Red Skelton

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Red Skelton
Red Skelton, 1960.
Red Skelton, 1960
Birth name Richard Bernard Skelton
Born (1913-07-18)July 18, 1913
Vincennes, Indiana, U.S.
Died September 17, 1997(1997-09-17) (aged 84)
Rancho Mirage, California, U.S.
Medium Radio
Live performances
Years active 1937–1981
Influences Ed Wynn[1]
Charlie Chaplin[2]
Robert Benchley[3]
Buster Keaton[4]
Influenced Michael Richards[5]
Johnny Carson[6]
Steve Martin[7]
Cheech Marin[8]
Richard Pryor[8]
Jamie Farr[9]
Spouse Edna Marie Stilwell
Georgia Davis
Lothian Toland
(1973–1997) (his death)
Emmy Awards
1952 Best Comedy Program

1952 Best Comedian

1961 Outstanding Writing-Comedy Series

1986 Governors' Award
Academy of Television Arts & Sciences
1989 Television Hall of Fame

Richard Bernard "Red" Skelton (July 18, 1913 – September 17, 1997) was an American entertainer best known for being a national radio and television comedian between 1937 and 1971 and host of the long-running television program The Red Skelton Show. Skelton, who has stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, began entertaining as a youngster. His show business career included a stint as a circus clown when he was in his teens. Skelton continued on to vaudeville, films, radio, TV, nightclubs, and casinos, all while he pursued an entirely separate career as an artist.

He learned his comedic and pantomime skills through experience, beginning at age 10 as part of a traveling medicine show. Skelton then worked on a showboat as the era of that form of entertainment was waning. He worked the burlesque circuit until its comedic standards began to change, coming into vaudeville as radio and films began to replace live entertainment. A pantomime sketch of how different people ate doughnuts written by Skelton and his wife opened the door for him in vaudeville, in radio and in films; it even opened the door of the Oval Office. He had long and successful careers in both radio and in films, but was most eager to work in television, even when the medium was in its infancy. Skelton's enthusiasm was rewarded with a twenty year career on network television with a regular program.

While his first wife, comedy writer Edna Stillwell, provided the spark for Skelton the performer, it was his second wife, Georgia Davis, who convinced him that the art work he had done as a hobby for many years was worth sharing with the public. At the time of his death, his art dealer believed that Skelton had earned more money through his paintings than from his television work.

Skelton believed his life's work was to make people laugh and wanted to be known as a clown, because he defined it as being able to do everything. He entertained three generations of Americans during his career as a performer. The earliest generation welcomed him into their homes on radio, the next did so on television, while the younger generation was able to welcome him to their cities and towns personally, because Skelton focused his time and energy on personal appearance performances after he no longer had a regular television show.

Early life[edit]

Early years[edit]

Born in Vincennes, Indiana, Richard Skelton was the fourth son of Ida Mae (née Fields) and Joseph E. Skelton (1878–1913), both devout Catholics.[citation needed] Joseph, a grocer, died two months before his last child was born; he had once been a clown with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus.[12][13] 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.[14] [note 1][note 2]

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.[12] 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.[13] [note 3] He learned at an early age 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. He worked in the medicine show for four years. The pay was ten dollars a week and he sent all of it home weekly to his mother telling her, "We get plenty to eat, and we sleep in the wagon."[18] 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".[13][19]

By age 14, he had left school and was already a veteran performer, working in local vaudeville and on a showboat, "The Cotton Blossom", that traveled the Ohio and Missouri rivers.[12] Skelton enjoyed his work on the riverboat, moving on only after he realized that the days of showboats would soon come to an end.[15] 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 and he was fired before completing a week's work in the role.[12][15] At age 15, he was on the burlesque circuit.[20] 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".[21] He learned how to duplicate his father's makeup and perform his routines through his mother's recollections.[22]

Young adult[edit]

