Like most American families, half-a-century ago, our family enjoyed watching “The Red Skelton Show” on teevee. Each of us had favorite Skelton characters. My brother liked Junior the Mean Widdle Kid. Sis liked Gertrude and Healthcliffe, the two seagulls that could talk. Mom’s favorite was Clem Kadiddlehopper. Dad liked Sheriff Deadeye and Willie Lump Lump the drunkard. I was fond of Freddie the Freeloader the hobo and Bolivar Shagnasty the braggard.
Richard Bernard Skelton was born July 18, 1913 in Vincennes, Indiana. Richard was the fourth son of Ida Mae and grocery store owner Joseph E. Skelton. His father was a former clown employed by the Hagenback-Wallace Circus. Two months before Richard’s birth, his father died.
Young Richard began doing odd jobs and selling newspapers by the age of seven in order to help support his impoverished family. In 1923, entertainer Ed Wynn noticed Richard selling papers in front of the Pantheon Theatre in Vincennes. After Wynn bought Richard’s entire stock of newspapers, Wynn brought the youngster backstage and introduced him to the entire cast of Wynn’s travelling show. Skelton attributed this event as the time he “caught the entertainment bug.”
By the time the precocious boy was 15-years-old, Richard had become a full-time player on the vaudeville and burlesque circuits. He worked across the US on stage and aboard showboats. In 1930, Richard met and married Edna Stillwell. The couple had a vaudeville act that appeared in the American Midwest and Canada. The two divorced 13-years later, but remained friendly enough to work together.
Skelton was handed a big break in 1937 that began during his appearance at the Capitol Theater in Washington, DC. President Franklin Roosevelt, who was in the audience, invited Red Skelton to perform at an official White House luncheon. While the official toasts were being said, Skelton snatched FDR’s glass and said, “Be careful what you drink to, Mr. President, I got rolled in a place like this once.” Roosevelt loved the impromptu joke, so the two became friends.
Skelton’s major media breakthroughs came about with work in radio and film. His radio debut was on Rudy Vallée’s “The Fleishchmann’s Yeast Hour” in August of 1937. Skelton’s first movie appearance was a supporting role in the 1938 movie “Having a Wonderful Time”.
Mickey Rooney saw Red Skelton perform during FDR’s 1940 birthday party, he urged Skelton to try for more starring roles in movies. Skelton appeared as comic relief in the 1941 drama “Flight Command” and in the “Dr. Kildare” medical dramas. That same year, Skelton was cast in musical comedies including “Lady Be Good”.
On March of 1944, Skelton no longer had a draft deferrment. After basic training, Skelton served with an Army entertainment unit. He suffered a nervous breakdown while in Italy. After three months hospitalization, he was discharged in September of 1945. Later that year, Red Skelton married Georgia Davis. They eventually had two children, Richard, Jr. and Valentina.
By 1947, Skelton was “biting at the bit” of MGM’s movie contracts. The studio had stipulated that he must have MGM’s consent for his weekly radio programs. Skelton wanted to work in radio because he had much more creative control over his work, he could develop “alter-ego” characters, and radio paid better wages. Skelton also became more interested in the, then experimental, field of television. MGM became ever more frustrated with Skelton during the filming of “The Fuller Brush Man”. The film company had cast Skelton as the romantic lead actor. Instead, Skelton ad-libbed slapstick comedy.
The final contract with MGM allowed Skelton to do work in tv. He was the only major MGM star to work in radio, television, and film. Skelton’s last major film role was in 1956. However, he did make cameo appearances in some later movies.
1951 was a big year in television. CBS premiered “I Love Lucy”. Soon, the network invited Skelton to move his radio show to television. The visual medium provided a better venue for his cast of imaginary characters. His variety show became one of the top rated programs in the industry.
In the mid 1950s Skelton’s son, Richard was diagnosed with leukemia. The network granted him a month long hiatus to cope with the family emergency. In January 1957, he returned to his show with guest star Mickey Rooney. On May 10, 1958, ten days before his tenth birthday, the youngster died. The death profoundly affected Red Skelton and the family.
Skelton bought the former Charlie Chaplin Studios, in 1960 and converted it to videotape recording capabilities. He was the first major comedy star to record some of his episodes in color. “The Red Skelton Hour” remained one of the top ten highest ranked television shows for 17 of the 20 years of his teevee career.
1970 saw the beginning of CBS’s “Rural Purge”. The network axed “The Beverly Hilbillies”, “Mayberry RFD”, “Hee Haw”, “The Jim Nabors Hour”, “Green Acres”, “Family Affair”, “Hogan’s Heroes”, and “The Red Skelton Show”. In the autumn of 1970, Skelton signed on with NBC for a half-hour version of his old show. That program only aired for one season. The cancellation of that show ended his broadcasting career.
Red Skelton remained resentful of network brass following the end of his television shows. His conservative political views fueled Skelton’s bitterness towards the media. Skelton blamed the anti-establishment, anti-war faction of the networks for his firing. Actually, a strong, national demographics shift had occurred and salary concerns were the main influences regarding his firing.
In the 1980s, Red Skelton appeared in special programs, many of them on HBO. He died on September 17, 1997 at the age of 94 at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, California. He was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetary in Glendale, California.