Red Skelton Biography (1913-1997)

Born Richard Bernard Skelton, July 18, 1913, in Vincennes, IN; died of pneumonia, September 17, 1997, in Rancho Mirage, CA. Comedian, actor, artist, writer. Skelton was known to millions as an affable performer who used pantomime and humorous dialogue to bring delight to audiences around the globe. A professional clown, Skelton drew from a stock of memorable characters such as bumpkin Clem Kadiddlehopper, hobo Freddie the Freeloader, Old West lawman SheriffDeadeye, drunkard Willie Lump-Lump, seagulls Gertrude and Heathcliffe, and the Mean Widdle Kid who often confessed "I Dood It." "His innate flexibility combined with a rubber face and superb comic timing virtually guaranteed that audiences would dissolve into laughter during his routines," noted the LondonTimes. "What was surprising was that Skelton, often amused by his own antics,would stop his own act to join them in their mirth." The clowning professioncame naturally to Skelton, who was nicknamed "Red" in his youth because of his hair color. His father, Joseph, had been a circus clown. Skelton never knew his father, as the elder Skelton died two months before his son's birth. The future comic was raised in poverty as his mother struggled to make money byscrubbing floors. Skelton himself began work at the age of seven, selling newspapers. By age ten he had joined a medicine show. He began to learn about comic timing during his first day on the job when he accidentally fell off thestage and knocked over some bottles, bringing laughter from the crowd. Thereafter the "accident" became part of the act. Skelton, who dropped out of school in the seventh grade, went on to jobs performing in a minstrel show, on the Cotton Blossom showboat, and with the Hagenbeck & Wallace Circus--the same company that had earlier employed his father. He later worked the burlesque circuit. According to the Los Angeles Times Skelton recalled: "It was realburlesque--not the sex show that it became in later years, but comedy parodyof well-known Broadway shows and top vaudeville acts." Eventually Skelton worked at various clubs in the United States and Canada. In 1937 he made his debut on Broadway and was invited to appear on Rudy Vallee's radio show and later at the White House for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Although he had failed a screen test in 1932, Skelton found success in motion pictures in the 1940s. Among his film appearances during his career were roles in Having a Wonderful Time, Around the World in 80 Days, The People vs. Dr. Kildare, Whistling in the Dark, I Dood It, The Fuller Brush Man, Ziegfeld Follies, Ocean's Eleven, and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. He also establisheda presence on radio with Red Skelton's Scrapbook of Satire, a weekly show. During World War II he joined the U.S. Army and ultimately began performing infifteen shows a day. Trying to maintain that schedule, he suffered from exhaustion and was hospitalized; he was later discharged. Unlike other comedians of the vaudeville era, Skelton was able to overcome the difficulties of adapting to new media, such as television. In 1951 he began a twenty-year stint onnetwork television as the star of his own series. The Red Skelton Show was asuccess with audiences young and old. Although the comic's popularity continued into the 1970s, and his show continued to draw significant ratings, his show was canceled by network executives who felt his squeaky-clean comedy wouldn't continue to reach their target audience. Nevertheless, Skelton didn't veer from his brand of comedy. As quoted in the New York Times, Skelton said: "I'd rather have people say, 'Boy, he's hokey, isn't he?'... rather than, 'Whowas the guy who told all those dirty jokes?'" His attitude on profanity was summed up simply: "I don't think anybody should have to pay money at the box office to hear what they can read on restroom walls." Skelton continued to perform into the 1990s drawing huge crowds in college concert halls and in othervenues. He used to joke, as cited in the New York Times, that "I can't retire... I've got a government to support." In addition to his theatrical pursuits he also painted more than 1,000 pictures of clowns--some earned him $80,000per painting. Skelton, who had begun his life in poverty, reported that he earned $2.5 million a year from lithographs alone. He never forgot those lessfortunate and supported charities such as the Shriners' Crippled Children's Hospital. He also was a major benefactor of the Red Skelton Foundation in Vincennes. During his lifetime he received many honors, including three Emmy Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Achievement Award, a Golden Globe Award, the Governor's Award from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and various honorary degrees. He was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1988. Skelton wrote some of his own material, including compositions for Red Skelton in Concert, dialogue for his television series, and comic pieces for other television shows such as The Red Skelton Timex Special, Red Skelton's ChristmasDinner, Red Skelton's Funny Faces, and Red Skelton: A Royal Performance. Thethree latter specials aired on HBO. He also penned Clown Alley, a story coloring book; I'll Tell All, an autobiography; and Red Skelton's Gertrude and Healthcliffe. He also edited A Red Skelton in Your Closet: Ghost Stories Gay andGrim. As reported on CNN Interactive he once remarked: "I don't want to be called 'the greatest' or 'one of the greatest' ... let other guys claim to bethe best. I just want to be known as a clown because to me, that's the heightof my profession. It means you can do everything--sing, dance and above all,make people laugh." His one regret was "that I didn't meet one particular guy, a clown named Joe Skelton," as explained in the Los Angeles Times. "You know, he sure picked the right profession. I mean, a clown's got it all. He never has to hold back: He can do as he pleases. The mouth and the eyes are painted on. So, if you wanta cry, you can go right ahead. The makeup won't smear.You'll still be smiling." His classic signoff for his performances was always "Good night, and God bless."

Gender
Male
Occupation
comedian, actor, writer
Birth Details
July 18, 1913
Vincennes, Indiana, United States
Death Details
September 17, 1997
Rancho Mirage, California, United States

Recent Updates

September 6, 2004: Skelton's widow donated 200 boxes of her husband'smemorabilia to Vincennes University in Indiana, which is in Skelton's hometown. The university also bought the house in which he was born. Source:Associated Press, http://customwire.ap.org, September 6, 2004.

Further Reference

Books:

  • Who's Who in America, Marquis Who's Who, 1995.
Periodicals:
  • Chicago Tribune, September 18, 1997, section 1, p. 1.
  • CNN Interactive (electronic), September 17, 1997.
  • Detroit Free Press, September 18, 1997, pp. A1, A7.
  • Los Angeles Times, September 18, 1997, p. A1.
  • New York Times, September 18, 1997, p. B11.
  • Times (London; electronic), September 19, 1997.
  • Washington Post, September 18, 1997, p. D6.

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