Thursday, February 7, 2013

Red Skelton: The Tears of a Clown

Red Skelton in his famous skit as Freddie the Freeloader

Red Skelton was a popular comedian and clown who performed in circuses, on Vaudeville and Broadway, and on radio, television and film. He was also a talented writer, composer and artist. His career spanned from the 1930s to the 1970s and he was well-loved by his many fans, but his personal life was marred by tragedy.
Early Years
Red Skelton, was appropriately named for his bright red hair. He was born in Vincennes, Indiana on July 18, 1913 (his birth year is often disputed) to Joseph and Ida Skelton. His father was a former clown with the Hagenbeck & Wallace Circus. Joseph Skelton left the circus to work as a grocer, but he died before Red was born. Ida Skelton suddenly found herself alone with four young boys. According to Skelton's biography on Clown Ministry, Skelton's mother worked hard as a cleaning woman and elevator operator to support her family, but she somehow managed to buy tickets to Vaudeville for her children once in awhile to remind them of their father. Skelton did his share to support the family, as well, selling newspapers on the street corner in front of the Pantheon Theatre in Vincennes. It was there that he met comedian Ed Wynn who purchased every newspaper Skelton had in his arms then invited the boy to his show. Wynn took Skelton backstage and introduced him to the thrills of performing before a live audience.
A Fifteen Year Old Clown
When Skelton was ten a traveling medicine show came to town and allowed him to join in on their performances. When he was fifteen, Skelton followed the dream of every young man in that period in American history--he left home to join the circus. Over the next two years, he found work in minstrel shows, performing on show boats, burlesque shows, Vaudeville, and in the same circus where his father once performed, the Hagenbeck & Wallace.
The Red Skelton Show
In 1937, Skelton debuted on both Broadway and radio, and in 1938 made the first of forty movies he would make for MGM over the next ten years with "Having a Wonderful Time." The Red Skelton Radio Show ran from 1941 to 1953 and was a great success. During this time, Skelton developed some of his most well-known and beloved characters, such as Gertrude and Heathcliffe, the cross-eyed seagulls. He interviewed many famous guests on the show, including Ed Sullivan.
The Move to Television
In 1951, Red Skelton moved to television and brought with him one of his most popular characters, Freddy the Freeloader, a tramp clown, who was so popular he may have helped the show win an Emmy in 1953. That same year, The Red Skelton Show was moved from NBC to CBS where Skelton ended each show with his trademark line, "Good night and God bless." The show was canceled by CBS in 1970 due to rising production costs. It was picked up again by NBC that same year, but never regained its former popularity and Skelton returned to live performances.
Skelton's Paintings and Other Creative Talents
Red Skelton was also a talented painter and his favorite subject was clowns. According to Clown Ministry, Skelton once estimated that he made over two million dollars per year from lithographs of his clown paintings. In his later years, he wrote poetry and one short story every day. He was also a music composer.
Tragedy at Home
Skelton met his first wife, Edna Marie Stillwell, while performing in Kansas City in 1930. They married in 1931. She was his manager and writer and continued to work as his chief writer after their divorce in 1944. Skelton married Georgia Maurine Davis in 1945. They had two children, Richie and Valentina. Richie died of leukemia in 1958. Georgia and Red Skelton divorced in 1971. Georgia committed suicide on the anniversary of her son's death in 1976. Skelton was devastated and refused to perform for ten years while he mourned his loss. Instead, he spent his time painting clowns. His paintings were both popular and profitable. In 1973, he married Lothian Toland and they remained married until Skelton's death.
Red Skelton's Pledge of Allegiance
In his weekly television show in 1969, during a time of public arguments regarding required prayer and Bible reading in public schools, Skelton recited one of his most popular monologues on the Pledge of Allegiance. He carefully dissected the Pledge, commenting on the meaning of each section, prophetically adding "Since I was a small boy, two states have been added to our country, and two words have been added to the Pledge of Allegiance: 'Under God.' Wouldn't it be a pity if someone said that is a prayer and that would be eliminated from schools, too?" The words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. Skelton's monologue has recently resurfaced in email chain letters and social networking programs.
Red Skelton's Legacy
As one of the great highlights of his career, in 1980, Red Skelton performed at Carnegie Hall. He was awarded the Governor's Award of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences during the Emmy Awards Show in 1986. He starred in 55 films in his lifetime. He died on September 17, 1997. The 16 million dollar, 850 seat Red Skelton Performing Arts Center was built on the Vincennes University campus in Indiana in 2006.The Red Skelton Gallery and Education Center will showcase a three million dollar collection of Skelton memorabilia. Red Skelton also founded what is now the Red Skelton Museum & Education Foundation for needy children.

  • "Biography." Red Skelton Official Website. Retrieved July 20, 2010.
  • "Biography of Red Skelton." Clown Ministry. Retrieved July 20, 2010.
  • "Red Skelton Biography." The Red Skelton Museum & Education Foundation Website. Retrieved July 20, 2010.