Red Skelton "One of America's Clowns"

Location: 111 West Lyndale Avenue, Vincennes (Knox County, Indiana) 47591 

Installed 2017 Indiana Historical Bureau and Red Skelton Museum Foundation, Inc.

ID#: 42.2017.1

Visit Blogging Hoosier History to learn how Skelton's first wife Edna Stillwell, his comedy writer and business manager, helped make him one of the most lauded comedians in television and film history.

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Side One

"One of America's Clowns"

Comedian Richard “Red” Skelton was born here in 1913. As a teenager, performed locally in minstrel shows and as a clown in circus. By 1930s he performed on vaudeville stages; became famous for skits such as “dunking donuts.” MGM signed Skelton to a film contract in 1940, advancing his comedy career. He solidified fame in 1941 with debut of his national NBC radio show.

Side Two

Red Skelton

During WWII, Skelton served in the U.S. Army and performed numerous comedy shows for troops. In 1951, he helped popularize television with The Red Skelton Show, which aired for 20 years and won multiple Emmy Awards. Skelton was remembered for on-screen characters like Freddie the Freeloader and for his iconic interpretation of the Pledge of Allegiance. He died 1997.

Annotated Text

Side One

“One of America’s Clowns”[1]

Comedian Richard “Red” Skelton was born here, 1913. As a teenager, performed locally in minstrel shows and as a clown in circus.[2] By 1930s he performed on vaudeville stages;[3] became famous for skits such as “dunking doughnuts.”[4] MGM signed Skelton to a film contract in 1940, advancing his comedy career.[5] He solidified fame in 1941 with debut of his national NBC radio show.[6]

Side Two

Red Skelton

During WWII, Skelton served in the US Army and performed numerous comedy shows for troops.[7] In 1951, he helped popularize television with The Red Skelton Show, which aired for 20 years and won multiple Emmy Awards.[8] Skelton was remembered for on-screen characters like Freddie the Freeloader[9] and for his iconic interpretation of the Pledge of Allegiance.[10] He died in 1997.[11]

 

[1] Bob Thomas, “Call Him ‘One of America’s Clowns,’ Says Red Skelton,” The Greenwood Commonwealth (Mississippi), November 9, 1966, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Greenwood Commonwealth article noted that Skelton was announced as “’one of America’s clowns’” and quoted Skelton as saying: “’I don’t want to be called ‘the greatest’ or ‘one of the greatest’; let the other guys claim to be the best. I just want to be known as a ‘clown,’ because to me that’s the height of my profession.’”

[2] Certificate of Birth, Indiana State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Filed July 20, 1913, Birth Records File, submitted by applicant; Edna Stillwell?, Impertinent Information from Background of One Richard Red Skelton, 2, Box 1, Folder 14, Edna and Red Skelton Collection, M1000, Indiana Historical Society; “Circus Day: Annual ‘Y’ Circus,” The Vincennes Sun, April 18, 1929, 8, Indiana State Library (ISL) microfilm; The Rambler, “1929 Y: M: C: A: Circus Scores Biggest Hit,” The Vincennes Sun, April 19, 1929, ISL microfilm; A.A. Mercey, “Bag of Tricks Unloaded at ‘The Minstrel-Revue,’” The Vincennes Commercial, May 14, 1929, ISL microfilm; Wes D. Gehring, Red Skelton: The Mask Behind the Mask (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2008), 32, 34, 45.

Skelton was born on July 18, 1963 in a house on Lyndale Avenue in Vincennes, Indiana. He clowned and performed from an early age in his hometown. According to “Impertinent Information from Background of One Richard Red Skelton,” he crashed “any and all local shows” to get on stage, frequently performing in musician and songwriter Clarence Stout’s minstrel show. The Vincennes Commercial reported in 1929 that at Stout’s “The Minstrel-Revue,” which took place at the Gibault Auditorium, Skelton’s performance “got a big hand with ‘There’s a Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder;’ he had to come back for three encores.”