While performing in Kansas City in 1931, Skelton married his first wife, Edna Stillwell, who was an usher at the theater.[23][24] The atmosphere of burlesque comedy began to take a turn toward blue material shortly before the time of the young couple's marriage. Skelton, who declared himself to be no prude, said, "I just didn't think the lines were funny". He moved on to dance marathons, popular in the 1930s and referred to as "walkathons" at that time. Skelton became a master of ceremonies who was in demand for these events. Edna, who had met him in 1930 and was not interested in Skelton, changed her mind after she won a local marathon where Skelton was the emcee. She began writing his material for marathons after their marriage.[15][25] Skelton's hopes were now to somehow find work in New York City and break into vaudeville there.[26] Skelton and his wife put together an act and began to get bookings for it at some of the smaller theaters. When the couple got a booking in Harwich Port, Massachusetts, some 2,000 miles from Kansas City, they were pleased to get it because it was nearer New York City, the capital of vaudeville, than they were at the time. To get to Massachusetts, they bought a used car, borrowed five dollars from Edna's mother, and set out on the road. By the time they arrived in St, Louis, their five dollars had become a mere fifty cents. When Skelton suggested to his wife that they pick up empty cigarette packs for the tinfoil, she thought he was joking but did as he asked. Skelton then spent the couple's fifty cents on bars of soap, which they cut into small cubes and wrapped with the smoothed-out tinfoil from the collected cigarette packs. Red and Edna then marketed their product as fog remover for eyeglasses, selling the foil wrapped soap cubes for fifty cents each. The Skeltons were able to afford a hotel room that evening and for every night as they worked their way to Harwich Port, selling the eyeglass fog remover.[18]

They worked for a year in Camden, New Jersey and were able to get an engagement at the Lido Club in Montreal through a friend who managed the chorus lines at New York's Roxy Theatre.[18] Despite the language barrier and an initial rocky start, the act was a success, and brought the couple theater dates throughout Canada.[15] While in Montreal, they ran into a New York vaudeville producer, who promised the pair a booking at Loew's State Theatre there, if Skelton could come up with a new routine for the engagement. Edna had an idea as they were having breakfast in a hotel coffee shop. Skelton and Edna devised the well-known "Doughnut Dunkers" routine, with Skelton's visual impressions of how different people ate doughnuts. The skit won Red the promised Loew's State engagement and a handsome fee.[26][27] The Skeltons viewed this engagement as Red's big chance. They hired New York comedy writers to prepare material for Skelton's Loew's engagement, in the belief that they needed more sophisticated jokes and skits than the ones Red had been performing. Skelton was on the verge of failing to connect with his New York audience until he began performing his "Doughnut Dunkers" and other older routines.[15] 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.[26][27]

Media performing career[edit]


Skelton's imprint ceremony at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, June 18, 1942.[28] 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.[29] Two short subjects made for Vitaphone were released in 1939: Seeing Red and The Bashful Buckaroo.[12] After screen star Mickey Rooney had seen Skelton perform his "Doughnut Dunkers" act at President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1940 birthday party, Rooney contacted Skelton, urging him to try for work in films. Rooney also spoke favorably about Skelton to his film employer, MGM.[30]

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 then largely experimental. In 1970, Skelton recalled the reaction of the MGM executives to his request for the television portion of the clause. "They all thought I was nuts.", he said. At the time, the major work in the medium was centered in New York; Skelton had worked there for some time and was apparently able to determine that he would find success with his physical comedy on the television screen.[31][note 4] His previous contract called for MGM's approval prior to his radio shows and other appearances.[33] By 1947, Skelton's work interests were focused on radio and television. While he and Buster Keaton were at work on a film, Skelton voiced his frustration by saying, "Movies are not my friend. Radio and television are." In 1948, columnist Sheilah Graham printed that Skelton's wishes were to make only one film a year, spending the rest of the time traveling the US with his radio show.[34] He did not receive the desired television clause and was not able to begin working in the medium until his MGM contract completed in 1951.[35]

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 him the only major MGM personality with the privilege.[36] During the last portion of his contract with the studio, Skelton 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.[37]


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.[38] His success in films led to a new 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.[39]

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.[40] 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!"[40] Skelton performed the character at home with Edna giving him the nickname "Junior" long before it was heard by a radio audience.[41] While the phrase was Skelton's, the idea to try using the character on the radio show was Edna's.[42] Skelton starred in a 1942 movie of the same name, but did not play "Junior" in the film.[43] 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.[44]

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.[45][46][47] After a talk with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943, 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 1986 the Soviet newspaper Pravda offered praise to Skelton for his 1943 gift and in 1993, the pilot of the plane was able to meet Skelton and thank him for the bomber.[48][49]

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.[50] 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.[51]

