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Bring The Wellness Of Laughter Into Your Home
The Comedy Of Red Skelton

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About Red Skelton Born Richard Bernard Skelton,Red Skelton was the son of a Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus clown named Joe who died in 1913 shortly before the birth of his son. Red Skelton himself got one of his earliest tastes of show business with the same circus as a teenager. Before that, however, he had been given the show business bug at 10 years of age 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. While performing in Kansas City, in 1930, Skelton met and married his first wife, Edna Stillwell. The couple divorced 13 years later, but Stillwell remained one of his chief writers.

Red caught his big break in two media at once, radio and film. In 1938 he made his film debut for RKO Radio Pictures, in the supporting role of a camp counselor in Having Wonderful Time, Two short subjects followed for Vitaphone, in 1939: Seeing Red and The Bashful Buckaroo. Skelton was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to lend comic relief to its Dr. Kildare medical dramas, but soon he was starring in comedy features (as inept radio detective, "The Fox") and in Technicolor 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 Mayer agreed to the terms, only to regret it years later when television became a serious threat to the motion picture industry.[1] Many of Skelton's films, especially the Technicolor musicals, were issued on home video.

In 1945, he married Georgia Davis. The couple had two children, Richard and Valentina. Richard's childhood death of leukemia devastated the household. Red and Georgia divorced in 1971, and he remarried. In 1976, Georgia committed suicide by gunshot. Deeply affected by the loss of his ex-wife, Red would abstain from performing for the next decade and a half, finding solace only in painting clowns.

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.

It was during this period that Red divorced his first wife, Edna, and married his second wife Georgia. Red and Georgia's only son, Richard, was born in 1945. Georgia continued in her role as Red's manager until the 1960s.

Skelton was drafted in March 1944, and the popular series was discontinued on June 6, 1944. Shipped overseas to serve with an Army entertainment unit as a private, Skelton led an exceptionally hectic military life. In addition to his own duties and responsibilities, he was 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. Ironically, given that his peak of popularity came with his television show, in recent years, recordings of the Red Skelton radio show have become much easier to come by than the TV show.

In 1951, NBC beckoned Skelton to bring his populsr 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 Brothers 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] Biographer Arthur Marx documented Skelton's personal problems, including heavy drinking, as well as disappointing ratings. An appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show apparently was the beginning of a turn-around for Skelton's television career. He curtailed his drinking and recognized that he did have loyal fans. His ratings at CBS began to improve.

Many of Skelton's television shows have survived due to kinescopes, such as this, also 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.

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 1960's, 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.[5]

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 cancelled 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.

Red 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 (see rural purge for more information on this topic). Remarkably, 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.

As if the loss of his show was not enough, his wife Georgia committed suicide in 1976, five years after their divorce and on the anniversary of their son's death years before. This was her second attempt at suicide.

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 US$80,000.

Red married for a third and last time in 1983 to the much younger Lothian Toland. She continues to maintain a website and business selling Skelton memorabilia and art prints. Red died September 17 in a California medical center following a period of illness.

Red Skelton Filmography
Having Wonderful Time (1938)
Seeing Red (1939)
Flight Command (1940)
The People vs. Dr. Kildare (1941)
Whistling in the Dark (1941)
Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day (1941)
Lady Be Good (1941)
Ship Ahoy! (1942)
Maisie Gets Her Man (1942)
Panama Hattie (1942)
Whistling in Dixie (1942)
Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)
Thousands Cheer (1943)
I Dood It (1943)
Whistling in Brooklyn (1943)
Radio Bugs (1944) (voiceover, short)
Bathing Beauty (1944)
The Luckiest Guy in the World (1946) (voiceover, short)
Ziegfeld Follies (1946)
The Show-Off (1946)
Merton of the Movies (1947)
The Fuller Brush Man (1948)
A Southern Yankee (1948)
Neptune's Daughter (1949)
The Yellow Cab Man (1950)
Three Little Words (1950)
Duchess of Idaho (1950)
The Fuller Brush Girl (1950)
Watch the Birdie! (1950)
Excuse My Dust (1951)
Texas Carnival (1951)
Lovely to Look At (1952)
The Clown (1953)
Half a Hero (1953)
The Great Diamond Robbery (1953)
Hollywood Goes to War (1954)
Susan Slept Here (1954)
Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)
Public Pigeon No. One (1957)
Ocean's Eleven (1960)
Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965)


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