Richard Bernard "Red" Skelton (July 18, 1913 – September 17, 1997) was an American entertainer best known for being a nationalradio and television comedian between 1937 and 1971. Skelton, who has stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, began his show business career in his teens as a circus clown and continued on vaudeville and Broadway and in films, radio, TV, nightclubs, andcasinos, all while he pursued an entirely separate career as an artist.
Life and career
Born in Vincennes, Indiana, Richard Skelton was the fourth son of Ida Mae (née Fields) and Joseph E. Skelton (1878–1913). Joseph, a grocer, died two months before his last child was born; he had once been a clown with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. In Skelton's lifetime there was some dispute about the year of his birth. Author Wesley Hyatt suggests that since Skelton began working at such an early age, he may have had to say he was older than he actually was in order to work.
Because of the loss of his father, young Richard went to work at the age of seven, selling newspapers to help his family. He quickly learned the newsboy's patter and would keep it up until a prospective buyer bought a copy of the paper just to quiet young Skelton.In 1923, a man came up to the young newsboy, purchased every paper he had and asked him if he wanted to see the show in town, giving him a ticket. The man, comedian Ed Wynn, was part of the show and later took young Skelton backstage. It was then that he realized what he wanted to do with his life. (Skelton also told another version of this story, with Raymond Hitchcock as the actor.) Skelton learned when young that he could make people laugh. When Skelton was ten, he auditioned to be part of a medicine show. When he accidentally fell from the stage, breaking bottles of medicine as he fell, people laughed. The young boy realized he could earn a living with his ability. By age 14, he had left school and was already a veteran performer, working in local vaudeville and on ashowboat, "The Cotton Blossom", that traveled the Ohio and Missouri rivers.
Young Skelton was interested in all forms of acting. He won a dramatic role with a stock theater company, but was unable to deliver his lines in a serious manner; the audience laughed instead. Ida Skelton, who held two jobs to support her family after the death of her husband, never said that her youngest son had run away from home, but that "his destiny had caught up with him at an early age". At age 15, he was on the vaudeville circuit. The next year he spent some time with the same circus with which his father had also been a clown. Skelton later copied his father's makeup for his television character, "Freddie the Freeloader". While performing inKansas City in 1931, Skelton married his first wife, Edna Stillwell, who was an usher at the theater.
Skelton and his wife put together an act and began to get bookings for it at some of the smaller vaudeville theaters. They somehow made their way to the Lido Club in Montreal. Despite the language barrier, the act was a success, and brought the couple theater dates throughout Canada. While in Montreal, Skelton and Edna devised the well-known "Doughnut Dunkers" routine, with Skelton's visual impressions of how different people ate doughnuts. The problem with doing this type of act was that Skelton had to eat nine doughnuts at every performance. He was performing five times a day and eating 45 doughnuts. Skelton gained almost 35 pounds rapidly and had to shelve the routine for a while until he lost the weight.
Skelton's imprint ceremony atGrauman's Chinese Theatre, June 18, 1942. His wife, Edna, is at his left. Skelton also imprinted "Junior's" shoes along with the message, "We Dood It!". Theater owner Sid Grauman is in foreground of photo.
Skelton's first contact with Hollywood came in the form of a failed 1932 screen test. In 1937 he made his film debut for RKO Radio Pictures in the supporting role of a camp counselor in Having Wonderful Time. Two short subjects made for Vitaphone were released in 1939: Seeing Red and The Bashful Buckaroo. After screen star Mickey Rooney had seen Skelton perform his "Doughnut Dunkers" act, Rooney contacted Skelton, urging him to try for work in films. Rooney also spoke favorably about Skelton to his film employer, MGM.
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 renegotiated his 1940 long-term contract with MGM, he wanted a clause that permitted him to remain working in radio and to be able to work on television (which was in its infancy). Skelton's previous contract called for MGM's approval prior to his radio shows and other appearances. Skelton did not receive the desired television clause and was not able to begin working in the medium until his MGM contract completed in 1951.