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).[52] 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.[53] 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.[54][55] Skelton suffered a nervous breakdown while in the army and was discharged on September 18, 1945.[56] His sponsor was eager to have him back on the air, and Skelton's program began anew on NBC on December 4, 1945.[57][58]

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.[59] 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.[60]

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 Hope was 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.[61][62]

Skelton changed sponsors in 1948; Brown and Williamson, owners of Raleigh cigarettes, withdrew due to program production costs. His new sponsor was Procter & Gamble's Tide laundry detergent. The next year he changed networks, 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.[63] Skelton's radio show was on CBS until May 1953.[64] After his network radio contract was over, Skelton signed a three year contract with Ziv Radio for a syndicated radio program in 1954.[65] He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1994.[64]


Lucille Knoch and Willie Lump-Lump on an early version of the CBS Skelton show in May, 1954.

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.[35][36] He signed 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.[66][67] The MGM agreement with Skelton for television performances did not allow him to go on the air before September 30, 1951.[68] He went on the air on September 30, 1951: at the end of Skelton's opening monologue, two men backstage grabbed his ankles from behind the set curtain, hauling him offstage face first.[69] [note 5] A 1943 instrumental hit by David Rose, called "Holiday for Strings", was used as Skelton's TV theme song.[70] His well-known "Freddie the Freeloader" clown was introduced on the program in 1952.[21][71] Skelton patterned his meek, henpecked television character of George Appleby after his radio character, J. Newton Numbskull, who had similar characteristics.[22] The move to television allowed Skelton to create two non-human characters, seagulls Gertrude and Heathcliff, which he performed while the pair were flying by tucking his thumbs under his arms to represent wings and shaping his hat to look like a bird's bill.[72][73][74] A ritual became established at the end of every program, with Skelton's words of, "Good night and may God bless."[12]

During the 1951–52 season, Skelton broadcast live from a converted NBC radio studio.[75] The first year of Skelton's television show was done live; 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.[76] This included the delivery of a commercial which was written into one of the show's skits.[note 6][77] Skelton was delivering an intense performance live each week, and the strain showed in physical illness. Skelton had to be given oxygen to complete one of his live television programs in June 1952; his doctors ordered him to take a rest from all performing after his television show schedule ended later in the month.[78][79][80] 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.[81] 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.[82][83]

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.[84] Beginning with the 1953–54 season, Skelton switched to CBS, where he remained until 1970.[85] 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.[86] Skelton's first CBS sponsor was Geritol.[87] 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.[88] By 1959, Skelton was the only comedian with a regularly scheduled weekly television show.[89] 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.[12][90] One of his former writers called it a "survival technique"; the script was on the floor out of camera range and this was where one looked when a line was forgotten.[91]

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.

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.[92] In happier times, Skelton frequently mentioned his children on his program, but found it extremely difficult to do so after Richard became ill. Skelton resumed his practice only after his son requested him to.[93] 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.[94] Skelton himself was beset by a serious illness and by a household accident which kept him off the air.[95] CBS management was exceptionally understanding of Red's situation, and no talk of cancellation was ever entertained by Paley.[96]

Skelton suffered a life-threatening asthma attack on December 30, 1957. He was taken to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, where his doctors said that "if there were ten steps to death, Red Skelton had taken nine of them by the time he had arrived". Initially hospitalized for an indeterminate length of time, Skelton later said he was working on some notes for television and the next thing he remembered, he was in a hospital bed. He did not know how serious his illness was until he read about himself in the newspapers.[97][98] Skelton's illness and recovery kept him off the air for a full month.[99]

Skelton was broadcasting his weekly programs in color by 1955. Between 1955 and 1960 the program was broadcast in color approximately 100 times.[100] 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 was discontinued in 1951.[101][note 7] In early 1960, Skelton purchased the old Charlie Chaplin Studios and updated it for videotape recording.[102][103] Along with a purchase of a three-truck mobile color television unit, Skelton recorded 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.[note 8][105] Prior to this, he had been filming at Desilu Productions.[106] By that time, Skelton had abandoned his own studio and moved back to the network's Television City facilities, where he resumed taping his 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.[107] 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.[108]