The Vincennes Sun noted that Skelton performed as a clown in the local YMCA circus in 1929 and described his Spanish bella donna skit as “outstanding.” In his biography, Wes Gehring noted that Skelton also clowned in the Boy Scout Circus in Vincennes. He reported that the performer’s “first significant touring was under Stout’s guidance when the veteran Vincennes composer took his minstrel show on the road in 1929.” While on the road Skelton met his first wife Edna Stillwell in Kansas City, who was working as a theater usher. Stillwell wrote many of Skelton’s famous sketches, served as his business manager, inspired him creatively, and played opposite him on their radio show. (See footnote 4 for more about Stillwell’s contributions).

[3] Impertinent Information from Background of One Richard Red Skelton, 2; “Elaborate Revue Is Opening Today on Lyric’s Stage,” Indianapolis Star, November 20, 1936, 13, accessed Newspapers.com; “Doughnut-Dunking His Job!,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 28, 1937, 9, accessed Newspapers.com; “’Red’ Skelton Tops Steel Pier Program,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 19, 1938, 67, accessed Newspapers.com; “Having Wonderful Time,” Mansfield News Journal (Ohio), July 9, 1938, 6, accessed NewspaperArchive.com; Frederic C. Othman, “Skelton Credits Success to Wife,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY), October 3, 1941, 18, accessed Newspapers.com; Gehring, 66.

After performing at medicine shows and on the burlesque stage, Skelton broke into vaudeville in the 1930s with the help of first wife Edna Stillwell. Vaudeville was considered the “next rung on the entertainment ladder.” By 1937, the Cincinnati Enquirer noted that he had been performing on vaudeville for about one year, “every week booked solid,” and that after appearing in New York “he had just received an ovation worth a long-term contract in any man’s theater. Toronto, Canada, liked him 20 weeks’ worth, and he’s out Milwaukee way doughnut-dunking. That’s what he does, dunks doughnuts.” In 1938, the Philadelphia Inquirer described his career ascent, noting that the, “new Hollywood radio, screen and stage personality, heads the vaudeville bill at the Atlantic City Steel Pier today as part of a program of stage and screen shows, land and water circus and a list of other attractions.” Skelton’s vaudevillian bits were incorporated into many of his films, including his 1938 Having Wonderful Time.

[4] Edna Skelton, “The Gulpers Gin Program Television Bit,” 1935, Box 2, Folder 16, Edna and Red Skelton Collection, M1000, Indiana Historical Society. “Doughnut-Dunking His Job!,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, June 28, 1937, 9, accessed Newspapers.com; Ted Gill, “The Bad Boy from Vincennes Is Dooding,” June 6, circa 1940, ISL Clipping File, Biography-Skelton, Red; Harold Heffernan, “Three Little Words for Jackpot,” Indianapolis Star, July 19, 1942, ISL Clipping File, Biography-Skelton, Red; Red Skelton, “Fun Is Fun,” Indianapolis Star Magazine, June 7, 1953, 20-21, ISL Clipping File, Biography-Skelton, Red; “Preview of Tonight’s Shows,” Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, NY), March 9, 1965, 16, accessed Newspapers.com; Richard Severo, “Red Skelton, Knockabout Comic and Clown Price of the Airwaves, Is Dead at 84,” New York Times, September 18, 1997, accessed nytimes.com; Gehring, 53.

A 1937 Cincinnati Enquirer article notes that Skelton performed his doughnut dunking skit on vaudeville, which was “the principal part of his imitating act. He demonstrates proper and improper ways of dunking, mimics the techniques and expressions of the fastidious, not-so-fastidious, and surreptitious dunkers.” According to an Indianapolis Star article published in 1942, Skelton’s first wife Edna Stillwell, who served as his business manager and script writer during the formative years of his career, co-wrote the famous doughnut sketch. The article noted that the act was:

inspired when the comedian and Mrs. Skelton were eating in a Montreal (Canada) restaurant. Red and his wife, then playing together in small-time vaudeville, watched a diner as he slyly held his hat over his hand while he dunked, furtively looked around and then popped the soaked sinker into his mouth. The Skeltons doped out the outline of the act before they left the restaurant, polished it up in their hotel room that afternoon and presented it the same evening at the theater. It was an instantaneous hit and established Skelton as a top-line variety performer.