Skelton asked MGM once more for rights to pursue television when his contract was over. This time the studio was willing to grant them, making Skelton the only major MGM personality with the privilege. During the last portion of Skelton's contract with the studio, he was working in radio and on television in addition to films. In a 1956 interview, Skelton said he decided he would never work simultaneously in all three again.
The "Doughnut Dunkers" routine also led to Skelton's first appearance on The Rudy Vallee Show on August 12, 1937. The program had a talent show segment and those who were searching for stardom were eager to be heard on it. The show received enough fan mail after Skelton's performance to invite the comedian back two weeks after his initial appearance and again in November of that year. On October 1, 1938, Skelton replaced Red Foley as the host of Avalon Time on NBC; Edna also joined the show's cast. Skelton continued as the show's host until late 1939, when he went on to begin his MGM movie career.
Skelton's success in films meant a regular radio show offer. He went on the air with his own program, The Raleigh Cigarettes Program, on October 7, 1941. The bandleader for the show was Ozzie Nelson; his wife, Harriet, who worked under her maiden name of Hilliard, was the show's vocalist and also worked with Skelton in skits.
Skelton with "Doolittle Dood It" newspaper headline, 1942.
Skelton introduced the first two of his many characters during the show's first season. Clem Kadiddlehopper was based on a Vincennes neighbor named Carl Hopper, who was hard of hearing. Skelton's voice pattern for Clem was very much like that of the later cartoon character, Bullwinkle. They were sufficiently similar to cause Skelton to contemplate filing a lawsuit against Bill Scott, who voiced the cartoon moose. The Mean Widdle Kid, or "Junior", was a young boy full of mischief, who typically did things he was told not to do. "Junior" would say things like, "If I dood it, I gets a whipping.", followed moments later by the statement, "I dood it!" Skelton performed the character at home with Edna giving him the nickname "Junior" long before it was heard by a radio audience. While the phrase was Skelton's, the idea to try using the character on the radio show was Edna's. Skelton starred in a 1942 movie of the same name, but did not play "Junior" in the film. When MGM decided to use the phrase for the movie, they did so without the permission of either Skelton or his Raleigh cigarettes sponsor; Skelton asked for $25,000 from the studio in damages.
The phrase was such a part of national culture at the time, when General Doolittle conducted the bombing of Tokyo in 1942, many newspapers used the phrase, "Doolittle Dood It" as a headline. In 1943, after a talk with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Skelton used his radio show to collect funds for a Douglas A-20 Havoc to be given to the Soviet Army to help fight World War II. Asking children to send in their spare change, Skelton raised enough money for the plane in two weeks. He named the bomber "We Dood It!" In 1993, the pilot of the plane was able to meet Skelton and thank him for the bomber.
Skelton also added a routine he had been performing since 1928. Originally called "Mellow Cigars" by Skelton, the skit entailed an announcer who became ill as he smoked his sponsor's product. Brown and Williamson, the makers of cigarettes, asked Skelton to change some aspects of the skit; Skelton renamed the routine "Guzzler's Gin", where the announcer became inebriated while sampling and touting the imaginary sponsor's wares. While the traditional radio program called for its cast to do an audience warm-up in preparation for the broadcast, Skelton did just the opposite. After the regular radio program had ended, the studio audience was treated to a post-program performance. Skelton would then perform his "Guzzler's Gin" or any of more than 350 routines for those who had come to the radio show. Skelton updated and revised his post-show routines as diligently as those for his radio program. As a result, studio audience tickets for the Skelton radio show were in high demand; there were times where up to 300 people needed to be turned away for lack of seats.
Photo of 1948 Raleigh Cigarettes Program
cast: Standing: Pat McGeehan, The Four Knights, David Rose (orchestra leader). Seated:Verna Felton ("Grandma" to Skelton's "Junior" character), Rod O'Connor (announcer), Lurene Tuttle ("Mother" to Skelton's "Junior" character). Front: Red Skelton.
