Richard "Red" Skelton (July 18, 1913 – September 17, 1997) was
an American comedy entertainer. He was best known for his national
radio and television acts between 1937 and 1971, and as host of the
television program The
Red Skelton Show. He has stars on the Hollywood
Walk of Fame for his work in radio and television, and also appeared
in burlesque, vaudeville, films, nightclubs, and casinos, all while he
pursued an entirely separate career as an artist.
Skelton began developing his comedic and pantomime skills from the age
of 10, when he became part of a traveling medicine show. He then spent
time on a showboat, worked the burlesque circuit, then entered into
vaudeville in 1934. The "
Doughnut Dunkers" pantomime sketch, which he
wrote together with his wife, launched a career for him in vaudeville,
radio, and films. His radio career began in 1937 with a guest
The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour
The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour which led to his becoming
the host of
Avalon Time in 1938. He became the host of The Raleigh
Cigarette Program in 1941 where many of his comedy characters were
created, and he had a regularly scheduled radio program until 1957.
Skelton made his film debut in 1938 alongside
Ginger Rogers and
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in Alfred Santell's Having Wonderful Time, and
he went on to appear in numerous musical and comedy films throughout
the 1940s and early 1950s, with starring roles in
Ship Ahoy (1941), I
Dood It (1943), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), and The
Skelton was most eager to work in television, even when the medium was
in its infancy.
The Red Skelton Show
The Red Skelton Show made its television premiere on
September 30, 1951 on NBC. By 1954, Skelton's program moved to CBS,
where it was expanded to one hour and renamed The
Red Skelton Hour in
1962. Despite high ratings, the show was cancelled by
CBS in 1970, as
the network believed that more youth-oriented programs were needed to
attract younger viewers and their spending power. Skelton moved his
program to NBC, where he completed his last year with a regularly
scheduled television show in 1971. He spent his time after that making
as many as 125 personal appearances a year and working on his art.
Skelton's artwork of clowns remained a hobby until 1964 when his wife
Georgia convinced him to have a showing at the Sands Hotel in Las
Vegas while he was performing there. Sales of his originals were
successful, and he also sold prints and lithographs of them, earning
$2.5 million yearly on lithograph sales. 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 that his life's work was to make people laugh; he
wanted to be known as a clown because he defined it as being able to
do everything. He had a 70-year career as a performer and entertained
three generations of Americans. His widow donated many of his personal
and professional effects to Vincennes University, including prints of
his artwork. They are part of the
Red Skelton Museum of American
Comedy at Vincennes.
1.1 Early years, the medicine show and the circus (1913–1929)
Burlesque to vaudeville (1929–1937)
1.3 Film work
1.4 Radio, divorce and remarriage (1937–1951)
1.4.1 "I dood it!"
1.4.2 Divorce from Edna, marriage to Georgia
1.4.3 A cast of characters
1.5 Television (1951–1970)
1.5.1 Richard's illness and death
Red Skelton Hour
1.6 Off the air and bitterness (1970–1983)
1.7 Skelton onstage
1.8 Later years and death
2 Art and other interests
2.2 Other interests
3 Fraternity and honors
4 Awards and recognition
5 Legacy and tributes
6.2 Short subjects
6.3 Box office ranking
7 Published works
10 Sources cited
11 External links
Early years, the medicine show and the circus (1913–1929)
Born Richard Bernard Eheart on July 18, 1913, in Vincennes,
Indiana, Skelton was the fourth and youngest son of Ida Mae (née
Fields) and Joseph Elmer Skelton. Joseph, a grocer, died two months
before Richard was born; he had once been a clown with the
Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. His birth certificate surname was that
of his father's stepfather. During Skelton's lifetime there was some
dispute about the year of his birth. Author Wesley Hyatt suggests that
since he began working at such an early age, Skelton may have claimed
he was older than he actually was in order to gain
employment.[a][b] Vincennes neighbors described the Skelton family
as being extremely poor; a childhood friend remembered that her
parents broke up a youthful romance between her sister and Skelton
because they thought he had no future.
Because of the loss of his father, Skelton went to work as early as
the age of seven, selling newspapers and doing other odd jobs to help
his family, who had lost the family store and their home. 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 him.
According to later accounts, Skelton's early interest in becoming an
entertainer stemmed from an incident that took place in Vincennes
around 1923, when a stranger, supposedly the comedian Ed Wynn,
approached Skelton, who was the newsboy selling papers outside a
Vincennes theater. When the man asked Skelton what events were going
on in town, Skelton suggested he see the new show in town. The man
purchased every paper Skelton had, providing enough money for the boy
to purchase a ticket for himself. The stranger turned out to be one of
the show's stars, who later took the boy backstage to introduce him to
the other performers. The experience prompted Skelton, who had already
shown comedic tendencies, to pursue a career as a
Skelton discovered at an early age that he could make people laugh.
Skelton dropped out of school around 1926 or 1927, when he was 13 or
14 years old, but he already had some experience performing in
minstrel shows in Vincennes, and on a showboat, "The Cotton Blossom",
that plied the Ohio and Missouri rivers. He enjoyed his work on
the riverboat, moving on only after he realized that showboat
entertainment was coming to an end. Skelton, who was interested in
all forms of acting, took a dramatic role with the John Lawrence stock
theater company, but was unable to deliver his lines in a serious
manner; the audience laughed instead. In another incident, while
performing in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Skelton was on an unseen treadmill;
when it malfunctioned and began working in reverse, the frightened
young actor called out, "Help! I'm backing into heaven!" He was fired
before completing a week's work in the role. At the age of
15, Skelton did some early work on the burlesque circuit, and
reportedly spent four months with the
Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in
1929, when he was 16 years old.
Ida Skelton, who held multiple jobs to support her family after the
death of her husband, did not suggest that her youngest son had run
away from home to become an entertainer, but "his destiny had caught
up with him at an early age". She let him go with her blessing. Times
were tough during the Great Depression, and it may have meant one less
child for her to feed. Around 1929, while Skelton was still a
teen, he joined "Doc" R.E. Lewis's traveling medicine show as an
errand boy who sold bottles of medicine to the audience. During one
show, when Skelton accidentally fell from the stage, breaking several
bottles of medicine as he fell, people laughed. Both Lewis and Skelton
realized one could earn a living with this ability and the fall was
worked into the show. He also told jokes and sang in the medicine show
during his four years there. Skelton earned ten dollars a week,
and sent all of it home to his mother. When she worried that he was
keeping nothing for his own needs, Skelton reassured her: "We get
plenty to eat, and we sleep in the wagon."
Burlesque to vaudeville (1929–1937)
Red and Edna Skelton at home, 1942
As burlesque comedy material became progressively more ribald, Skelton
moved on. He insisted that he was no prude; "I just didn't think the
lines were funny". He became a sought-after master of ceremonies for
dance marathons (known as "walkathons" at the time), a popular fad in
the 1930s. The winner of one of the marathons was Edna
Stillwell, an usher at the old Pantages Theater.[d] She
approached Skelton after winning the contest and told him that she did
not like his jokes; he asked if she could do better. They married
in 1931 in Kansas City, and Edna began writing his material. At the
time of their marriage Skelton was one month away from his 18th
birthday; Edna was 16. When they learned that Skelton's salary
was to be cut, Edna went to see the boss; he resented the
interference, until she came away with not only a raise, but
additional considerations as well. Since he had left school at an
early age, his wife bought textbooks and taught him what he had
missed. With Edna's help, Skelton received a high school equivalency
The couple put together an act and began booking it at small
midwestern theaters. When an offer came for an engagement in
Harwich Port, Massachusetts, some 2,000 miles from Kansas City, they
were pleased to get it because of its proximity to their ultimate
goal, the vaudeville houses of New York City. To get to Massachusetts
they bought a used car and borrowed five dollars from Edna's mother,
but by the time they arrived in St. Louis they had only fifty cents.
