I suspect that unless they happen to be fans of Old Time Radio, classic television, or old movies, most young people have never heard of Red Skelton. Despite this, there was a time when it would have been hard to find anyone who had not heard of Red Skelton. Mr. Skelton had a very long career. His radio show debuted in 1938 and his television show ended in 1971. He also starred in films and played venues from nightclubs to casinos. Quite simply, Red Skelton was a comedian who mastered multiple media. He was born 100 years ago today, on 18 July 1913.
Red Skelton was born Richard Skelton in Vincennes, Indiana. His father, who had once been a clown with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, died two months before he was born, and as a result Mr. Skelton had to begin work when he was very young. He was only seven years old when he started selling newspapers. It was in 1923 while selling newspapers that he met the legendary Ed Wynn. Mr. Wynn not only bought every newspaper that Red Skelton had, but gave him a ticket to see his show. At the show Ed Wynn took young Red backstage. It was at that point that Mr. Skelton realised he wanted to be an entertainer. It was while he was still young that Red Skelton began performing. He was only ten when he travelled as a performer with a medicine show. By the time he was 15 Mr. Skelton was working the vaudeville circuit. At 16 he performed with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus as a clown.
Red Skelton proved to be a very popular performer in vaudeville, and it would not be long before he expanded into other media. In 1932 young Mr. Skelton had a screen test in Hollywood, but failed it when he was given a dramatic script (he had a difficult time not being funny). Despite this, Mr. Skelton would go onto a successful film career. He made his feature film debut in Having a Wonderful Time in 1938. Two Vitaphone shorts and supporting roles in Flight Command (1940) and The People vs. Dr. Kildare (1941) followed. It was in 1941 that he received his first lead role, playing Wally "the Fox" Benton in the comedy mystery Whistling in the Dark. The film proved to be successful enough to produce two sequels: Whistling in Dixie (1942) and Whistling in Brooklyn (1943). Red Skelton's film career proved highly successful, and he appeared in such films as Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), I Dood It (1943), Bathing Beauty (1944), Ziegfeld Follies (1945), Merton of the Movies (1947), The Fuller Brush Man (1948), Watch the Birdie (1950), The Clown (1953), and The Great Diamond Robbery (1954). Red Skelton's film career wound down in the Fifties, and his last film appearance was a cameo in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 hours 11 minutes (1965).
Of course, while Red Skelton had a very successful career in movies, it would be for his work in radio and television that he would be best remembered. Indeed, in 1940 when he renegotiated his contract with MGM, the far sighted Red Skelton asked for a clause to work on radio and television without receiving the studio's permission. While MGM granted him the radio clause, they rejected the television clause (keep in mind, at this point television was still very much in the experimental stage). Later, when Red Skelton once more renegotiated his contract, MGM gave him the right to appear on television without their approval. This was very wise of Mr. Skelton. While he was a very successful movie star, arguably he is now best remembered for his long running radio and television shows.
Red Skelton made his radio debut on 12 August 1937 on The Rudy Vallee Show. He proved so popular with listeners that he made another appearance on the show two weeks later. It was in 1938 that he became the regular host of a show for the first time, replacing Red Foley as the host of Avalon Time. He remained with the show for around a year. It was on 7 Ocotber 1941 that he received his very own show, The Raleigh Cigarettes Programme. With an interruption from 6 June 1944 to 18 September 1945, during which time he was in the Army, and with a few changes in sponsors, Red Skelton's radio show ran until May 1953. Starting in 1954 he would have radio show syndicated by Ziv for three years.
While Red Skelton was a huge star on radio, his MGM contract would not permit him to do television without their permission. Fortunately he was able to renegotiate his contract. The Red Skelton Show debuted on NBC on 30 September 1951. With the 1953-1954 season The Red Skelton Show moved to CBS. The Red Skelton Show proved very popular, ranking in the top thirty for most of its run. The show also became well known for its comedy sketches, and it was not unusual for Mr. Skelton, his guest star, or both of them to crack up during a skit. The show was also one of the earliest airing in colour. It aired in colour from 1955 to 1958, then switched back to black and white. In 1965 it switched back to colour for the rest of its run.
For the 1969-1970 season The Red Skelton Show was still enormously popular. It ranked #7 in the Nielsens for the season. Unfortunately, demographics had begun to play in a role in the television industry at the time, and CBS believed that the audience for The Red Skelton Show was too rural and too old. CBS cancelled The Red Skelton Show, makign it one of the highest rated shows to ever be cancelled. NBC picked up The Red Skelton Show for the 1970-1971 season, but cut it back from an hour to a half hour. On NBC the once high rated Red Skelton Show did not even rank in the top thirty shows for the season and ended its run after twenty years on the air.
There can be no doubt that much of Red Skelton's success was because he was very funny. Indeed, throughout his career he not only created hundreds of sketches, but some of the best remembered comedy characters of all time. There was Cauliflower McPugg, a boxer who had taken one too many blows to the head. There was Clem Kadiddlehopper, a hick with no clue as to life beyond the hills. There was the Mean Widdle Kid, a, well, mean little kid. Perhaps his most famous character, however, was Freddie the Freeloader. Freddie was a warm hearted tramp who was constantly down on his luck. Many of the Freddie the Freeloader sketches were played in pantomime. Even when one of Red Skelton's sketches did not include one of his usual characters, it could be incredibly funny. Indeed, Mr. Skelton's best known sketch may be Guzzler's Gin, in which a radio (later television) announcer gets progressively more and more drunk on the gin he is pitching.
Of course, the 20th Century produced many funny comedians and many of those comedians produced memorable sketches and great characters. What set Red Skelton apart from them is that his sketches often included a touch of pathos to them. This was particularly true of his sketches featuring Freddie the Freeloader. One of his most memorable Freddie the Freeloader sketches was set on a cold, snowy, Christmas Eve. Freddie wants to get thrown in jail so that he can have a warm place to sleep. Unfortunately, every effort he makes to do so (from stealing a rich man's umbrella to throwing a brick through a store window) fails. It was an incredible feat for Red Skelton, who managed to create a sketch that was very funny, but at the same time warm and funny. This brings out another strong point of Red Skelton. He could play characters such as Cauliflower McPugg and Clem Kadiddlehopper, who weren't the brightest individuals, without deriding them. Mr. Skelton's characters may have been none too bright or even eccentric, but he always treated them as human beings.
One hundred years after his birth, Red Skelton is not as well known as he was at the height of his career. And that is a shame. He was a master comedian and master clown, who was capable of being very funny while at the same time being very touching as well. He left behind not only several movies, but literally hundreds of hours of radio and television that should continue to be heard and watched. There were many funny men in the 20th Century. There were even many funny men capable of creating hilarious sketches. In the end, however, there were only a few as gifted as Red Skelton.