The Skelton divorce in 1943 meant that Red had lost his married man's deferment; he was once again classified as 1-A for service. He was drafted into the Army in early 1944. Both MGM and his radio sponsor tried to obtain a deferment for the comedian, but to no avail. Skelton's last Raleigh radio show was on June 6, 1944, the day before he was formally inducted. Without its star, the program was discontinued, and the opportunity presented itself for the Nelsons to begin a radio show of their own, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Skelton suffered a nervous breakdown while in the Army and was discharged on September 18, 1945. His sponsor was eager to have him back on the air, and Skelton's program began anew on NBC on December 4, 1945.
Skelton brought with him many new characters that were added to his repertoire: Bolivar Shagnasty, described as a "loudmouthed braggard", Cauliflower McPugg, a boxer who had hit the canvas too often, Deadeye, a cowboy who could not get anything right, Willie Lump-Lump, a fellow who had a few too many drinks, and San Fernando Red, who never met a scam he did not like and also had political aspirations. By 1947, Skelton's musical conductor was David Rose, who would go on to television with him. Skelton had worked with Rose during his time in the Army and wanted Rose to join him on the radio show when it went back on the air in December 1945.
On April 22, 1947, Red was censored by NBC two minutes into his radio show. Red and his announcer Rod O'Connor began to talk about Fred Allen being censored during Allen's NBC show the previous week; they were silenced for 15 seconds. Comedian Bob Hopewas also given the same treatment once he began referring to the censoring of Allen. Skelton forged on with his lines for his studio audience's benefit. The material Skelton insisted on using had been edited from the script by the network before the broadcast. Skelton's words after he was back on the air were, "Well, we have now joined the parade of stars." Skelton had been briefly censored the previous month for the use of the word "diaper". After the April incidents, NBC indicated it would no longer pull the plug for similar reasons.
Skelton changed sponsors in 1948; Brown and Williamson, owners of Raleigh cigarettes, withdrew due to program production costs. Skelton's new sponsor was Procter & Gamble's Tide laundry detergent. He changed networks the next year, going from NBC to CBS. The Paley plan that offered stars significant tax savings if they incorporated, then sold their shows to CBS, covered radio shows only. Skelton's radio show was on CBS until May 1953. After Skelton's network radio contract was over, he signed with Ziv Radio for three years for a syndicated radio program in 1954. He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1994.
Skelton as Deadeye with actress Terry Moore, 1959.
Skelton was unable to work in television until the end of his 1951 MGM movie contract; a renegotiation to extend the pact provided permission after that point. He was signed to a contract for television on NBC with Procter and Gamble as his sponsor on May 4, 1951. Skelton indicated he would be performing the same characters on television as he had been doing on radio. The MGM agreement with Skelton for television performances did not allow him to go on the air before September 30, 1951. When he began his NBC television show on the first day he was able to legally do so, at the end of his opening monologue, two men backstage grabbed his ankles from behind the set curtain, hauling him offstage face first. The comedic hard knocks took their toll; before Skelton had reached the age of 40, he needed leg braces and a cane for the cartilage that was destroyed in both of his knees. A ritual was established at the end of every program, with Skelton's words of, "Good night and may God bless." A 1943 hit instrumental for Rose, called "Holiday for Strings", was used as Skelton's TV theme song. His now-famous "Freddie the Freeloader" clown was introduced on the program in 1952.
Lucille Knoch and Willie Lump-Lump on an early version of the CBS Skelton show in May, 1954.
During the 1951–52 season, Skelton broadcast live from a converted NBC radio studio. The first year of Skelton's television show was donelive; problems set in because there was not enough time for costume changes and also because of Skelton's being on camera for most of the half-hour. Skelton was delivering an intense performance live each week, and the strain showed in physical illness. 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. Procter & Gamble remained unhappy with the filming of the television show, and insisted that Skelton return to live broadcasts. The situation caused him to think about leaving television at that point.
Declining ratings prompted sponsor Procter & Gamble to cancel his show in the spring of 1953, with Skelton announcing that any future television shows of his would be variety shows, where he would not have the almost constant burden of performing. Beginning with the 1953–54 season, Skelton switched to CBS, where he remained until 1970. When Skelton initially moved to CBS, he had no sponsor. The network gambled by taking the Skelton show on a sustaining basis; CBS was covering all expenses. Skelton's first CBS sponsor was Geritol. 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. By 1959, Skelton was the only comedian with a regularly scheduled weekly television show.