Skelton asked Edna to collect empty cigarette packs; she thought he
was joking, but did as he asked. He then spent their fifty cents on
bars of soap, which they cut into small cubes and wrapped with the
tinfoil from the cigarette packs. By selling their products for fifty
cents each as fog remover for eyeglasses, the Skeltons were able to
afford a hotel room every night as they worked their way to Harwich
John Garfield at the 1944 FDR Birthday Ball
Skelton and Edna worked for a year in Camden, New Jersey, and were
able to get an engagement at Montreal's Lido Club in 1934 through a
friend who managed the chorus lines at New York's Roxy Theatre.
Despite an initial rocky start, the act was a success, and brought
them more theater dates throughout Canada.[f]
Skelton's performances in Canada led to new opportunities and the
inspiration for a new, innovative routine that brought him recognition
in the years to come. While performing in Montreal, the Skeltons met
Harry Anger, a vaudeville producer for New York City's Loew's State
Theatre. Anger promised the pair a booking as a headlining act at
Loew's, but they would need to come up with new material for the
engagement. While the Skeltons were having breakfast in a Montreal
diner, Edna had an idea for a new routine as she and Skelton observed
the other patrons eating doughnuts and drinking coffee. They devised
Doughnut Dunkers" routine, with Skelton's visual impressions of
how different people ate doughnuts.[g] The skit won them the Loew's
State engagement and a handsome fee.
The couple viewed the Loew's State engagement in 1937 as Skelton's big
chance. They hired New York comedy writers to prepare material for the
engagement, believing they needed more sophisticated jokes and skits
than the routines Skelton normally performed. However, his New York
audience did not laugh or applaud until Skelton abandoned the newly
written material and began performing the "
Doughnut Dunkers" and his
older routines.[h] The doughnut-dunking routine also helped Skelton
rise to celebrity status. In 1937, while he was entertaining at the
Capitol Theater in Washington, D.C., President Franklin D. Roosevelt
invited Skelton to perform at a
White House luncheon. During one of
the official toasts, Skelton grabbed Roosevelt's glass, saying,
"Careful what you drink, Mr. President. I got rolled in a place like
this once." His humor appealed to FDR and Skelton became the master of
ceremonies for Roosevelt's official birthday celebration for many
Ann Rutherford and
Virginia Grey as radio detective "The
Fox" in Whistling in the Dark (1941)
Skelton's first contact with Hollywood came in the form of a failed
1932 screen test. In 1938 he made his film debut for
RKO Pictures in
the supporting role of a camp counselor in Having Wonderful Time.
He appeared in two short subjects for
Vitaphone in 1939: Seeing Red
and The Broadway Buckaroo. Actor
Mickey Rooney contacted
Skelton, urging him to try for work in films after seeing him perform
Doughnut Dunkers" act at President Roosevelt's 1940 birthday
party. For his
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer screen test, Skelton
performed many of his more popular skits, such as "Guzzler's Gin", but
added some impromptu pantomimes as the cameras were rolling.
"Imitation of Movie Heroes Dying" were Skelton's impressions of the
cinema deaths of stars like George Raft,
Edward G. Robinson
Edward G. Robinson and James
Skelton appeared in numerous films for
the 1940s. In 1940 he provided comic relief as a lieutenant in Frank
Borzage's war drama Flight Command, opposite Robert Taylor, Ruth
Hussey and Walter Pidgeon. In 1941 he also provided comic relief
in Harold S. Bucquet's
Dr. Kildare medical dramas, Dr. Kildare's
Wedding Day and The People vs. Dr. Kildare. Skelton was soon starring
in comedy features as inept radio detective "The Fox", the first of
which was Whistling in the Dark (1941) in which he began working with
director S. Sylvan Simon, who would become his favorite director.
He reprised the same role opposite
Ann Rutherford in Simon's other
Whistling in Dixie
Whistling in Dixie (1942) and Whistling in
Brooklyn (1943). In 1941, Skelton began appearing in
musical comedies, starring opposite Eleanor Powell,
Ann Sothern and
Robert Young in Norman Z. McLeod's Lady Be Good. In 1942 Skelton
again starred opposite
Eleanor Powell in Edward Buzzell's Ship Ahoy,
Ann Sothern in McLeod's Panama Hattie.
Skelton (center left) in Panama Hattie (1942)
In 1943, after a memorable role as a nightclub hatcheck attendant who
Louis XV of France
Louis XV of France in a dream opposite
Lucille Ball and
Gene Kelly in Roy Del Ruth's Du Barry Was a Lady, Skelton
starred as Joseph Rivington Reynolds, a hotel valet besotted with
Broadway starlet Constance Shaw (Powell) in Vincente Minnelli's
romantic musical comedy, I Dood It. The film was largely a remake of
Buster Keaton's Spite Marriage; Keaton, who had become a comedy
consultant to MGM after his film career had diminished, began coaching
Skelton on set during the filming. Keaton worked in this capacity on
several of Skelton's films, and his 1926 film The General was also
later rewritten to become Skelton's
A Southern Yankee
A Southern Yankee (1948), under
S. Sylvan Simon and Edward Sedgwick. Keaton was
convinced enough of Skelton's comedic talent that he approached MGM
Louis B. Mayer
Louis B. Mayer with a request to create a small company
within MGM for himself and Skelton, where the two could work on film
projects. Keaton offered to forgo his salary if the films made by the
company were not box office hits; Mayer chose to decline the
request. In 1944, Skelton starred opposite
Esther Williams in
George Sidney's musical comedy Bathing Beauty, playing a songwriter
with romantic difficulties. He next had a relatively minor role as a
"TV announcer who, in the course of demonstrating a brand of gin,
progresses from mild inebriation through messy drunkenness to
full-blown stupor" in the "When Television Comes" segment of Ziegfeld
Follies, which featured
William Powell and
Judy Garland in the main
roles. In 1946, Skelton played boastful clerk J. Aubrey Piper
Marilyn Maxwell and
Marjorie Main in Harry Beaumont's comedy
picture The Show-Off.
Skelton's imprint ceremony at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, June 18,
1942. His wife, Edna, is on 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 contract called for MGM's approval prior to his radio shows
and other appearances. When he renegotiated his 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. At the time, the major work in the medium was centered
in New York; Skelton had worked there for some time and was able to
determine that he would find success with his physical comedy through
the medium.[i] By 1947, Skelton's work interests were focused not
on films, but on radio and television. His MGM contract was rigid
enough to require the studio's written consent for his weekly radio
shows, as well as any benefit or similar appearances he made; radio
offered fewer restrictions, more creative control and a higher
salary. Skelton asked for a release from MGM after learning he
could not raise the $750,000 needed to buy out the remainder of his
contract. He also voiced frustration with the film scripts he was
offered while on the set of The Fuller Brush Man, saying, "Movies are
not my field. Radio and television are."[j] He did not receive the
desired television clause nor a release from his MGM contract. 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
U.S. with his radio show.
Skelton's ability to successfully ad-lib often meant that the way the
script was written was not always the way it was recorded on film.
Some directors were delighted with the creativity, but others were
often frustrated by it.[k] S. Sylvan Simon, who became a close friend,
allowed Skelton free rein when directing him. MGM became
annoyed with Simon during the filming of The Fuller Brush Man, as the
studio contended that Skelton should have been playing romantic leads
instead of performing slapstick. Simon and MGM parted company when he
was not asked to direct retakes of Skelton's A Southern Yankee; Simon
asked that his name be removed from the film's credits.
Skelton was willing to negotiate with MGM to extend the agreement
provided he would receive the right to pursue television. This time
the studio was willing to grant it, making Skelton the only major MGM
personality with the privilege. The 1950 negotiations allowed him to
begin working in television beginning September 30, 1951.