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.[109] 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.[110][111] Skelton frequently employed the art of pantomime for his characters: a segment of his weekly program was called the "Silent Spot" and the sketch was performed in pantomime.[112] 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."[113] He attributed his use of few props to his early days when he did not want to have a lot of luggage, so he crafted routines that used few of them.[114]

In late 1965, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, reminiscing about the entertainment business in bygone days, singled out Skelton for high praise. "It's all so very different today," said Bergen. "The whole business of comedy has changed — from 15 minutes of quality to quantity. We had a lot of very funny people around, from Charley Chase to Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy. The last one of that breed is Red Skelton." [115]

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.[116]

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."[117][118] Skelton admitted that the right hat was the key to his being able to get into character.[77][119]

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."[12][120] Since he believed this was his mission in life, Skelton was able to share his gift of laughter under surprising circumstances. While flying to a 1951 London Palladium engagement, Skelton, Georgia and Father Edward J. Carney, who was in the Skelton party, were on a plane from Rome with passengers from an assortment of countries that included 11 children when the plane lost two of its four engines and seemed destined to lose the rest.[121] 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 passengers with pantomimes while Father Carney prayed; they were somehow able to land at a small airstrip in Lyon, France.[122][123] Skelton's nervous collapse while in the army left him with a serious stuttering problem. While recovering at an army hospital in Virginia, he met a soldier who had been severely wounded and was not expected to survive. Skelton devoted a lot of time and effort to trying to make the man laugh. As a result of this effort, Skelton's stuttering problem was cured; his army friend's condition also improved and he was no longer on the critical list.[124]

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.[16][125][note 9] 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?"[118][126] As the owner of the television shows, Skelton steadfastly refused to allow them to be syndicated as reruns during his lifetime.[90][118][127][note 10]

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.[128]

Skelton radio and television characters[edit]

Off the air[edit]

As the 1970s 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 canceled the program along with other comedy and variety shows hosted by veterans such as Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan. [note 11][118][129] 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.[citation needed] Performing in Las Vegas when he got the news of his CBS cancellation, Skelton said, "My heart has been broken."[12]

Skelton moved to NBC in 1970 in a half-hour Monday night version of his former show.[35] 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.[12][50] 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.[130][131] In addition, Skelton made several other specials for HBO including Freddie the Freeloader's Christmas Dinner (1981) and the Funny Faces series of specials.[132][133][134]

Skelton was bitter about CBS's cancellation for many years afterwards.[118] 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. Dirksen, who had a narrative hit record, Gallant Men, appeared on Skelton's CBS show on April 18, 1967.[135][136][note 12] Agnew was a special guest and introduced Skelton on the premiere of his NBC Television show on September 14, 1970.[138] 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."[12][139] Skelton had previously received Emmys for Best Comedy Program and Best Comedian in 1952 and for Best Comedy Writing in 1961.[140][141] Skelton was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Television Hall of Fame in 1989.[12][142][143]

Art and other interests[edit]


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.[144][145] He believed painting was an asset to his comedy work, as it helped him to better visualize the imaginary props used in his pantomime routines.[146] Skelton originals are priced at $80,000 and upward; In addition to his originals, Skelton also sold reproductions and prints of them through his own mail order business.[114] He once estimated the sale of his lithographs earned him $2.5 million per year.[12] Shortly after Skelton died, his art dealer said he believed that Skelton made more money on his paintings than from his television work.[5] Skelton had produced over 1,000 oil paintings of clowns at the time of his death. When asked why his artwork focused on clowns, Skelton said at first, "I don't know why it's always clowns." He continued after thinking a moment by saying. "No, that's not true--I do know why. I just don't feel like thinking about it..."[15]

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":

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.[147][148]

Other interests[edit]

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.[149] He wrote commercials for Skoal tobacco and sold many of his compositions to Muzak.[16] Skelton was also interested in photography; when attending Hollywood parties, he would take photos and give the films to newspaper reporters waiting outside.[150] He was never without a miniature camera and kept a photographic record of all his paintings.[146] Skelton was also an avid gardener who created his own Japanese and Italian gardens and bonsai trees at his home in Palm Springs, California.[151][152]

Marriages and family[edit]

Marriage to Edna Stillwell 1931 - 1943[edit]

Red and Edna Skelton at home, 1942.

