PERFORMERS: RED SKELTON

Born: July 18 1913
Died: September 17 1997

by PETER TATCHELL (copyright 2010)

He was MGM’s top comedian during the 1940s, a great visual clown who also conquered network radio with a colourful range of characters before transferring to television with a weekly series that ran for twenty years.

Richard Skelton was born in 1913, the fourth son of a former circus clown who died when the infant was only a couple of months old. Times were tough and the young Skelton left school after the third grade to sell newspapers and earn money at a local department store to help support his mother who was working as a cleaner at a local vaudeville house. The youngster soon made friends with visiting performers … particularly the ones who made people laugh.

Aged ten he joined a touring medicine show and over the next five years graduated to singing in a tent show, acting with a stock company, donning blackface for a minstrel troupe, performing comedy on a Missouri River paddle steamer and even working as a clown and occasional lion tamer with a travelling circus.

When he was seventeen and appearing in burlesque in Kansas City, Red met and married a local theatre usherette Edna Stillwell, two years his junior. Her enthusiastic support with the act helped guide his career by writing routines and taking charge of his finances. (Edna also encouraged him to get some part time education).

By the mid-1930s Red was finally hitting the big-time in vaudeville, a successful Montreal engagement stretching to six months and leading to his debut at Broadway’s Paramount Theatre in July 1937. He stayed for sixteen weeks performing his show-stopping Guzzler’s Gin routine and was invited to appear on Rudy Vallee’s radio show and given a part in an R.K.O. movie Having Wonderful Time. The film was followed by two stage shows Paris in Swing and Gentlemen Unafraid both of which closed after brief runs.

Red was more successful on radio, starting a twelve-month stint on NBC’s Avalon Time in early 1939 and appearing in a couple of Vitaphone shorts Seeing Red and Broadway Buckaroo (which included his popular “dunking donuts” skit). Soon after, Mickey Rooney got Skelton an audition with Louis B. Mayer and M.G.M. signed him to a $2,500 a week contact.

Initially the studio saw him as little more than comic relief in films like Flight Command and a couple of Doctor Kildare pictures but when he was given the lead in the comedy-mystery Whistling in the Dark Red was able to show how good he was at getting laughs. The movie was in the style of the recent Bob Hope successes Cat and the Canary and Ghost Breakers with Red in the role of a radio sleuth who gets mixed up in real life murders. M.G.M. quickly followed up his success with a couple of sequels Whistling in Dixie and Whistling in Brooklyn but also gave him featured roles in their splashy big-budget musicals Lady Be Good, Ship Ahoy, Panama Hattie, Thousands Cheer and DuBarry Was a Lady.

In late 1941 Skelton was signed for his own NBC radio series and, despite being a master of physical comedy, it wasn’t long before he (with wife Edna in charge of the scripts) developed a gallery of varied character voices. Every week listeners would tune in for the ongoing antics of “Junior, the mean widdle kid”, “Willie Lump-Lump”, “Sheriff Deadeye” and “Clem Kaddiddlehopper” in a ratings winner that would stay on the air for over a decade.

With America involved in the Second World War, Red joined the army in mid-1944, putting his M.G.M. and N.B.C. ventures on hiatus for eighteen months. By then, he and Edna had divorced (in 1943) but she would continue to be part of his professional life behind-the-scenes.

Back in Hollywood in late 1945, Skelton resumed his radio series and starred in a string of post-war comedies including The Fuller Brush Man, A Southern Yankee, Watch the Birdie and The Yellow Cab Man. He could also be seen in Ziegfeld Follies doing his famous Guzzler’s Gin routine.

Red re-teamed with Esther Williams (with whom he’d appeared in Bathing Beauty in 1944) for the musicals Neptune’s Daughter, Duchess of Idaho and Texas Carnival and with Fred Astaire in the Kalmar/Ruby biopic Three Little Words.

The early 1950s was a turbulent time for show business with television drawing huge audiences away from both radio and the movies. But for several years Red Skelton was busily performing in all three.

He’d made his television debut as a guest on Milton Berle’s show in 1949 and in September 1951 Red launched a Sunday night half hour series on N.B.C. It was an immediate success winning him Emmys as best comedian and best comedy series on the air. Within two years he’d abandon radio and his movie career to devote himself fulltime to the new medium.