During the last portion of his contract with the studio, Skelton was
working in radio and on television in addition to films. He would go
on to appear in films such as Jack Donohue's The Yellow Cab Man
(1950), Roy Rowland and Buster Keaton's Excuse My Dust (1951),
Texas Carnival (1951), Mervyn LeRoy's Lovely to
Look At (1952), Robert Z. Leonard's The
Clown (1953) and The Great
Diamond Robbery (1954), and Norman Z. McLeod's poorly received
Public Pigeon No. 1 (1957), his last major film role, which
originated incidentally from an episode of the television anthology
series Climax!. In a 1956 interview, he said he would never work
simultaneously in all three media again. As a result, Skelton
would make only a couple of minor appearances in films after this,
including playing a saloon drunk in Around the World in Eighty Days
(1956), a gambler in
Ocean's 11 (1960), and a Neanderthal man in Those
Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965).
Radio, divorce and remarriage (1937–1951)
Performing the "
Doughnut Dunkers" routine led to Skelton's first
appearance on Rudy Vallée's
The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour
The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour on August
12, 1937. Vallée's program had a talent show segment and those who
were searching for stardom were eager to be heard on it. Vallée also
booked veteran comic and fellow
Indiana native Joe Cook to appear as a
guest with Skelton. The two Hoosiers proceeded to trade jokes about
their home towns, with Skelton contending to Cook, an Evansville
native, that the city was a suburb of Vincennes. The show received
enough fan mail after the performance to invite both comedians back
two weeks after Skelton's initial appearance and again in November of
On October 1, 1938, Skelton replaced
Red Foley as the host of Avalon
Time on NBC; Edna also joined the show's cast, under her maiden
name.[l] She developed a system for working with the show's
writers: selecting material from them, adding her own and filing the
unused bits and lines for future use; the Skeltons worked on Avalon
Time until late 1939. Skelton's work in films led to a new
regular radio show offer; between films, he promoted himself and MGM
by appearing without charge at Los Angeles area banquets. A radio
advertising agent was a guest at one of his banquet performances and
recommended Skelton to one of his clients.
Skelton went on the air with his own radio show, The Raleigh Cigarette
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
"I dood it!"
Skelton with "Doolittle Dood It" newspaper headline, 1942
Skelton introduced the first two of his many characters during The
Raleigh Cigarette Program's first season. The character of Clem
Kadiddlehopper was based on a Vincennes neighbor named Carl Hopper,
who was hard of hearing.[m] Skelton's voice pattern for Clem was
similar to the later cartoon character, Bullwinkle; there was enough
similarity to cause Skelton to contemplate filing a lawsuit against
Bill Scott, who voiced the cartoon moose. The second character,
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 of using the character on the radio show was
Edna's. Skelton starred in a 1943 movie of the same name, but did
not play "Junior" in the film.
The phrase was such a part of national culture at the time that, when
General Doolittle conducted the bombing of Tokyo in 1942, many
newspapers used the phrase "Doolittle Dood It" as a
headline. After a talk with President 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, he raised enough money for the
aircraft 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.[n]
Skelton also added a routine he had been performing since 1928.
Originally called "Mellow Cigars", 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; he 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
show's guests were treated to a post-program performance. He would
then perform his "Guzzler's Gin" or any of more than 350 routines for
those who had come to the radio show. He updated and revised his
post-show routines as diligently as those for his radio program. As a
result, studio audience tickets for Skelton's radio show were in high
demand; there were times where up to 300 people needed to be turned
away for lack of seats.
Divorce from Edna, marriage to Georgia
In 1942, Edna announced that she was leaving Skelton but would
continue to manage his career and write material for him. He did not
realize she was serious until Edna issued a statement about the
impending divorce through NBC. They were divorced in 1943, leaving
the courtroom arm in arm. The couple did not discuss the
reasons for their divorce and Edna initially prepared to work as a
script writer for other radio programs. When the divorce was
finalized, she went to New York, leaving her former husband three
fully prepared show scripts. Skelton and those associated with him
sent telegrams and called her, asking her to come back to him in a
professional capacity.[o] Edna remained the manager of the
couple's funds because Skelton spent money too easily. An attempt at
managing his own checking account that began with a $5,000 balance,
ended five days later after a call to Edna saying the account was
overdrawn. Skelton had a weekly allowance of $75, with Edna making
investments for him, choosing real estate and other relatively stable
assets. She remained an advisor on his career until 1952,
receiving a generous weekly salary for life for her efforts.
The Skeltons, circa 1957. Back from left: Red, wife Georgia, sister in
law Maxine Davis. Front: Son Richard and daughter Valentina
The divorce meant that Skelton 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. His last Raleigh
radio show was on June 6, 1944, the day before he was formally
inducted as a private; he was not assigned to
Special Services at that
time. 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.
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 him, 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 Edna's continuing to manage
her ex-husband's career; Edna stated that she had no intention of
either getting in the middle of the relationship or reconciling with
her former husband. He was on army furlough for throat
discomfort when he married actress Georgia Maureen Davis in Beverly
Hills, California, on March 9, 1945; the couple met on the MGM
lot.[p] Skelton traveled to Los Angeles from the eastern army
base where he was assigned for the wedding. He knew he would possibly
be assigned overseas soon and wanted the marriage to take place
first. After the wedding, he entered the hospital to have his
tonsils removed. The couple had two children; Valentina, a
daughter, was born May 5, 1947, and a son, Richard, was born May 20,
A cast of characters
Photo of 1948 Raleigh Cigarette 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:
Skelton served in the
United States Army
United States Army during World War II. After
being assigned to the
Special Services, Skelton performed as many as
ten to twelve shows per day before troops in both the United States
and in Europe. The pressure of his workload caused him to suffer
exhaustion and a nervous breakdown. His 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, his stuttering problem was cured; his army friend's
condition also improved and he was no longer on the critical
list. He was released from his army duties in September
1945. His sponsor was eager to have him back on the air, and
Skelton's program began anew on
NBC on December 4, 1945.
Upon returning to radio, Skelton brought with him many new characters
that were added to his repertoire: Bolivar Shagnasty, described as a
"loudmouthed braggart"; Cauliflower McPugg, a boxer; Deadeye, a
cowboy; Willie Lump-Lump, a fellow who drank too much; and San
Fernando Red, a conman with political aspirations. By 1947,
Skelton's musical conductor was David Rose, who would go on to
television with him; he 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.
On April 22, 1947, Skelton was censored by
NBC two minutes into his
radio show. When he and his announcer Rod O'Connor began talking about
Fred Allen being censored the previous week, they were silenced for 15
Bob Hope was given the same treatment once he began
referring to the censoring of Allen.[q] Skelton forged on with his
lines for his studio audience's benefit; the material he insisted on
using had been edited from the script by the network before the
broadcast. He 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 & 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, where his radio show
aired until May 1953. After his network radio contract was
over, he signed a three-year contract with Ziv Radio for a syndicated
radio program in 1954. His syndicated radio program was offered
as a daily show; it included segments of his older network radio
programs as well as new material done for the syndication. He was able
to use portions of his older radio shows because he owned the rights
for rebroadcasting them.
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 signed a contract for television on NBC
with Procter and Gamble as his sponsor on May 4, 1951, and said 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. His television debut, The
Red Skelton Show,
premiered on that date: at the end of his opening monologue, two men
backstage grabbed his ankles from behind the set curtain, hauling him
offstage face down.[r] A 1943 instrumental hit by David Rose,
called "Holiday for Strings", became Skelton's TV theme song. The
move to television allowed him to create two non-human characters,
seagulls Gertrude and Heathcliffe, 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. He
patterned his meek, henpecked television character of George Appleby
after his radio character, J. Newton Numbskull, who had similar
characteristics.[s] His "Freddie the Freeloader" clown was introduced
on the program in 1952, with Skelton copying his father's makeup for
the character. He learned how to duplicate his father's makeup and
perform his routines through his mother's recollections.