Skelton's comedic sketches became legendary. 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. Actress Theona Bryant, a regular to the show remarked, "When you can recite Juliet's Romeo dialogue in southern belle drawl into the laughing face of Red Skelton, you're ready to be a star."
Red Skelton and Mickey Rooney at dress rehearsal for The Red Skelton Show
of January 15, 1957. This was Skelton's return to television after his son, Richard's, leukemia diagnosis.
By 1955, Skelton was broadcasting his weekly programs in color. Between 1955 and 1960 the program was broadcast in color approximately 100 times. He tried to encourage CBS to do other shows in color at the facility, although most emanated in black-and-white from Television City near the Farmers Market in Los Angeles. However, CBS mostly avoided color broadcasting after the network's television set manufacturing division, CBS-Columbia sold few color sets and the public's general lack of interest did not warrant the additional cost. Although CBS occasionally would use NBC facilities or its own small color studio for specials, the network avoided color programming—except for sporadic telecasts of specials The Wizard of Oz and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella—until the fall of 1965, when the three broadcast networks (ABC, NBC and CBS) began televising most of their primetime programs in color.
In early 1960, Skelton purchased the old Charlie Chaplin Studios and updated it for videotape recording. Along with a purchase of a three-truck mobile color television unit, Skelton recorded (and CBS continued to broadcast) a number of his series episodes and specials in color. Even with Skelton's color facilities CBS discontinued color broadcasts on a regular basis and Skelton shortly sold the studio to CBS and the mobile unit to local station, KTLA. Prior to this, he had been filming at Desilu Productions. By that time, Skelton had abandoned his own studio and moved back 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. While a staple of his radio programs, Skelton did not perform his "Mean Widdle Kid" or "Junior" character on television until 1962, after extending the length of his program.
At the height of Skelton's popularity, his son was diagnosed with leukemia. In 1957, this was a virtual death sentence for any child. Skelton returned to his television show on January 15, 1957, with guest star Mickey Rooney helping to lift his spirits. The illness and subsequent death of Richard Skelton at the age of nine left his father devastated and unable to perform for much of the 1957–58 television season. Skelton himself was beset by a serious illness and by a household accident which kept him off the air. CBS management was exceptionally understanding of Red's situation, and no talk of cancellation was ever entertained by Paley.
Skelton performing with Marcel Marceau, 1965.
Skelton's season premiere for the 1960–61 television season was a tribute to the United Nations. Six hundred people from the organization, including diplomats, were invited to be part of the audience for the show. Skelton's program was entirely done in pantomime. UN representatives from 39 nations were in the studio audience. In 1965, Skelton did another show in complete pantomime. This time he was joined by Marcel Marceau; the two artists alternated performances for the hour-long program, sharing the stage to perform Pinocchio. The only person who spoke during the hour was Maurice Chevalier, who served as the show's narrator. Skelton frequently employed the art of pantomime for his characters, using few props. A particularly poignant one is that of the old man watching the parade. The sketch had its origins in a question Skelton's terminally ill son, Richard, asked his father about what happens when people die. Skelton told his son, "They join a parade and start marching."
In 1969, Skelton performed a self-written monologue about the Pledge of Allegiance. In the speech, he commented on the meaning of each phrase of the Pledge. CBS received 200,000 requests for copies; the company subsequently released the monologue as a single recording by Columbia Records.
In Groucho and Me, Groucho Marx called Skelton "the most unacclaimed clown in show business", and "the logical successor to [Charlie] Chaplin", largely because of his ability to play a multitude of characters with minimal use of dialogue and props. "With one prop, a soft battered hat," Groucho wrote, describing a performance he had witnessed, "he successfully converted himself into an idiot boy, a peevish old lady, a teetering-tottering drunk, an overstuffed clubwoman, a tramp, and any other character that seemed to suit his fancy. No grotesque make-up, no funny clothes, just Red." He added that Skelton also "plays a dramatic scene about as effectively as any of the dramatic actors."