On June 1, 1931, Skelton married Edna Marie Stillwell (1915–1982), a joke writer, business manager, and former usher at Kansas City's old Pantages Theater.[24][153][note 13] Skelton was one month away from his 18th birthday, and Edna was 16. The two met when she approached Skelton after a show and told him she didn't like his material; Skelton asked her if she could do better. They married a year later, with Edna taking on the tasks of managing her husband and writing for him, as well as becoming part of his act. At first, Skelton considered his wife to be interfering after she saw the boss when his salary was about to be cut. When she came away with not only a raise for her husband but additional considerations as well, Skelton no longer minded Edna's intervention. Since Skelton had left school at an early age, his wife bought textbooks and taught Skelton what he had missed. With Edna's help, Skelton received a high school equivalency degree.[157] She was also part of the cast for Skelton's Avalon Time radio program under her maiden name of Edna Stillwell.[158] Edna developed a system for working with the show's writers; she would select material from them, add her own and file the unused bits and lines for future use.[159]

In 1942, Edna announced that she was leaving the Skelton home but would continue to manage Skelton's career and write material for him. Skelton did not realize she was serious until Edna issued a statement about the impending divorce through NBC, Skelton's radio employer.[160] They divorced in 1943, leaving the courtroom arm in arm.[161][162] The couple did not discuss the reasons for their divorce and Edna initially prepared to work as a script writer for other radio programs. At the time the Skelton divorce was final, she went to New York, leaving her former husband three fully prepared show scripts. Those associated with Skelton sent telegrams and called her, asking her to come back to Skelton in a professional capacity.[163] She remained an advisor on his career until 1952, receiving a generous weekly salary for life for her efforts.[164]

By 1944, Skelton was engaged to actress Muriel Morris, who was also known as Muriel Chase; the couple had obtained a marriage license and told the press they intended to marry within a few days. At the last minute, the actress decided not to marry Skelton, initially saying she intended to marry a wealthy businessman in Mexico City. She later recanted the story about marrying the businessman, but continued to say that her relationship with Skelton was over. The actress further denied that the reason for the breakup was Skelton's former wife's continuing to manage her ex-husband's career. Edna Skelton stated that she had no intention of either getting in the middle of the relationship or reconciling with her ex-husband.[165][166]

Marriage to Georgia Davis 1945 - 1971[edit]

The Skeltons, circa 1957. Back from left: Red, wife Georgia, sister in law Maxine Davis. Front: Son Richard and daughter Valentina.

Skelton, who was drafted in early 1944 and joined the Army on May 25 of that year, was on furlough for throat discomfort when he married Georgia Maureen Davis in Beverly Hills, California on March 9, 1945.[161][167] He entered the hospital later that day to have his tonsils removed.[168][169] Skelton referred to her as "Little Red."[170] As part of the entertainment corps, Skelton performed before troops in both the United States and in Europe, as many as ten to twelve shows per day. The pressure of his workload caused him to suffer exhaustion and a nervous breakdown; he was released from his Army duties in September 1945.[171] Georgia and Red had two children, Valentina Marie Skelton (b. 1947) and Richard Freeman Skelton (1948–1958).[170][172][173]

In January 1957, Skelton's son, Richard, was diagnosed with leukemia; initially he was given a year at most to live.[174][175] After Richard's diagnosis, Skelton took his family on an extended trip, so the boy could see as much of the world as possible. When they arrived in London, there were press accusations that Skelton's trip was more about publicity than his seriously ill son. There were also newspaper reports about young Richard's illness being fatal which were seen by the young boy.[176] The devastated father cut the family's trip short and returned to the United States after the British press stories.[177][178]

Young Richard's death on May 10, 1958, just 10 days before his 10th birthday, was a major blow to the entire family.[179] The day the young boy was buried, Skelton was scheduled to do his weekly television show. Though there were recordings of some older Skelton shows available which the network could have run, Skelton asked that guest performers be used instead.[180] Skelton's friends in the television, film and music industry, calling themselves The Friends of Red Skelton, organized a variety show which they performed to replace the Skelton show for that week.[181][182] The death of their son profoundly affected Red and Georgia. By the early 1960s, the Skelton family had moved to Palm Springs while Red used the Bel Air mansion only on the two days when he was in Los Angeles for his television show taping.[183][184] In 1966, Georgia Skelton wounded herself in an accidental shooting at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas while her husband was performing in the main showroom. The couple's daughter, Valentina, heard the gunshot and found her mother who was both surprised and confused about what had happened. The Skeltons kept handguns in both of their California homes because of prowlers. Georgia did not feel safe without a gun and the couple brought it to Las Vegas with them. The gun was kept loaded on a bedside table and Mrs. Skelton may have accidentally brushed against it there while reaching for something else. The Clark County Sheriff declared the shooting to be accidental.[185][186]