A ritual became established at the end of every program, with
Skelton's shy boyish wave and words of, "Good night and may God
Skelton as Willie Lump-Lump and
Shirley Mitchell as his wife, who
appears to be walking on the wall in a 1952 Skelton show sketch.
During the 1951–1952 season, the program was broadcast from a
NBC radio studio. The first year of the television show
was done live; this led to problems as there was not enough time for
costume changes; Skelton was on camera for most of the half-hour,
including the delivery of a commercial which was written into one of
the show's skits. In early 1952, Skelton had an idea for a
television sketch about someone who had been drinking not being able
to know which way is up. The script was completed and he had the
show's production crew build a set that was perpendicular to the
stage, so it would give the illusion that someone was walking on
walls. The skit, starring his character Willie Lump-Lump, called for
the character's wife to hire a carpenter to re-do the living room in
an effort to teach her husband a lesson about his drinking. When
Willie wakes up there after a night of drinking, he realizes he is not
lying on the floor but on the living room wall. Willie's wife goes
about the house normally, but to Willie, she appears to be walking on
a wall. Within an hour after the broadcast, the
NBC switchboard had
received 350 calls regarding the show, and Skelton had received more
than 2,500 letters about the skit within a week of its airing.
Skelton was delivering an intense performance live each week, and the
strain showed in physical illness. In 1952, he was drinking heavily
from the constant pain of a diaphragmatic hernia and marital problems;
he thought about divorcing Georgia.[u]
NBC agreed to film
his shows in the 1952–1953 season at Eagle Lion Studios, next to the
Sam Goldwyn Studio, on
Santa Monica Boulevard
Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. Later
the show was moved to the new
NBC television studios in Burbank.
Procter & Gamble was 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 1953–1954 season, he switched to
CBS, where he remained until 1970. For the initial move to CBS,
he had no sponsor. The network gambled by covering all expenses for
the program on a sustaining basis; his 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 1955, Skelton was broadcasting some of his weekly programs in
color, which was the case approximately 100 times between 1955 and
1960. He tried to encourage
CBS to do other shows in color at the
CBS mostly avoided color broadcasting after the
network's television set manufacturing division was discontinued in
1951.[v] By 1959, Skelton was the only comedian with a weekly
variety television show; others who remained on the air, such as Danny
Thomas, were performing their routines as part of situation comedy
programs. He performed a preview show for a studio audience
on Mondays, using their reactions to determine which skits needed to
be edited for the Tuesday program. For the Tuesday afternoon
run-through prior to the actual show, he ignored the script for the
most part, ad-libbing through it at will. The run-through was well
CBS Television City employees Sometimes during
sketches, both live telecasts and taped programs, Skelton would break
up or cause his guest stars to laugh.[w]
Richard's illness and death
Mickey Rooney at dress rehearsal for The
Red Skelton Show
of January 15, 1957. Skelton as a sailor and Rooney as his wife play
contestants on a parody of Do You Trust Your Wife?. This was Skelton's
return to television after his son Richard's leukemia diagnosis.
At the height of Skelton's popularity, his nine-year-old son Richard
was diagnosed with leukemia and was given a year to live.
While the network told him to take as much time off as necessary,
Skelton felt that until he went back to his television show, he would
be unable to be at ease and make his son's life a happy one. He
returned to his television show on January 15, 1957, with guest star
Mickey Rooney helping to lift his spirits. In happier times, he
frequently mentioned his children on his program, but found it
extremely difficult to do so after Richard became ill. Skelton resumed
this practice only after his son had asked him to do so.
After his son's diagnosis, Skelton took his family on an extended
trip, so Richard could see as much of the world as possible. When they
arrived in London, there were press accusations that the trip was more
about publicity than his seriously ill son. There were also newspaper
reports about Richard's illness being fatal, which were seen by the
boy. The family returned to the United States after the British
The Skelton family received support from
CBS management and from the
public following the announcement of Richard's illness. Skelton
himself was beset by a serious illness and by a household accident
which kept him off the air. He suffered a life-threatening asthma
attack on December 30, 1957, and was taken to St. John's Hospital in
Santa Monica, where his doctors said that "if there were ten steps to
Red Skelton had taken nine of them by the time he had
arrived".[x] 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 it himself in the
newspapers. His illness and recovery kept him off the air
for a full month; Skelton returned to his television show on January
Richard died on May 10, 1958; it was ten days before the child's tenth
birthday. Skelton was scheduled to do his weekly television
show on the day his son was buried. Though there were recordings of
some older programs available which the network could have run, he
asked that guest performers be used instead. Calling themselves
Friends of Red Skelton, his friends in the television, film and
music industries organized The
Red Skelton Variety Show,
which they performed to replace
The Red Skelton Show
The Red Skelton Show for that week; by
May 27, 1958, Skelton had returned to his program. The
death of Richard profoundly affected the family; by 1961 Richard's
model trains had been moved to a storeroom in the Bel Air mansion, but
Skelton refused to have them dismantled. In 1962, the Skelton
family moved to Palm Springs, and Skelton used the Bel Air home only
on the two days a week when he was in Los Angeles for his television
Red Skelton Hour
In early 1960, Skelton purchased the old
Charlie Chaplin Studios
Charlie Chaplin Studios and
updated it for videotape recording. With a recently
purchased three-truck mobile color television unit, he recorded a
number of his series episodes and specials in color. Even with his
CBS discontinued color broadcasts on a regular basis
and Skelton shortly thereafter sold the studio to
CBS and the mobile
unit to local station, KTLA.[y] Prior to this, he had been
filming at Desilu Productions. Skelton then 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,
his program to a full hour, retitling it The
Red Skelton Hour.
While a staple of his radio programs, he did not perform his "Junior"
character on television until 1962, after extending the length of his
Skelton as Freddie the Freeloader (right) and Terry-Thomas
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. He attributed his use of
pantomime and 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.
He explained that the right hat was the key to his being able to get
Skelton's season premiere for the 1960–1961 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. The program was entirely done in pantomime, as
UN representatives from 39 nations were in the studio audience.
One of the sketches he performed for the UN was that of the old man
watching the parade. The sketch had its origins in a question
Skelton's son, Richard, asked his father about what happens when
people die. He told his son, "They join a parade and start
marching." 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.
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. He credited one of his Vincennes grammar school
teachers, Mr. Laswell, with the original speech.[z] The teacher
had grown tired of hearing his students monotonously recite the pledge
each morning; he then demonstrated to them how it should be recited,
along with comments about the meaning behind each phrase. CBS
received 200,000 requests for copies; the company subsequently
released the monologue as a single on Columbia Records. A year
later, he performed the monologue for President
Richard Nixon at the
first "Evening at the White House", a series of entertainment events
honoring the recently inaugurated president.
Off the air and bitterness (1970–1983)
As the 1970s began, the networks began a major campaign to discontinue
long-running shows that they considered stale or lacking youth appeal.