Skelton was quoted as saying, "I just want to be known as a clown, because to me that's the height of my profession. It means you can do everything—sing, dance and above all, make people laugh." Since he believed this was his mission in life, Skelton was able to share his gift of laughter under surprising circumstances. He and Father Edward J. Carney were on a plane from Rome carrying 24 children from an assortment of countries when the plane lost two of its three engines and seemed destined to lose the third. When it appeared that the plane would crash over Mont Blanc, the priest readied himself to administer Last Rites. As he did so, he told Skelton, "You take care of your department, Red, and I'll take care of mine." Skelton diverted the attention of the children with pantomimes while Father Carney prayed; they were somehow able to land at a small airstrip in Lyon, France.
Many of Skelton's television shows have survived due to kinescopes, films and videotapes and have been featured in recent years on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations. In addition, a number of excerpts from Skelton's programs have been released in VHS and DVD formats. In 1980, Skelton was taken to court by 13 of his former writers over a story that his will called for the destruction of recordings of all his old television shows upon his death. Skelton contended his remarks were made at a time when he was very unhappy with the television industry and were taken out of context. Skelton said at the time, "Would you burn the only monument you've built in over 20 years?" As the owner of the television shows, Skelton steadfastly refused to allow them to be syndicated as reruns during his lifetime.
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 radio and television characters
Off the air
As the '70s began, the networks began a major campaign to discontinue long-running shows that were seen as stale or lacking youth appeal. Despite Red Skelton's continued strong ratings, CBS saw his show as fitting into this category and gave it the axe along with other comedy shows hosted by veterans such as Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan. In addition, inflation resulted in mounting production costs. (see rural purge for more information on this topic). 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. Performing in Las Vegas when he got the news of his CBS cancellation, Skelton said, "My heart has been broken."
Skelton moved to NBC in 1970 in a half-hour Monday night version of his former show. Its cancellation after one season ended his long television career. Skelton returned to live performances after he was no longer on television. In an apparent effort to prove the networks wrong, he gave many of these at colleges and did prove quite popular with the youth. In 1984, Skelton gave a Royal Command Performance for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds which was later shown in the US on HBO. In addition, Skelton made several other specials for HBO including Freddie the Freeloader's Christmas Dinner (1981) and the Funny Faces series of specials.
Skelton was said to be bitter about CBS's cancellation for many years afterwards. Believing the demographic and salary issues to be irrelevant, he bitterly accused CBS of caving in to the anti-establishment, anti-war faction at the height of the Vietnam War, saying his conservative political and social views caused them 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. When he was presented with theAcademy 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 had previously received Emmys for Best Comedy Program in 1952 and for Best Comedy Writing in 1961. Skelton was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Television Hall of Fame in 1989.
Clown and circus art
Skelton began producing artwork in 1943, but kept his works private for many years. He said he was inspired to try his hand at painting after visiting a large Chicago department store that had various paintings on display. Inquiring as to the price of one which Skelton described as "a bunch of blotches", he was told, "Ten thousand wouldn't buy that one." Skelton said he told the clerk he was one of the ten thousand who would not buy the painting, instead buying his own art materials. His wife, Georgia, a former art student, persuaded Skelton to have his first public showing of his work in 1964 at the Las Vegas hotel where he was entertaining at the time. Skelton originals are priced at $80,000 and upward; Skelton once estimated the sale of his lithographs earned him $2.5 million per year.
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.
Skelton was a prolific writer of both short stories and music. After sleeping only four or five hours a night, he would get up at 5 AM and begin writing stories, composing music, and painting pictures. He wrote at least one short story a week and had composed over 8,000 songs and symphonies at his death. Skelton was also interested in photography; when attending Hollywood parties, he would take photos and give the films to newspaper reporters waiting outside. Skelton kept a photographic record of each of his oil paintings. He was also an avid gardener who created his own Japanese garden and bonsai trees at his home in Palm Springs, California.