Marriage to Lothian Toland 1973 - death[edit]

Red and Georgia were divorced in 1971.[187] Two years later, Skelton, who was 60 at the time, married Lothian Toland, daughter of film cinematographer Gregg Toland and 25 years younger than her husband. They were married in San Francisco on October 7, 1973, and remained married until his death in 1997.[188][189] Skelton's former wife, Georgia, committed suicide by gunshot on May 10, 1976; it was the 18th anniversary of her son's death.[190] She was 54 and had been in poor health for some time.[191][192] Skelton was deeply affected by the loss of his ex-wife.[193]


After retirement, he had homes in Palm Springs and Anza, California.[194] Skelton died on September 17, 1997 at the Eisenhower Medical Center, in Rancho Mirage, California, aged 84, and was interred in the Skelton Family tomb in The Great Mausoleum's Sanctuary of Prayer, private room, at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in Glendale, California.[12][15] He rests with his son Richard Jr., who died in 1958.[181][195] Skelton was survived by his widow, Lothian Toland Skelton, his daughter, Valentina Marie Skelton Alonso, and granddaughter Sabrina Maureen Alonso.[12][187]

Fraternity and honors[edit]

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.[196] He was the recipient of the Gold Medal of the General Grand Chapter, Royal Arch Masons, for Distinguished Service in the Arts and Sciences. On September 24, 1969, he received the honorary 33° in the Scottish Rite and was a Gourgas Medal recipient in 1995.[196][197] Skelton was also a Shriner in Los Angeles, California.[196] Skelton became interested in Masonry as a small boy selling newspapers in Vincennes, when a man bought a paper from him with a five dollar bill and told him to keep the change. The young Skelton asked his benefactor why he had given him so much money; the man explained that he was a Mason and Masons are taught to give. Skelton decided to become one also when he was grown.[198]

Skelton was made an honorary brother of Phi Sigma Kappa at Truman State University.[199] In 1961 Skelton was made an honorary brother of the Phi Alpha Tau Fraternity of Emerson College when he was awarded the Joseph E. Connor Award for excellence in the field of communications. He also received an honorary degree from the college.[200] Skelton received an honorary high school diploma from Vincennes High School.[201] He was also an honorary member of Kappa Kappa Psi National Honorary Band Fraternity. In 1986, Skelton received an honorary degree from Ball State University.[202]

The Red Skelton Memorial Bridge spans the Wabash River and provides the highway link between Illinois and Indiana on U.S. Route 50 near Skelton's hometown of Vincennes, Indiana. Skelton was at the dedication ceremonies in 1963.[203] He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 1987; Skelton was also one of the International Clown Hall of Fame's first inductees in 1989.[204][205][206]


The Red Skelton Performing Arts Center was dedicated on Friday, February 24, 2006 on the campus of Vincennes University at a cost of $16.8 million. The building includes an 850-seat theater, classrooms, rehearsal rooms, and dressing rooms. Its grand foyer is a gallery for Red Skelton's paintings, statues, and film posters. The theater hosts Vincennes University theatrical and musical productions, special events, convocations and conventions. Work was underway as of 2009 on the Red Skelton Gallery and Education Center that will house Skelton memorabilia donated by the comedian's family.[207][208] In September 2010, the museum and the Indiana Historical Society entered into a partnership for a permanent archive of Skelton's material.[209] The museum received a one million dollar donation in November 2010.[210]

Restoration continues at the historic Vincennes Pantheon Theatre, where Skelton performed during his youth.[211]

The Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy opened on July 18, 2013, on Red's 100th birthday, in Vincennes, Indiana. Red's widow Lothian, his daughter Valentina and close friend Jamie Farr where in attendance for the grand opening.[212]

The Red Skelton Foundation also assists needy children in Vincennes with new clothing.[213]

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.[207]

His great-nephew, John Skelton, is a currently a quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals.[citation needed]




  • Marx, Arthur (1979). Red Skelton: An Unauthorized Biography. E. P. Dutton. ISBN 978-0525189534. 
  • Adir, Karin (2001). The Great Clowns of American Television. McFarland. ISBN 9780786413034. 
  • Hyatt, Wesley (2004). A Critical History of Television's The Red Skelton Show, 1951-1971. McFarland. ISBN 9780786417322. 
  • Gehring, Wes (2008). Red Skelton: The Mask Behind the Mask. Indiana Historical Society. ISBN 9780871952752. 
  • Marx, Groucho (1959). Groucho And Me. B. Geis Associates; Random House. 