Despite Skelton's continued strong ratings,
CBS saw his show as
fitting into this category and cancelled the program along with other
comedy and variety shows hosted by veterans such as
Jackie Gleason and
Ed Sullivan. Performing in
Las Vegas when he got the news of
CBS cancellation, Skelton said, "My heart has been broken." His
program had been one of the top ten highest rated shows for 17 of the
20 years he was on television. Skelton moved to
NBC in 1970 in a
half-hour Monday night version of his former show. Its
cancellation after one season ended his television career, and he
returned to live performances. In an effort to prove the networks
wrong, he gave many of these at colleges and proved popular with the
audience. Skelton was bitter about CBS's cancellation for many
years afterwards. Believing the demographic and salary issues to
be irrelevant, he accused
CBS of bowing to the anti-establishment,
anti-war faction at the height of the Vietnam War, saying his
conservative political and social views caused the network to turn
against him.[aa] He had invited prominent Republicans, including
Spiro Agnew and Senate Republican Leader Everett
Dirksen, to appear on his program.[ab][ac]
There were personal as well as professional changes taking place in
Skelton's life at this time. He divorced Georgia in 1971 and married
Lothian Toland, daughter of cinematographer Gregg Toland, on October
7, 1973. While he disassociated himself from television
soon after his show was cancelled, his bitterness had subsided enough
for him to appear on
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on July
11, 1975; it was his first television appearance since he no longer
had a television program. Johnny Carson, one of his former writers,
began his rise to network television prominence by substituting for
Skelton after his dress rehearsal injury in 1954.[ad] Skelton was
also a guest on
The Merv Griffin Show in October of the same
year. Any hopes he may have had to ease back into television
through the talk show circuit came to an abrupt halt on May 10, 1976,
when Georgia Skelton committed suicide by gunshot on the 18th
anniversary of Richard Skelton's death.[ae] Georgia was 54
and had been in poor health for some time. He put all
professional activities on hold for some months as he mourned his
former wife's death.
Skelton made plans in 1977 to sell the rights to his old television
programs as part of a package which would bring him back to regular
television appearances. The package called for him to produce one new
television show for every three older episodes; this appears to not
have materialized. In 1980, he 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.[af] Skelton contended his remarks were made at a time
when he was very unhappy with the television industry and were taken
out of context. He 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 initially refused to allow them to be
syndicated as reruns during his lifetime.[ag] In 1983, Group
W announced that it had come to terms with him for the rights to
rebroadcast some of his original television programs from 1966 through
1970; some of his earlier shows were made available after Skelton's
Skelton's 70-year career as an entertainer began as a stage performer.
He retained a fondness for theaters, and referred to them as
"palaces"; he also likened them to his "living room", where he would
privately entertain guests. At the end of a performance, he
would look at the empty stage where there was now no laughter or
applause and tell himself, "Tomorrow I must start again. One hour ago,
I was a big man. I was important out there. Now it's empty. It's all
Skelton was invited to play a four-week date at the London Palladium
in July 1951. While flying to the engagement, Skelton, Georgia
and Father Edward J. Carney, were on a plane from Rome with passengers
from an assortment of countries that included 11 children. The plane
lost the use of two of its four engines and seemed destined to lose
the rest, meaning 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 ultimately landed at a
small airstrip in Lyon, France. He received both an
enthusiastic reception and an invitation to return for the Palladium's
Christmas show of that year.
Though Skelton had always done live engagements at Nevada hotels and
appearances such as state fairs during his television show's hiatus,
he focused his time and energy on live performances after he was no
longer on the air, performing up to 125 dates a year. He often
arrived days early for his engagement and would serve as his own
promotion staff, making the rounds of the local shopping malls.
Before the show, his audiences received a ballot listing about 100 of
his many routines and were asked to tick off their favorites. The
venue's ushers would collect the ballots and tally the votes.
Skelton's performance on that given day was based on the skits his
audience selected. After he learned that his performances were
popular with the hearing-impaired because of his heavy use of
pantomimes, Skelton hired a sign language interpreter to translate the
non-pantomime portions of his act for all his shows. He continued
performing live until 1993, when he celebrated his 80th birthday.
Family room where
Red Skelton is buried, in the Great Mausoleum,
Forest Lawn, Glendale
Later years and death
In 1974, Skelton's interest in film work was rekindled with the news
that Neil Simon's comedy
The Sunshine Boys
The Sunshine Boys would become a movie; his
last significant film appearance had been in
Public Pigeon No. 1 in
1956. He screen tested for the role of Willy Clark with Jack Benny,
who had been cast as Al Lewis. Although Simon had planned to cast
Jack Albertson, who played Willy on Broadway, in the same role for the
film, Skelton's screen test impressed him enough to change his
mind. Skelton declined the part, however, reportedly due to an
inadequate financial offer, and Benny's final illness forced
him to withdraw as well.
George Burns and
Walter Matthau ultimately
starred in the film.[ah]
In 1981, Skelton made several specials for
HBO including Freddie the
Freeloader's Christmas Dinner (1981) and the Funny Faces series of
specials. He gave a
Royal Command Performance
Royal Command Performance for the
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1984, which was later
shown in the U.S. on HBO. A portion of one of his last
interviews, conducted by Steven F. Zambo, was broadcast as part of the
PBS special The Pioneers of Primetime.
Skelton died on September 17, 1997, at the Eisenhower Medical Center
in Rancho Mirage, California, at the age of 84, after what was
described as "a long, undisclosed illness".[ai] He is interred in
the Skelton Family Tomb, the family's private room, alongside his son,
Richard Freeman Skelton, Jr. and his second wife, Georgia Maureen
Davis Skelton, in The Great Mausoleum's Sanctuary of Benediction at
Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
Skelton was survived by his widow, Lothian Toland Skelton; his
daughter, Valentina Marie Skelton Alonso; and granddaughter Sabrina
Art and other interests
Skelton at home with one of his clown paintings in 1948
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." 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 him to
have his first public showing of his work in 1964 at the Sands Hotel
Las Vegas where he was performing at the time. Skelton
believed painting was an asset to his comedy work, as it helped him to
better visualize the imaginary props used in his pantomime
In addition to his originals, Skelton also sold reproductions and
prints through his own mail order business. He made his work
available to art galleries by selling them franchises to display and
sell his paintings. He once estimated the sale of his lithographs
earned him $2.5 million per year.[aj] Shortly after his death, his
art dealer said he believed that Skelton made more money on his
paintings than from his television work. At the time of his
death, Skelton had produced over 1,000 oil paintings of clowns. When
asked why his artwork focused on clowns, he 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 ..."[ak] At the time of Skelton's death, his
originals were priced at $80,000 and upward.
Skelton was a prolific writer of both short stories and music. After
sleeping only four or five hours a night, he would wake up at
5 a.m. 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 by the time of his death. He
wrote commercials for Skoal tobacco and sold many of his compositions
to Muzak, a company that specialized in providing background music to
stores and other businesses. Skelton was also interested in
photography; when attending Hollywood parties, he would take photos
and give the film to newspaper reporters waiting outside. He was
never without a miniature camera and kept a photographic record of all
his paintings. Skelton was also an avid gardener who created his
own Japanese and Italian gardens and cultivated bonsai trees at his
home in Palm Springs, California.
Fraternity and honors
Skelton was a Freemason, a member of Vincennes Lodge No. 1, in
Indiana. He also was a member of both the Scottish and the York
Rite. He was a 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 33rd degree
Scottish Rite and was a Gourgas Medal recipient in
1995. 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. He was also
member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, as well as a
Shriner in Los Angeles.
Skelton was made an honorary brother of
Phi Sigma Kappa
Phi Sigma Kappa at Truman
State University. In 1961 he became 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 at the same
ceremony. Skelton received an honorary high school diploma from
Vincennes High School. He was also an honorary member of Kappa
Kappa Psi National Honorary Band Fraternity; Skelton had composed many
marches which were used by more than 10,000 high school and college
bands. In 1986, Skelton received an honorary degree from Ball
Red Skelton Memorial Bridge spans the
Wabash River and provides
the highway link between
Indiana on U.S. Route 50, near
Skelton's home town of Vincennes. He attended the dedication
ceremonies in 1963.
Awards and recognition
Skelton's star for his work in television on the Hollywood Walk of
In 1952, Skelton received Emmy Awards for Best Comedy Program and Best
Comedian. He also received an Emmy nomination in 1957 for
his non-comedic performance in Playhouse 90's presentation of "The Big
Slide". Skelton and his writers won another Emmy in 1961 for
Outstanding Writing Achievement In Comedy. He was named an
honorary faculty member of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Clown College in 1968 and 1969.