Skelton signed a long term contract with C.B.S. in 1953 and would stay with the network until 1970 (in 1962 the programme expanded to a one-hour format and became a Tuesday night fixture for the rest of its run).  He also guest-starred in anthology programmes like the 1955 Climax episode Public Pigeon #1 (later remade as his last leading role in a  movie) and a 1956 Playhouse 90 presentation The Big Slide.

Red also continued to perform his live act at nightclubs in Las Vegas and elsewhere, delighting audiences with a mixture of new and classic material. Over the years he also explored his artistic talents in painting (notably with clowns as his subjects), creating children’s books and composing music.

In 1970, Skelton’s marathon run with C.B.S. came to an end and he was quickly signed by N.B.C. for a half hour series. The revamped format was not successful and it lasted only a season so Red devoted his time to making live appearances.

By the 1980s, he had come to be regarded as something of a national treasure and the newly set up Home Box Office network signed Red for a handful of TV specials, which would be his last major work on the medium.

Red Skelton died in 1997, a beloved figure in the world of American show business.

Films

Having Wonderful Time (1938)
Seein’ Red (1939 short)
Broadway Buckaroo (1939 short)
Flight Command (1940)
The People vs. Dr. Kildare (1941)
Dr. Kildare’s Wedding Day (1941)
Whistling In The Dark (1941)
Lady Be Good (1941)
Maisie Gets Her Man (1942)
Ship Ahoy (1942)
Panama Hattie (1942)
Whistling In Dixie (1942)
I Dood It (1943)
Thousands Cheer (1943)
Whistling In Brooklyn (1943)
DuBarry Was A Lady (1943)
The Bathing Beauty (1944)
Radio Bugs (voice only, 1944 short)
Ziegfeld Follies (1946)
The Show Off (1946)
Luckiest Guy In The World (voice only, 1946 short)
Merton Of The Movies (1947)
The Fuller Brush Man (1948)
A Southern Yankee (1948)
Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
Watch The Birdie (1950)
Duchess Of Idaho (1950)
Three Little Words (1950)
The Yellow Cab Man (1950)
The Fuller Brush Girl (cameo, 1950)
Excuse My Dust (1951)
Texas Carnival (1951)
Lovely To Look At (1952)
The Clown (1953)
The Great Diamond Robbery (1953)
Half A Hero (1953)
Susan Slept Here (1954)
Around The World In 80 Days (cameo, 1956)
Public Pigeon No. 1 (1957)
Ocean’s Eleven (cameo, 1960)
Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (cameo, 1965)

 

Radio

Avalon Time
NBC Saturdays January 7 1939 to July 22 1939
Wednesdays September 27 to December 20 1939
Jan 7, Feb 18 to May 13, May 27 to July 8, July 22 to Nov 8 and Dec 6 to 20 are with collectors

The Red Skelton Show
Series 1: NBC Tuesdays October 7 1941 to June 9 1942
Oct 7, Nov 4 and 11, 1941, Feb 10 and 17, Mar 3, 10 and 24, Apr 7 to 21 and May 5 1942 with collectors
Series 2: NBC Tuesdays September 15 1942 to June 8 1943
no copies survive
Series 3: NBC Tuesdays September 14 1943 to June 6 1944
Dec 3 and 10, Apr 11, May 2 to 23 and Jun 6 1944 are with collectors
(Red was in the Army from June 1944 to December 1945)
Series 4: NBC Tuesdays December 4 1945 to June 4 1946
whole season with collectors except Dec 4 and 11, Jan 8 and May 14
Series 5: NBC Tuesdays September 10 1946 to June 3 1947
whole season with collectors except Sep 24, Oct 15 to 29, Nov 12, Jan 21, Mar 4 and 18, Apr 29, May 13 to Jun 3
Series 6: NBC Tuesdays September 9 1947 to June 1 1948
Sep 30, Oct 21 to Nov 25 and June 1 are with collectors
Series 7: NBC Fridays September 3 1948 to May 20 1949
Sep 3 to Nov 12, Dec 3, 10 and 31, Jan 7, Apr 15 and Apr 29 to May 13 are with collectors
Series 8: CBS Sundays October 2 1949 to June 25 1950
Dec 4, Jan 8 to Feb 26, Apr 9 and 27 and June 11 are with collectors
Series 9: CBS Sundays October 1 1950 to June 24 1951
Dec 31 to Jan 14, Jan 28 to Mar 18, Apr 1, Apr 8, Apr 22 to May 13 and Jun 3 to 24 are with collectors
Series 10: CBS Wednesdays October 3 1951 to June 25 1952
whole season is with collectors except Apr 23 and May 21
Series 11: NBC Tuesdays September 16 1952 to May 26 1953

