America’s Clown Prince of Comedy was the beloved comedian Red Skelton….who performed by entertaining audiences for over 70 years in medicine shows, on river boats, on radio, in vaudeville, in films and on live television….as he spent a lifetime making folks laugh with a very special God given talent.
Born on July 18, 1913, in Vincennes, Indiana….Richard “Red” Skelton was the fourth and youngest son of Ida Mae and Joseph Elmer Skelton….as Red’s father was a grocer who died two months before Red was born….who he had once been a clown with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus.Vincennes neighbors described the Skelton family as being extremely poor….as 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 by selling newspapers and doing other odd jobs to help his family….who had lost the family store and their home….for 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 who was 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….as Skelton suggested he see the new show in town….to which the man purchased every paper Skelton had….which provided enough money for the young Red 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 performer.
Skelton discovered at an early age that he could make people laugh….who then 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….so, since Skelton was interested in all forms of acting….he took a dramatic role with the John Lawrence stock theater company….but was unable to deliver his lines in a serious manner….cuz the audience laughed instead. In another incident, while performing in Uncle Tom’s Cabin….he 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!”….and 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 Heganbeck-Wallace Circus in 1929 when he was 16 years old.
Red’s mother Ida held multiple jobs to support her family after the death of her husband….so, she did not suggest that her youngest son had run away from home to become an entertainer….but rather chose to say “his destiny had caught up with him at an early age”….so, she let him go with her blessing. Times were tough during the Great Depression….which meant Red’s departure made for 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….as 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.”
As burlesque comedy material became progressively more ribald, Skelton moved on….as he insisted that he was no prude; “I just didn’t think the lines were funny”….so, he became a sought-after master of ceremonies for dance marathons….known as “walkathons” at the time….a popular fad in the 1930’s….where the winner of one of the marathons was Edna Stillwell….an usher at the old Pantages Theater….who approached Skelton after winning the contest and told him that she did not like his jokes….to which 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 while Edna was 16. When they learned that Skelton’s salary was to be cut….Edna went to see the boss….who 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….so, with Edna’s help….Skelton received a high school equivalency degree.
The couple put together an act and began booking it at small midwestern theaters….that is when an offer came for an engagement in Harwich Port, Massachusetts….some 2,000 miles from Kansas City….as they were pleased to get it because of its proximity to their ultimate goal of 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….when Red asked Edna to collect empty cigarette packs….as 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 Port. 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….where despite an initial rocky start, the act was a success and brought them more theater dates throughout Canada.
Skelton’s performances in Canada lead 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….so, 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 the “Doughnut Dunkers” routine, with Skelton’s visual impressions of how different people ate doughnuts. 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. The doughnut-dunking routine also helped Skelton rise to celebrity status….for 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 offi
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….then he appeared in two short subjects for Vitaphone in 1939….Seeing Red and The Broadway Buckaroo….after which Actor Mickey Rooney contacted Skelton, urging him to try for work in films after seeing him perform his “Doughnut Dunkers” act at President Roosevelt’s 1940 birthday party. For his MGM 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….as “Imitation of Movie Heroes Dying” were Skelton’s impressions of the cinema deaths of stars like George Raft, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney.
Skelton began appearing in numerous films for MGM. In 1940 he provided comic relief as a lieutenant in Frank Borzage’s war drama Flight Command where he starred 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 pictures including Whistling in Dixie (1942) and Whistling in Brooklyn (1943). In 1941, Skelton began appearing in musical comedies while 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, and alongside Ann Sothern in McLeod’s Panama Hattie.
In 1943, after a memorable role as a nightclub hatcheck attendant who becomes King Louis XV of France in a dream opposite Lucille Ball and Gene Kelly in Roy Del Ruth’s Du Barry Was a Lady….then 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 (1948)….under directors S. Silvan Simon and Edward Sedgwick. Keaton was convinced enough of Skelton’s comedic talent that he approached MGM studio head 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….while 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 the Ziegfeld Follies….which featured William Powell and Judy Garland in the main roles. In 1946, Skelton played boastful clerk J. Aubrey Piper opposite Marilyn Maxwell and Marjorie Main in Harry Beaumont’s comedy picture The Show-Off.
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. By 1947, Skelton’s work interests were focused not on films….but rather 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….as radio offered less restrictions and more creative control and a higher salary….so, 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….prompting him to say….”Movies are not my field. Radio and television are.” 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.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….causing Simon to ask 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….thus 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), Charles Walters’ 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)….which was his last major film role….which originated incidentally from an episode of the television anthology series Climax!. In a 1956 interview, Red 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).
Any way you cut the pie….Red Skelton was a true entertainer….but all of that didn’t hold a candle to his ability to make people laugh….as evidenced by this video herewith.