Skelton's first major post-television recognition came in 1978, when
the Golden Globe Awards named him as the recipient for their Cecil B.
DeMille Award, which is given to honor outstanding contributions in
entertainment. His excitement was so great upon receiving the award
and a standing ovation, that he clutched it tightly enough to break
the statuette. When he was presented with the Academy of
Television Arts & Sciences' Governor's Award in 1986, Skelton
received a standing ovation. "I want to thank you for sitting down",
he said when the ovation subsided. "I thought you were pulling a CBS
and walking out on me." The honor came 16 years after his
television program left the airwaves.
Skelton received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors
Guild in 1987, and in 1988, he was inducted into the Academy of
Television Arts & Sciences' Television Hall of
Fame. He was one of the International
Clown Hall of
Fame's first inductees in 1989. Skelton and Katharine
Hepburn were honored with lifetime achievement awards by the American
Comedy Awards in the same year. He was inducted into the National
Radio Hall of Fame in 1994. Skelton also has two stars on the
Hollywood Walk of Fame
Hollywood Walk of Fame for his radio and television work.
Legacy and tributes
Skelton preferred to be described as a clown rather than a comic: "A
comedian goes out and hits people right on. A clown uses pathos. He
can be funny, then turn right around and reach people and touch them
with what life is like." "I just want to be known as a clown", he
said, "because to me that's the height of my profession. It means you
can do everything—sing, dance and above all, make people
laugh." His purpose in life, he believed, was to make people
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." In late 1965 ventriloquist Edgar
Bergen, reminiscing about the entertainment business, singled out
Skelton for high praise. "It's all so very different today. 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
Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy. The last one of that breed is
Harry Cohn of
Columbia Pictures also praised
Skelton, saying, "He's a clown in the old tradition. He doesn't need
punch lines. He's got heart."
Skelton performing with Marcel Marceau, 1965; the two were friends for
Marcel Marceau shared a long friendship and admiration of
each other's work. Marceau appeared on Skelton's
CBS television show
three times, including one turn as the host in 1961 as Skelton
recovered from surgery. He was also a guest on the three Funny
Faces specials that Skelton produced for HBO. In a TV Guide
interview after Skelton's death, Marceau said, "Red, you are eternal
for me and the millions of people you made laugh and cry. May God
bless you forever, my great and precious companion. I will never
forget that silent world we created together."
CBS issued the
following statement upon his death: "Red's audience had no age limits.
He was the consummate family entertainer—a winsome clown, a
storyteller without peer, a superb mime, a singer and a dancer."
Red Skelton Performing Arts Center was dedicated in February 2006
on the campus of Vincennes University, one block from the home in
Vincennes where Skelton was born. The building includes an
850-seat theater, classrooms, rehearsal rooms, and dressing rooms. Its
grand foyer is a gallery for Skelton's paintings, statues, and film
posters. The theater hosts theatrical and musical productions by
Vincennes University, as well as special events, convocations and
conventions. The adjacent
Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy
opened on July 18, 2013, on what would have been Skelton's 100th
birthday. It houses his personal and professional materials,
which he had collected since the age of ten, in accordance with his
wishes that they be made available in his hometown for the public's
enjoyment. Skelton's widow, Lothian, noted that he expressed no
interest in any sort of Hollywood memorial.[al] The museum is
funded jointly by the
Red Skelton Museum Foundation and the Indiana
Historical Society. Other Foundation projects include a
fund that provides new clothes to Vincennes children from low-income
families. The Foundation also purchased Skelton's
birthplace. On July 15, 2017, the state of
a state historic marker at the home in Vincennes where Skelton was
The town of Vincennes has held an annual
Red Skelton Festival since
2005. A "Parade of a Thousand Clowns", billed as the largest clown
parade in the Midwest, is followed by family-oriented activities and
live music performances.
In 2006, Travis Tarrants purchased the historic Vincennes Pantheon
Theatre, where Skelton performed during his youth. He established a
non-profit organization with the hope of restoring the theatre to its
1921 state. Tarrants was able to raise close to $300,000 for the
restoration. Two years later, donations for the project plummeted.
Tarrants lost the theatre to unpaid back taxes in 2012 and the new
owner was realtor Heath Klein. In late 2014, Klein sold the theatre
property to a Vincennes non-profit group, INVin. The organization
works to bring arts and arts-related businesses into downtown
Vincennes. In March 2016, the group proposed to turn the theatre
into shared workspace.
Having Wonderful Time
Having Wonderful Time (1938) as Itchy
Flight Command (1940) as Lieut. 'Mugger' Martin
The People vs.
Dr. Kildare (1941) as Vernon Briggs
Whistling in the Dark (1941) as Wally Benton
Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day
Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day (1941) as Vernon Briggs
Lady Be Good (1941) as Joe 'Red' Willet
Ship Ahoy (1942) as Merton K. Kibble
Maisie Gets Her Man (1942) as 'Hap' Hixby
Panama Hattie (1942) as Red
Whistling in Dixie
Whistling in Dixie (1942) as Wally 'The Fox' Benton
DuBarry Was a Lady (1943) as Louis Blore / King Louis XV
I Dood It
I Dood It (1943) as Joseph Rivington Renolds
Thousands Cheer (1943) as Red Skelton
Whistling in Brooklyn
Whistling in Brooklyn (1943) as Wally 'The Fox' Benton
Bathing Beauty (1944) as Steve Elliot
Ziegfeld Follies (1946) as J. Newton Numbskull ('When Television
The Show-Off (1946) as J. Aubrey Piper
Merton of the Movies (1947) as Merton Gill aka Clifford Armytage
The Fuller Brush Man (1948) as Red Jones
A Southern Yankee
A Southern Yankee (1948) as Aubrey Filmore
Neptune's Daughter (1949) as Jack Spratt
The Yellow Cab Man
The Yellow Cab Man (1950) as Augustus 'Red' Pirdy
Three Little Words (1950) as Harry Ruby
Duchess of Idaho
Duchess of Idaho (1950) as Himself (uncredited)
The Fuller Brush Girl
The Fuller Brush Girl (1950, cameo) as Himself - Fuller Brush Man
Watch the Birdie (1950) as Rusty Cammeron / Pop Cammeron / Grandpop
Excuse My Dust (1951) as Joe Belden
Texas Carnival (1951) as Cornie Quinell
Lovely to Look At
Lovely to Look At (1952) as Al Marsh
Clown (1953) as Dodo Delwyn
Half a Hero (1953) as Ben Dobson
The Great Diamond Robbery (1954) as Ambrose C. Park
Susan Slept Here
Susan Slept Here (1954, cameo) as Oswald from North Dakota
Around the World in 80 Days (1956, cameo) as Drunk in Barbary Coast
Public Pigeon No. 1 (1957) as Rusty Morgan
Ocean's 11 (1960, cameo) as Gambler
Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines
Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965) as The
Neanderthal Man / Passenger on Airport
The Broadway Buckaroo (1939) as Red
Seeing Red (1939) as Red / Doorman / Coatroom Attendant / Waiter /
Radio Bugs (1944) as
Red Skelton (voice, uncredited)
Weekend in Hollywood (1947)
The Luckiest Guy in the World (1947, voice)
Some of the Best (1949)
Box office ranking
Based on rankings of the amount of money earned in box-office receipts
for film showings, for a number of years Skelton was among the most
popular stars in the country:
1944 – 16th largest box office draw
1949 – 13th
1951 – 14th
1952 – 21st
Red Skelton's Favorite Ghost Stories. 1965. OCLC 3695410.
A Red Skeleton in Your Closet; Ghost Stories Gay and Grim. 1965.
Gertrude & Heathcliffe. 1974. OCLC 1129973.
The Ventriloquist. 1984. OCLC 144598647.
Old Whitey. 1984. OCLC 144598636.
The Great Lazarus. 1986. 