Red also appeared on a number of shows for the Armed Forces Radio Service during (and after) WW2 …

Command Performance
#11      April 28 1942
#28      August 25 1942
#38      October 24 1942
Sp        Christmas 1942 (60 min)
#215    spring 1946
#261    early 1947
#297    late 1947
#355    late 1948
all but the final two shows are with collectors

Mail Call
#2        August 20 1942
#22      January 27 1943
#39      May 22 1943
#55      September 8 1943
#70      December 17 1943
#83      March 22 1944
#119    November 6 1944
#177    January 11 1946
#276    December 10 1947
#325    November 17 1948
shows 2, 55, 70, 83, 119, 177 and 325 are with collectors

G.I. Journal
#17      November 19 1943

 

Television

The Red Skelton Show
NBC Sundays 10-00pm September 30 1951 to June 1952
NBC Sundays 7-00pm September 1952 to June 12 1953
CBS Tuesdays 8-30pm September 22 1953 to June 1954
CBS July 21 1954 The Red Skelton Revue (60 min)
CBS Wednesdays 8-00pm July to September 1954 (60 min)
CBS Tuesdays 9-30pm* September 1954 to June 1962 (8 seasons)
(* 9-00pm 1961/2 season)
CBS October 9 1959 The Red Skelton Chevy Special (60 min)
CBS November 30 1960 The Red Skelton Timex Special (60 min)
CBS Tuesdays 8-30pm* September 1962 to June 15 1970 (8 x 60 min seasons)
(* 8-00pm for 1963/4 season)
NBC Mondays 7-30pm* September 14 1970 to August 1971
(* Sundays 8-30pm for the final 3 months)

Red Skelton’s Christmas Dinner: HBO December 14 1982 (60 min)
Red Skelton’s Funny Faces: HBO May 29 1983 (50 min)
Red Skelton’s More Funny Faces: HBO
Red Skelton – A Royal Performance: HBO April 22 1984 (60 min)

(two syndication packages edited from Red’s 1960s shows have been issued:
249 1-hour programmes (150 in colour)
130 half hour episodes)

 

Recordings

My Favorite Story
20th Century/Fox LP TFM 3106 (1963)
features an extract of Red performing at Las Vegas

Red Skelton
Mark 56 LP 699 (1976)
extracts from radio
tracks not itemised

Red Skelton’s Radio Rogue’s Gallery
Radiola LP MR 1108, CD CDMR 1108
Custom’s Capers
Supermarket Sap
Fastest Clod in the West
Punch Drunk? I Never Touch the Stuff
Junior, the Singing Mean Widdle Kid
Stormy Weather
Bum Voyage
Here Comes the Pitch
A Tribute to the Circus
Camel Screen Guild Players – The Fuller Brush Man (January 20 1949)

Thousands Cheer
Hollywood Soundstage LP

The Best of Red Skelton Live!
J.C. Entertainment (1996)
reissued as Radio’s Greatest Comedian’s – Red Skelton (1999)
extracts from Red’s radio programme:
Mrs. Fussy
Cauliflower McPugg
Willie Lump-Lump
J. Newton Numbskull
Junior, the Mean Widdle Kid
Willie Lump-Lump
Clem Kadiddlehopper
Deadeye
Junior, the Mean Widdle Kid
Mrs. Fussy
Deadeye

