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.
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.
Indiana, Skelton was the son of a Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus clown
named Joe who died in 1913 shortly before the birth of his
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
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
performing in Kansas City, in 1930, Skelton met and married his first wife,
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:
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
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
in 1937, Skelton became a regular in 1939's Avalon
on NBC, sponsored by Avalon Cigarettes. On October 7,
1941, Skelton premiered his own radio show, The Raleigh
, 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
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
on the top-rated show, which
and Harriet Nelson
in the supporting cast, plus
the Ozzie Nelson Orchestra and announcer Truman Bradley
. Harriet Nelson was the show's
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
On December 4, 1945, The Raleigh Cigarette Program
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
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.
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
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
television stations. In addition, a
number of excerpts from Skelton's programs have been released in
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
'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
) 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
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.
had generally given up on
color television after the network's unsuccessful efforts to
approval for CBS' "color wheel"
system (developed by inventor Peter
) 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
Rodgers and Hammerstein
—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
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
, 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
Skelton was inducted into the International Clown Hall of
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,
, 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,
, Ed Sullivan
, and others whom network programmers
thought were alienating younger audiences and resulting in lower
ratings (see rural purge
more information on this topic). Remarkably, CBS continued with
'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
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
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
returned to live performance after his television days ended, in
nightclubs and casinos and resorts, as well as performing such
venues as Carnegie
Many of those shows yielded segments that
were edited into part of the Funny Faces
'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.
Junction, California, Skelton found a kindred spirit when he saw the
artwork and pantomime performances of Marta
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
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
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
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
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
. 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."
Skelton died in a hospital in Palm Springs, California, of pneumonia, on
September 17, 1997. At the time of his death, he lived in
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
. He was the recipient of the General Grand Chapters Gold
Medal for Distinguished Service in the Arts and Sciences. On
he was coroneted an Inspector General Honorary 33° Scottish Rite
Mason. Skelton was also a member of the Shriners
in Los Angeles, California.
Bridge spans the Wabash River
and provides the highway link between Illinois and Indiana, on U.S.
, 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
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
, with Crystal Gayle
clown seminars. In 2007, restoration was planned for the historic
Vincennes Pantheon Theatre
Skelton performed during his youth.
In 2002, during the controversy over the phrase "under God," which
had been added to U.S. Pledge of
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
of church and state
, Skelton suddenly regained popularity among
religious conservatives who wanted the phrase to remain.
- The Broadway Buckaroo (1939)
- Seeing Red (1939)
- Radio Bugs (1944) (voice)
- Weekend in Hollywood (1947)
- The Luckiest Guy in the World (1947) (voice)
- Some of the Best (1949)
- Arthur Marx, Red Skelton (New York: E. P. Dutton,
1979), pg. 75.
- The Museum of Broadcast Communications: Red
- Arthur Marx, p. 163
- Arthur Marx, p. 178
- Arthur Marx, p. 194
- Arthur Marx, pp. 243–52
- Richard died May 10, 1958, "a month before what would have been
his 10th birthday". Wesley Hyatt, A Critical History of Television's The Red
Skelton Show, 1951–1971, McFarland & Co., 2004, p. 63.
ISBN 978-0786417322. Retrieved July 17, 2009.
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2Axj7RmVic The Dini Petty show,
1992. Red Skelton interview
- Amargosa Hotel: Red Skelton Room
- Red Skelton Performing Arts Center
- Red Skelton Tribute Festival