Richard Bernard “Red” Skelton (July 18, 1913 – September 17, 1997) 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 from there he went on to vaudeville, Broadway, films, radio, TV, night clubs, and casinos, while also pursuing a career as a painter.
Based on longevity and audience size, The Red Skelton Show was the second most popular show in TV history (Gunsmoke was first). In the early 1960s, Skelton was the first CBS television host to begin taping his weekly programs in color.
Skelton received 13 Emmy Award nominations, winning in 1951, 1956, and 1960/61. He was named to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS) Hall of Fame and received the ATAS Governor's Emmy Award in 1986. He also was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1989, was inducted as a charter member of the Comedy Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Radio Hall of Fame in 1994.
His famous "Pledge Of Allegiance," in which he explained the meaning of each and every word on a program in 1969 has become a perennial favorite for public broadcast on major patriotic holidays. His weekly sign off—"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."
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 himself got one of his earliest tastes of show business with the same circus as a teenager. Before that, however, he got the show business bug at age 10 by entertainer Ed Wynn, who spotted him selling newspapers in front of the Pantheon Theatre, in Vincennes, trying to help his family. After buying every newspaper in Skelton's stock, Wynn took the boy backstage and introduced him to every member 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.
Skelton caught his big break in two media at once: radio and film. In 1938, he made his film debut for RKO 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 (MGM) 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 star in not only radio (which he had already done) but on television, which was still in its early years. Studio chief Louis B. Mayer agreed to the terms, only to regret it years later when television became a serious threat to the motion picture industry. Many of Skelton's films, especially the Technicolor musicals, have been issued on home video.
After 1937, appearances on The Rudy Vallee Show, Skelton became a regular in 1939 on NBC's Avalon Time, sponsored by Avalon Cigarettes. On October 7, 1941, Skelton premiered his own radio show, The Raleigh Cigarette Program, developing routines involving 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!") 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." There was also, "Con Man San Fernando Red," with his pair of cross-eyed seagulls, "Gertrude and Heathcliffe" and singing cabdriver, "Clem Kadiddlehopper," a country bumpkin with a big heart and a slow wit. "Clem" had an unintentional knack for upstaging high society 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 usurption of this character by Bill Scott, for the voice of Bullwinkle.
Skelton also 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.
Skelton was drafted in March 1944, and the popular series was discontinued on June 6, 1944. Shipped overseas to serve with a U.S. Army entertainment unit as a private, Skelton led an exceptionally hectic military life. In addition to his own duties and responsibilities, he was always being 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 where it left off 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, and that fall, he moved to CBS.
In 1951, NBC beckoned Skelton to bring his radio show to television. His characters worked even better on screen than on radio. Television also provoked him to create his second best-remembered character, "Freddie the Freeloader," a traditional tramp whose appearance suggested the elder brother of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown Emmett Kelly. Announcer/voice actor Art Gilmore, who voiced numerous movie trailers in Hollywood in the 1940s and '50s, 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. Then, the show was moved to the new NBC television studios in Burbank. Declining ratings prompted NBC to cancel his show in the spring of 1953. Beginning with the 1953-54 season, Skelton began doing his shows for CBS, where he remained until 1970.
Biographer Arthur Marx documented Skelton's personal problems that included heavy drinking. An appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show apparently was the beginning of a turn-a-round for Skelton's television career. He curtailed his drinking and his ratings at CBS began to improve.
Besides "Freddie the Freeloader," Skelton's other television characters included, "Cauliflower McPugg," "Clem Kaddiddlehopper," the, "Mean Widdle Boy," "Sheriff Deadeye," "George Appleby," and "San Fernando Red." Sometimes, during the sketches, Skelton would break up or cause his guest stars to laugh, not only on the live telecasts but on the 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 was the first CBS television host to begin taping his weekly programs in color, after he bought an old movie studio on La Brea Avenue (once owned by Charlie Chaplin) and converted it for television productions. He tried to encourage CBS to tape other shows in color at the facility, although most shows 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 Television City, where he resumed programs until he left the network. In 1962, CBS expanded his programs to a full 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 13, left Skelton unable to perform for much of the 1957-1958 television season. The show continued with guest hosts that included a very young Johnny Carson. 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 canceled 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, a pantomime of the crowd at a small town parade as the American flag passes by.
Skelton frequently used 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, in asserting that comic acting is much more difficult than straight acting, rated Red 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.
Skelton kept his high television ratings into 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.
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.
On January 14, 1969, Red Skelton touched the hearts of millions of Americans with his "Pledge Of Allegiance," in which he explained the meaning of each and every word. Red Skelton's recitation of the "Pledge of Allegiance" was twice read into the Congressional Record of the United States and received numerous awards. Audios of his recitation can be found on hundreds of patriotic websites.
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."
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 $80,000.
Skelton painted clowns and images of the well-known characters he portrayed, such as Freddie the Freeloader and Clem Kadiddlehopper. At his death, he had completed more than 1,000 oil paintings–all portraits of clowns.
About 55 of his paintings were turned into limited-edition canvas lithographs which he signed once they were sold. Each of the lithographs, whose prices ranged from $595 to $995 before his death, was numbered and came with a certificate verifying that it was an original. Skelton made an estimated $2.5 million a year from lithographs.
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 23-room Amargosa Hotel, where Skelton stayed four times in Room 22. The room is dedicated to Skelton.
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 Chapter’s 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. He was also a member of the Shriners in Los Angeles, California.
Skelton was also presented the Gourgas Medal in 1995 prior to the opening of an art show of his paintings. The event was timed to coincide with his 82nd birthday. The Gourgas Medal is the highest honorary decoration offered by the Scottish Rite Supreme Council in the Northern Jurisdiction. Since the first presentation to Harry S.Truman in 1945, only 28 awards have been granted.
While performing in Kansas City, in 1930, Skelton met and married his first wife, Edna Stillwell. The couple divorced 1943, but Stillwell remained one of his chief writers.
In 1945, he married Georgia Davis. The couple had two children, Richard and Valentina. Richard's childhood death in 1958 of leukemia devastated the whole family. Georgia continued in her role as his manager until the 1960s. They divorced in 1971 and in 1976, Georgia committed suicide by gunshot on the anniversary of their son's death. Deeply affected by the loss of his ex-wife, Red would abstain from performing for the next decade and a half, finding solace only in painting clowns.
Skelton married for a third and last time in 1983 to the much younger Lothian Toland.
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."
Skelton also kept himself busy as a major supporter of children's charities, including the Shriner's Crippled Children's Hospital and the Red Skelton Foundation in Vincennes, Indiana, which cares for needy children.
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 Cemetery, in Glendale, California.
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 television shows have been released on home video in both VHS and DVD formats.
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.
At a cost of $16.8 million, the Red Skelton Performing Arts Center was built on the Vincennes University campus. It was officially dedicated on February 24, 2006. The building includes an 850-seat theater, classrooms, rehearsal rooms and dressing rooms. The grand foyer is a gallery for Skelton's paintings, statues and film posters.
In 2007, restoration was planned for the historic Vincennes Pantheon Theatre where Skelton performed during his youth.
Lothian Skelton, Skelton's widow, was on hand at the 2008 Red Skelton Festival to present a collection of her late husband's work to display in the planned Red Skelton Museum and Education Center at Vincennes University. The 130 pieces of art provide a timeline of his work.
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.
All links retrieved July 27, 2019.
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