Books by Skelton[edit]

Year Title Notes Identifiers
1965 Red Skelton's Favorite Ghost Stories Edited by Red Skelton OCLC 3695410
1965 A Red Skeleton in Your Closet; Ghost Stories Gay and Grim Edited by Red Skelton OCLC 1744491
1969 The Great Lazarus
1974 Gertrude & Heathcliffe illustrated by Red Skelton OCLC 1129973
1984 The Ventriloquist OCLC 144598647
1984 Old Whitey OCLC 144598636


  1. ^ There is also an an account of Skelton's using a birth certificate of one of his older brothers as proof he was legally of age.[15]
  2. ^ Hyatt also refers to the 1980 People magazine story where Skelton says he is in his seventies.[16]
  3. ^ Skelton also told another version of this story, with Raymond Hitchcock as the actor.[17]
  4. ^ Some examples of Pre-WWII television programming from WNBT, New York. The station is known as WNBC-TV today.[32]
  5. ^ 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.[12]
  6. ^ I have viewed the episode at the link. There are no copyright notices on it, nor did a copyright check for both original and renewal registrations locate anything for the NBC television shows which were done in 1951 and 1952.
  7. ^ See Color television for a more complete treatment of the CBS color issue.
  8. ^ Photo of Skelton's color television mobile unit.[104]
  9. ^ The People magazine story goes on to say that Skelton was willing to reconsider his call for the destruction of all recordings of his television show, if an arrangement could be made to distribute them to home video only.
  10. ^ Skelton used a pseudonym of Victor van Bernard for his television performances and named his television production company Van Bernard Productions.[14]
  11. ^ See rural purge for more information on this topic.
  12. ^ Senator Dirksen's record, Gallant Men, won a 1967 Grammy for Best Spoken Word, Documentary or Drama Recording.[137]
  13. ^ Edna Stillwell had two marriages following her divorce from Skelton. California Death Index listing for Edna Skelton Pound.[154][155][156]


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  2. ^ Gehring, preface, xiv
  3. ^ Gehring, prologue, xxx
  4. ^ Gehring, p. 174
  5. ^ a b Castro, Peter. "Good Night and God Bless". People magazine. Retrieved April 21, 2012. 
  6. ^ Gehring, p. 249
  7. ^ Gehring, preface, xiv, xvii
  8. ^ a b Gehring, preface, xvii
  9. ^ Hyatt, pp. 45-46
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  13. ^ a b c "Lovable Clown Red Skelton Dies". The Deseret News. September 18, 1997. Retrieved May 18, 2011. 
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  62. ^ "NBC Drops Ban on Radio Jibes". The Leader-Post. April 24, 1947. Retrieved May 19, 2011. 
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  68. ^ Skelton To Air Live as TVA Waives 60-Day Kine Limit. Billboard. June 16, 1951. Retrieved May 28, 2011. 
  69. ^ Rubber Face on TV. Life. October 22, 1951. Retrieved May 21, 2011. 
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  118. ^ a b c d e Gehring, preface, xv
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  • Marx, Arthur (1979). Red Skelton: An Unauthorized Biography. E. P. Dutton. ISBN 978-0525189534. 
  • Adir, Karin (2001). The Great Clowns of American Television. McFarland. ISBN 9780786413034. 
  • Hyatt, Wesley (2004). A Critical History of Television's The Red Skelton Show, 1951-1971. McFarland. ISBN 9780786417322. 
  • Gehring, Wes (2008). Red Skelton: The Mask Behind the Mask. Indiana Historical Society. ISBN 9780871952752. 
  • Marx, Groucho (1959). Groucho And Me. B. Geis Associates; Random House. 

External links[edit]