Born in Vincennes, Indiana, Richard (Red) Skelton was the son of a Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus clown named Joseph who died in 1913 shortly before the birth of his son. Red Skelton himself got one of his earliest tastes of show business with the same circus as a teenager. Before that, however, he had been given the show business bug at age ten by entertainer Ed Wynn, who spotted him selling newspapers in front of the Pantheon Theatre, in Vincennes, Indiana, trying to help his family. After buying every newspaper in Red Skelton's stock, Wynn took the boy backstage and introduced him to every member of the show with which he was traveling. By age 15, Red Skelton had hit the road full-time as an entertainer, working everywhere
from medicine shows and vaudeville to burlesque, showboats,
minstrel shows and circuses.
While performing in Kansas City in 1930, Red Skelton met and married his first wife, Edna Stillwell. They met while "Walkathon" dance partners. Red and Edna had a vaudeville act and traveled throughout the midwest and Canada. The couple divorced 13 years later, but they remained cordial enough that Stillwell remained one of his chief writers. Seven years after their marriage, Red Skelton caught his big break in two media at once: radio and film. Beginning with Having a Wonderful Time (1938), Red Skelton appeared in more than 30 MGM films during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1945, he married Georgia Davis, and the couple had two children, Richard and Valentina. Richard's childhood death of leukemia devastated the household. Red and Georgia divorced in 1972, and he married Lothian Toland in 1973, daughter of Gregg Toland, Academy Award winning cinematographer.
Red Skelton was a man of deep faith and staunch patriotic fervor, extremely proud of his 58 year membership in the Masons and the Shriners. Major changes were rapidly taking place in our society that threatened to undermine the very founding principles upon which our great nation was built. Prayer was banned from our schools. Tens of millions of Americans were rendered speechless. Red Skelton became their voice.
After appearances on The Rudy Vallee Show in 1937, Red became a regular on NBC's Avalon Time, sponsored by Avalon Cigarettes. On October 7, 1941, Red Skelton premiered his own radio show, The Raleigh Cigarette Program, developing routines involving a number of recurring characters, including punch-drunk boxer Cauliflower McPugg, inebriated Willie Lump-Lump and Junior the "mean widdle kid" , whose favorite phrase ("I dood it!") became part of the American lexicon. There was con man San Fernando Red with his pair of crosseyed seagulls, Gertrude and Heathcliffe, and singing cabdriver Clem Kadiddlehopper, a country bumpkin with a big heart and a slow wit. Clem had an unintentional knack for upstaging high society slickers, even if he couldn't manipulate his cynical father: "When the stork brought you, Clem, I shoulda shot him on sight!" Red Skelton also helped sell WWII war bonds on the top-rated show, which featured Ozzie and Harriet Nelson in the supporting cast, plus the Ozzie Nelson Orchestra and announcer Truman Bradley. Harriet Nelson was the show's vocalist.
Red Skelton was drafted in March 1944, and the popular series was discontinued June 6, 1944. Shipped overseas to serve with an Army entertainment unit as a private, Red Skelton had a nervous breakdown in Italy, spent three months in a hospital and was discharged in September, 1945. He once joked about his military career, "I was the only celebrity who went in and came out a private." On December 4, 1945, The Raleigh Cigarette Program resumed where it left off with Red Skelton introducing some new characters, including Bolivar Shagnasty and J. Newton Numbskull. Lurene Tuttle and Verna Felton appeared as Junior's mother and grandmother. David Forrester and David Rose led the orchestra, featuring vocalist Anita Ellis. The announcers were Pat McGeehan and Rod O'Connor. The series ended May 20, 1949 andRed moved to CBS to continue his radio career.
In 1951 (the same year the network introduced I Love Lucy), CBS beckoned Red Skelton to bring his radio show to television. His characters worked even better on screen than on radio; television also provoked him to create his second best-remembered character, Freddie the Freeloader, a traditional tramp whose appearance suggested the elder brother of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown Emmett Kelly. Annoucer/voice actor Art Gilmore who voiced numerous movie trailers in Hollywood in the 1950s became the annoucer on the show with David Rose and his orchestra providing the music. Red Skelton's weekly signoff -- "Good night and may God bless" -- became as familiar to television viewers as Edward R. Murrow's "Good night and good luck." Red Skelton was the first CBS television host to begin taping his weekly programs in color, in the early 1960s, after he bought an old movie studio and converted it for television productions.
Red Skelton was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1989, but as Kadiddlehopper showed, he was more than an interpretive clown. One of his best-known routines was "The Pledge of Allegiance," in which he explained the pledge word by word. Another Red Skelton staple, a pantomime of the crowd at a small town parade as the American flag passes by, reflected Red Skelton's rural, Americana tastes. Red returned to live performances after his television days ended. He played nightclubs, casinos, resorts, and performed such venues as Carnegie Hall. Many of those shows yielded segments that were edited into part of the Funny Faces video series on HBO's Standing Room Only. He also spent more time on his lifetime love of painting, usually of clown images, and his works began to attract prices in the high five figures.
Near the end of his life, Red Skelton said his daily routine included writing a short story a day. He collected the best stories in self-published chatbooks. He also composed music which he sold to background music services such as Muzak. Among his more notable compositions was his patriotic "Red's White and Blue March." Red Skelton died in a hospital in Palm Springs, California of pneumonia on September 17, 1997. At the time of his death, he lived in Anza, California, and was married to Lothian Skelton, his wife of 25 years. He is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Red and Lothian Skelton loved horses and actually bred quarter horses at their ranch outside Palm Springs. Above is a photo of Red with his favorite stallion AQHA "Cutter's Smoke".
In 2002 during the controversy of the phrase "Under God" in the US Pledge of Allegiance, a recording of a monologue he performed on his 1969 radio show resurfaced. In the speech, he commented on what each line of the pledge symbolizes. At the end, he commented that "Wouldn't it be a pity if someone said that is a prayer and that would be eliminated from schools too?" With the pledge under attack as being "religious", he suddenly regained popularity among those who opposed the lawsuit.
The Red Skelton Bridge spans the Wabash River and provides the highway link between Illinois and Indiana on Highway 50, near his hometown of Vincennes, Indiana. TheRed Skelton Performing Arts Center on the Vincennes University campus was constructed in 2006. On May 17, 2006, the Vincennes Sun-Commercial reported that a non-profit group in Red's hometown of Vincennes, began to renovate the historic Pantheon Theater. According to the article, the stage at the Pantheon will be named in honor ofRed Skelton.