 in Vincennes, featured the "Parade of a Thousand Clowns," an Evening of Music, with Crystal Gayle, and clown seminars. In 2007, restoration was planned for the historic Vincennes Pantheon Theatre where Skelton performed during his youth.
In 2002, during the controversy over the phrase "under God," which had been added to U.S. Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, a recording of a monologue Skelton performed on his 1969 television show resurfaced. In the speech, he commented on the meaning of each phrase of the Pledge. At the end, he added: "Wouldn't it be a pity if someone said that is a prayer and that would be eliminated from schools too?" Given that advocates were arguing that the inclusion of "under God" in a pledge recited daily in U.S. public schools violated the First Amendment separation of church and state, Skelton suddenly regained popularity among religious conservatives who wanted the phrase to remain.
Photograph Hand Oil Tinted by Artist Margaret A. Rogers