^ Skelton's birth certificate lists him as Richard Bernard Eheart. The
Eheart surname comes from Joseph's stepfather, and it appears that
Joseph also used his stepfather's surname at times. In a 1983
appearance on The Tonight Show, Skelton said his middle name was
really "Red" and he had made up the middle name Bernard to satisfy a
schoolteacher who would not believe his middle name was really "Red",
although this story he presented in the comedy interview appearance
does not match the reported content of his birth certificate. There is
also an account of Skelton's using the birth certificate of one of his
older brothers as proof that he was legally of age.
^ Hyatt also refers to a People magazine story published in 1980,
where Skelton said he was in his seventies.
^ Skelton also told another version of this actor and young newsboy
story, with Raymond Hitchcock as the actor.
^ Edna Stillwell had two marriages following her divorce from Skelton,
first to director
Frank Borzage and then to Leon George
^ Skelton became a well-read man with a fine memory which he began
training in his youth.
^ Since much of Skelton's success had been in Canada at this point,
many reviewers believed he was Canadian, calling him "a Canadian
^ Skelton copyrighted the original "
Doughnut Dunkers" routine and
every possible variation of it.
^ The problem with doing the "
Doughnut Dunkers" skit was that Skelton
had to eat nine doughnuts at every performance. He was performing five
times a day and eating 45 doughnuts. He gained nearly 35 pounds, and
had to shelve the routine until he lost some weight.
^ Examples of pre-
World War II
World War II television programming from WNBT, New
York; the station is known as W
^ Keaton became frustrated because of Skelton's focus on his radio
program, while Skelton wanted better film scripts. Gehring
quotes Skelton's movies vs radio and television statement while on the
The Fuller Brush Man as, "Movies are not my friend. Radio and
television are." In a 1948 interview, Skelton explained that his
MGM salary was $2,000 weekly and that his radio salary was $8,000 per
week. The cost of answering his MGM fan mail was billed to Skelton.
When Skelton agreed to make appearances approved by MGM, he did not
receive the fee for his work; it went to MGM, who continued to pay him
the contracted $2,000 per week. Since Skelton's radio program
participation was noted in his MGM contract, his radio show salary
went to him and not to MGM.
^ Director Jack Donahue, who directed Watch the Birdie, commented
about Skelton's tendency to ad-lib, "God help us all. If he manages to
say it in English, write it down and we'll use it."
Avalon Time was broadcast from
WLW in Cincinnati; during the time
Skelton was part of the program, he and Edna traveled from Chicago to
do the weekly show.
^ Carl Hopper was a contemporary and a boyhood friend of Skelton.
Hopper, who was hearing-impaired, was often ridiculed or shunned
because of his hearing problem. As a boy, Skelton made it a point to
include Hopper in the activities of his childhood in Vincennes.
^ At their 1993 meeting, the former Soviet bomber pilot told Skelton
he would have thanked him for the bomber some time ago, but a U.S.
diplomat told him that Skelton was dead.
^ The couple cared deeply for each other, but for reasons known best
to them both, could have a successful professional relationship, but
not a marriage. Skelton can be seen in the film Whistling in the Dark
dancing with one of his female co-stars with his fingers crossed. In a
1942 interview, he explained the reason for this, saying he only loved
Edna and when he did romantic film scenes, he always crossed his
fingers to indicate that the screen emotion was not real. After
his engagement to actress Muriel Morris ended, Skelton tried to
persuade Edna to remarry him; he was not successful.
^ Skelton later referred to Georgia as "Little Red".There is
evidence that Skelton also referred to Edna Skelton by this nickname.
A sketch by Skelton has a plaque reading "
Red Skelton sketch of Wife
Edna Skelton". The original is at the
Red Skelton Museum Foundation in
Fred Allen was censored when he referred to an imaginary NBC
vice-president who was "in charge of program ends". He went on to
explain to his audience that this vice-president saved these hours,
minutes and seconds that radio programs ran over their allotted time
until he had two weeks' worth of them and then used the time for a
^ 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.
^ After the death of Richard, Skelton performed the George Appleby
character wearing his son's eyeglasses.
^ Skelton's original sign-off phrase was "God bless". When he came to
believe it appeared he was commanding something of God, he added the
word "may" to the sign-off. In a 1978 interview, Skelton was
asked about his frequent use of the phrase. His answer was, "I say
"may God bless" to people because I want them to find the same
happiness I've found. After all, God is good.". In 1982, he was
being interviewed in Wilmington, North Carolina, and declined a
cameraman's request for a posed shot of him waving and saying the
phrase. Skelton's explanation was that he felt doing it in this way
would make it not genuine. "I don't use it as a gimmick. I mean it
from the bottom of my heart."
^ 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.
Color television for a more complete treatment of the
^ One of his former writers called the laughter a "survival
technique"; the script was on the floor out of camera range and this
was where one looked when a line was forgotten. Skelton also
appeared to enjoy his material as much as his audience did. While
breaking into laughter during a story in a live performance, Skelton
tried to apologize by saying "I know what's coming!"
^ Earlier in the day, the Skeltons received some discouraging news
about Richard's medical condition.
^ Photo of Skelton's color television mobile unit
^ Columnist Hy Gardner requested a copy of Skelton's "Pledge of
Allegiance" speech. Skelton sent him a copy of the monologue and
granted permission for Gardner to print it in its entirety in his
^ Skelton also offered another reason for his
CBS show's cancellation:
that the network had asked him and
Jackie Gleason to shift their
family-oriented comedy toward racier scripts, and that both he and
Gleason turned them down.
^ Dirksen, who had a narrative hit record, Gallant Men, appeared on
CBS show on April 18, 1967. His Gallant Men had
won the 1967 Grammy for Best Spoken Word, Documentary or Drama
^ Agnew was a special guest and introduced Skelton on the premiere of
NBC Television show on September 14, 1970.
^ When Skelton was injured during a rehearsal and admitted to a
hospital, the live television program had lost its star two hours
before its scheduled air time. Carson was selected to fill in for
Skelton and earned the praise of television writers for his impromptu
work. This was the beginning of Carson's career as a network
^ In 1966, Georgia Skelton was wounded in a shooting at the Sands
Las Vegas while her husband was performing in the main
showroom. Valentina Skelton and her boyfriend heard the gunshot;
Georgia was found in the bedroom, surprised and confused about what
had happened. Georgia did not feel safe without a gun and the couple
brought it to
Las Vegas with them. The Clark County Sheriff declared
the shooting to be accidental. Gehring refers to Georgia's
Las Vegas as a suicide attempt in an interview with
^ 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.
^ Skelton used a pseudonym of Victor van Bernard for his television
performances and named his television production company Van Bernard
^ Skelton offered another explanation for refusing the Willy Clark
role: "I turned down the movie
The Sunshine Boys
The Sunshine Boys because I refused to
Jack Benny a son of a bitch and to look up under a nurse's
^ Skelton had been ill for some time but the nature of this illness
was not disclosed. Some sources have attributed his death to
^ Though aware of the value of his artwork, Skelton did not view his
works from a strictly monetary standpoint. He would often do an
impromptu sketch on whatever was at hand—often a restaurant's linen
napkin—and present it to a fan he was visiting with.
^ Skelton also painted ducks and had completed over 3,000 paintings of
them in 1973. When he was not pleased with a painting, he threw it
into the trash; Skelton's garbage collector rescued these discarded
works and sold them.
^ Skelton gave an interview in 1984 where he said he had kept all his
personal effects since the age of ten; he also indicated that he would
"let someone else go through it".
^ a b c d e Hyatt 2004, p. 6.
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Severo, Richard (September 18, 1997).
"Red Skelton, Knockabout Comic and
Clown Prince of the Airwaves, Is
Dead at 84". The New York Times. Archived from the original on
February 10, 2013. Retrieved May 18, 2011.