The Red Skelton Show
Radio Spirits CD 2727D
June 4 1946
September 9 1947

The Red Skelton Show
Radio Spirits CD 27482
November 7 1951
November 14 1951

The Red Skelton Show
Radio Spirits CD 2705D
February 25 1951
March 11 1951

Red Skelton
Radio Spirits 3CD set 27692
January 15 to February 19 1950

Character Troubles
Radio Spirits 8CD set 44092
February 26 to June 11 1950

I Dood It
Radio Spirits 7CD set 44493
September 15 to December 15 1942
(* Sep 22 and Oct 27 are recordings of the rehearsals, done two days earlier)

Red Skelton’s Old Time Radio Christmas
Old Time Radio Memories CD C-5033 (2002)
Christmas Trees (December 24 1945)
The Day After Christmas (December 26 1951)
Santa Claus is Missing  (1955)

Red Skelton’s The Little Christmas Tree
Old Time Radio Memories CD C-5044 (2003)
Old Man Winter (1946)
Red’s Christmas Show (1947)
The Little Christmas Tree (1951)
Christmas Comes But Once a Year

 

Books

I DOOD IT
by Red Skelton (1947)
RED SKELTON
by Arthur Marx (E.P. Dutton, 1979)

 

DVDs

Red Skelton – volume 1
features four half hour episodes
with guests Ed Sullivan, Reginald Denny and George Raft

Red Skelton – volume 2
features four half hour episodes
with guests Carol Channing and Buster Crabbe:
Bolivar’s Beauty Salon
Clem’s Oil
Trick or Treat
The Navy

Red Skelton – volume 3
features four half hour episodes:
Red Meets Archie Moore
The Da Vinci
The Spy
Cleopatra

Red Skelton – America’s Clown Prince – volume 1
2DVD
with guests Jayne Meadows, Don Knotts and Ann Sothern:
Clem and the Dalton Girls
Deadeye and the Gunslinger
The Hobo’s Dilemma
Greatest Schmo on Earth

Red Skelton – America’s Clown Prince – volume 1
3DVD
Deadeye and the Gunslinger
Freddie’s Romance
GI McPugg
The Thankgiving Turkey
Freddie and the Baby (with guest Ed Wynn)
The Pledge of Allegiance

Red Skelton – America’s Clown Prince – volume 2
2DVD
with guests Jane Russell, Cesar Romero, Rhonda Fleming and Ed Wynn

Red Skelton – America’s Clown Prince – volume 2
3DVD
with guests Jane Russell, Cesar Romero, Don Knotts and Edie Adams

Red Skelton – America’s Clown Prince – volume 3
2DVD
10 editions, featuring guests Charles Bronson, Edie Adams and Diana Dors

Red Skelton – America’s Clown Prince – volume 4
2DVD
with guests Gloria DeHaven, Juliet Prowse, Marilyn Maxwell and Vivian Vance

Red Skelton
Brentwood DVD
Better Dead Than Wed (1-hour episode with guests Alan Funt and Abby Lane)
Camelot (half hour syndicated edition)
Guest John Wayne (half hour syndicated edition)

Red Skelton
RBC Entertainment5DVD set 77141/2/3/4/5
disc 1
How to Make a Salad
Mr. Lasagna (with guest Reginald Denny)
Do-It-Yourself Trailer Home (with guest Mary McCarthy)
Halloween Show (with guest Virginia Gray)
disc 2
The U.N. Show
Freddie and the Spies (with guest Edward Everett Horton)
Freddie and the Da Vinci (with guest Jackie Coogan)
Freddie and the Yuletide Doll (with guest Cara Williams)
disc 3
1-hour edition (with guest Martha Raye)
disc 4
1-hour edition (with guest Archie Moore)
disc 5
The Cop
The Anthem
Cleopatra

Christmas with Red Skelton
features two 30-minute episodes:
The Cop and the Anthem (1955)
Freddie and the Yuletide Doll (1962)

Red Skelton Christmas Classics
features 82 minutes of sketches

The Red Skelton Holiday Collection
3DVD set
Freddie and the Yuletide Doll (1962)
The Plight Before Christmas (1964)
Christmas Show (1970)

Red Skelton in Color
3DVD set
features 23 episodes from Red’s final season,
with guests Jerry Lewis, Mickey Rooney, Vincent Price and Michael Landon

The Red Skelton Show + The Popsicle Parade of Stars
features one episode (with guest Nancy Walker)
plus a variety programme guest-starring Fanny Brice

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