^ a b c "Lovable
Red Skelton Dies". The Deseret News. September
18, 1997. p. A9. Retrieved May 18, 2011.
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Dies". Los Angeles Times. September 18, 1997. Archived from the
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Red Skelton Isn't Clowning
Around When It Comes to His Paintings-they fetch $40,000 per". People.
Archived from the original on October 19, 2012. Retrieved May 28,
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Indiana Magazine of History. pp. 46–55.
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Legend". The Goldendale Sentinel. p. 2. Retrieved April 6,
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^ a b Wetzsteon, Ross (March 14, 1977). "Red, the Renaissance Goof".
The Village Voice. pp. 17, 18. Retrieved May 6, 2014.
^ Pendergast 1999, p. 388.
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Red Skelton just wants to be a clown". Lawrence Journal-World.
November 9, 1966. p. 18. Retrieved May 19, 2011.
^ Gehring 2008, p. 8.
^ Gehring 2008, pp. 44–45.
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^ Gehring 2008, pp. 174-190.
^ Knopf 1999, p. 34.
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^ Thomas, Bob (November 19, 1947). "Skelton Says He'll Give Up Films
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^ Gehring 2008, pp. 171-172.
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Action, Not Gab". The Evening Independent. p. 20. Retrieved May
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Red Skelton Is Going Movies'
'Double Screen' One Better". Spokane Daily Chronicle. p. B3.
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Red Skelton.
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"Edna Stillwell and the 'Real Making of Red'”,
Awards for Red Skelton
Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series
The Red Skelton Show
The Red Skelton Show (1952)
I Love Lucy
I Love Lucy (1953)
I Love Lucy
I Love Lucy (1954)
Make Room for Daddy (1955)
The Phil Silvers Show
The Phil Silvers Show (1956)
The Phil Silvers Show
The Phil Silvers Show (1957)
The Phil Silvers Show
The Phil Silvers Show (1958)
Jack Benny Program (1959)
The Art Carney
Jack Benny Program (1961)
The Bob Newhart Show (1962)
The Dick Van Dyke Show
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1963)
The Dick Van Dyke Show
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1964)
The Dick Van Dyke Show
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1965)
The Dick Van Dyke Show
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1966)
The Monkees (1967)
Get Smart (1968)
Get Smart (1969)
My World and Welcome to It (1970)
All in the Family
All in the Family (1971)
All in the Family
All in the Family (1972)
All in the Family
All in the Family (1973)
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1975)
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1976)
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1977)
All in the Family
All in the Family (1978)
Barney Miller (1982)
The Cosby Show
The Cosby Show (1985)
The Golden Girls
The Golden Girls (1986)
The Golden Girls
The Golden Girls (1987)
The Wonder Years
The Wonder Years (1988)
Murphy Brown (1990)
Murphy Brown (1992)
Ally McBeal (1999)
Will & Grace (2000)
Sex and the City
Sex and the City (2001)
Everybody Loves Raymond
Everybody Loves Raymond (2003)
Arrested Development (2004)
Everybody Loves Raymond
Everybody Loves Raymond (2005)
The Office (2006)
30 Rock (2007)
30 Rock (2008)
30 Rock (2009)
Modern Family (2010)
Modern Family (2011)
Modern Family (2012)
Modern Family (2013)
Modern Family (2014)
Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series
George Balzer &
Hal Goldman & Al Gordon & Sam Perrin
Dave O'Brien &
Martin Ragaway &
Sherwood Schwartz & Al
Red Skelton (1961)
Carl Reiner (1962)
Carl Reiner (1963)
No award (1964)
No award (1965)
Sam Denoff &
Bill Persky for "Coast to Coast Big Mouth" (1966)
Buck Henry &
Leonard B. Stern for "Ship of Spies: Parts 1 and 2"
Allan Burns &
Chris Hayward for "The Coming Out Party" (1968)
No award (1969)
Cecil B. DeMille
Cecil B. DeMille Award
Cecil B. DeMille
Cecil B. DeMille (1952)
Walt Disney (1953)
Darryl F. Zanuck
Darryl F. Zanuck (1954)
Jean Hersholt (1955)
Jack L. Warner
Jack L. Warner (1956)
Mervyn LeRoy (1957)
Buddy Adler (1958)
Maurice Chevalier (1959)
Bing Crosby (1960)
Fred Astaire (1961)
Judy Garland (1962)
Bob Hope (1963)
Joseph E. Levine
Joseph E. Levine (1964)
James Stewart (1965)
John Wayne (1966)
Charlton Heston (1967)
Kirk Douglas (1968)
Gregory Peck (1969)
Joan Crawford (1970)
Frank Sinatra (1971)
Alfred Hitchcock (1972)
Samuel Goldwyn (1973)
Bette Davis (1974)
Hal B. Wallis
Hal B. Wallis (1975)
Walter Mirisch (1977)
Red Skelton (1978)
Lucille Ball (1979)
Henry Fonda (1980)
Gene Kelly (1981)
Sidney Poitier (1982)
Laurence Olivier (1983)
Paul Newman (1984)
Elizabeth Taylor (1985)
Barbara Stanwyck (1986)
Anthony Quinn (1987)
Clint Eastwood (1988)
Doris Day (1989)
Audrey Hepburn (1990)
Jack Lemmon (1991)
Robert Mitchum (1992)
Lauren Bacall (1993)
Robert Redford (1994)
Sophia Loren (1995)
Sean Connery (1996)
Dustin Hoffman (1997)
Shirley MacLaine (1998)
Jack Nicholson (1999)
Barbra Streisand (2000)
Al Pacino (2001)
Harrison Ford (2002)
Gene Hackman (2003)
Michael Douglas (2004)
Robin Williams (2005)
Anthony Hopkins (2006)
Warren Beatty (2007)
Steven Spielberg (2009)
Martin Scorsese (2010)
Robert De Niro
Robert De Niro (2011)
Morgan Freeman (2012)
Jodie Foster (2013)
Woody Allen (2014)
George Clooney (2015)
Denzel Washington (2016)
Meryl Streep (2017)
Oprah Winfrey (2018)
Screen Actors Guild
Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award
1962: Eddie Cantor
1963: Stan Laurel
1965: Bob Hope
1966: Barbara Stanwyck
1967: William Gargan
1968: James Stewart
1969: Edward G. Robinson
1970: Gregory Peck
1971: Charlton Heston
1972: Frank Sinatra
1973: Martha Raye
1974: Walter Pidgeon
1975: Rosalind Russell
1976: Pearl Bailey
1977: James Cagney
1978: Edgar Bergen
1979: Katharine Hepburn
1980: Leon Ames
1982: Danny Kaye
1983: Ralph Bellamy
1984: Iggie Wolfington
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward
1986: Nanette Fabray
1987: Red Skelton
1988: Gene Kelly
1989: Jack Lemmon
1990: Brock Peters
1991: Burt Lancaster
1992: Audrey Hepburn
1993: Ricardo Montalbán
1994: George Burns
1995: Robert Redford
1996: Angela Lansbury
1997: Elizabeth Taylor
1998: Kirk Douglas
1999: Sidney Poitier
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee
2001: Ed Asner
2002: Clint Eastwood
2003: Karl Malden
2004: James Garner
2005: Shirley Temple
2006: Julie Andrews
2007: Charles Durning
2008: James Earl Jones
2009: Betty White
2010: Ernest Borgnine
2011: Mary Tyler Moore
2012: Dick Van Dyke
2013: Rita Moreno
2014: Debbie Reynolds
2015: Carol Burnett
2016: Lily Tomlin
2017: Morgan Freeman
Television Hall of Fame Class of 1988
George Burns and Gracie Allen
Chet Huntley and David Brinkley
David L. Wolper
ISNI: 0000 0001 1564 1503
BNF: cb13939230d (data)