Gehring confirmed Stillwell’s importance to Skelton’s career success, noting “her writing of material such as the groundbreaking donut sketch placed their act on vaudeville’s top rung.” The New York Times’s obituary for the comedian stated that, in addition to dunking donuts, Skelton would also be remembered for skits like “Guzzler’s Gin,” also written by Stillwell, and for sketches involving characters like Junior the Mean Widdle Kid and Freddie the Freeloader.

[5] “Marx Bros. Film Gets Under Way,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 16, 1940, 7, accessed Newspapers.com; “Film Test a Hit,” Ithaca Journal, October 18, 1940, 8, accessed Newspapers.com; Harold W. Cohen, “The Drama Desk,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 2, 1940, 27, accessed Newspapers.com; Advertisement, “Du Barry Was a Lady,” Harrisburg Telegraph (Pennsylvania), April 19, 1943, 5, accessed Newspapers.com; Advertisement, “Ziegfeld Follies,” Pittsburgh Press, August 23, 1945, 12, accessed Newspapers.com; Advertisement, “Three Little Words,” Argus-Leader (South Dakota), August 13, 1950, 26, accessed Newspapers.com; Bill Davidson, “’I’m Nuts and I Know It,’” Saturday Evening Post, June 17, 1967, 70, accessed EBSCOhost.com; Gehring, 99.

“It’s a long-term contract at M-G-M for Red Skelton,” reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on December 2, 1940. The Ithaca Journal noted that same year that Skelton had made a “few comedy shorts in the East and in 1937 was snatched from a New York stage and sent here to play the recreational director in ‘Having Wonderful Time’—a role for which he was especially well fitted by experience on the borsch circuit of summer hotels.” He was asked to do a screen test with the studio in 1940, which earned him the long-term film contract and was considered so funny that “Executives invite friends to see it. Other studios are borrowing it for laughs. M-G-M is considering issuing it as a short . . . he put on a one-man vaudeville program highlighted by satirical impressions of various movie heroes dying.”  With his MGM contract he routinely played opposite Hollywood heavyweights, such as Lucille Ball and Gene Kelly in Du Barry Was a Lady; Judy Garland and Lena Horne in Ziegfeld Follies; and Fred Astaire in Three Little Words. It was his 1941 Whistling in the Dark that earned Skelton national film acclaim. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle lauded the actor in his role, proclaiming “A star was born yesterday at Loew’s Criterion” and describing him as “comedy screen’s new young Hopeful [making comparison to comedian Bob Hope].”

[6] “Radio Guide,” Wichita Daily Times, June 19, 1930, 49, accessed NewspaperArchive.com; Agreement between RKO Radio Pictures, Inc. and Richard (Red) Skelton, August 23, 1937, Box 2, Folder 14, Edna and Red Skelton Collection, M1000, Indiana Historical Society; The Greenville News (South Carolina), August 12, 1939, 12, accessed Newspapers.com; Paul Harrison, “Film Test a Hit,” Ithaca Journal, October 18, 1940, 8, accessed Newspapers.com; Richard Red Skelton, Selective Service Questionnaire, November 15, 1940, Box 3, Folder 2, Edna and Red Skelton Collection, M1000, Indiana Historical Society; Herbert Cohn, “Red Skelton Arrives As a Comedy Star,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 28, 1941, 4, accessed Newspapers.com; “Meet Red Skelton, Screen’s Newest Funnyman,” Kingsport Times (Tennessee), September 18, 1941, 14, accessed Newspapers.com; “Star Radio Programs,” Lincoln Star (Nebraska), October 6, 1941, 12, accessed Newspapers.com; “Skelton Airs Show Tonight,” The Times (Shreveport, LA) October 14, 1941, 10, accessed Newspapers.com; “Red Skelton Co. Now on WKBO,” Harrisburg Sunday Courier (Pennsylvania), December 14, 1941, 8, accessed Newspapers.com; Gehring, 72, 86-91, 126-129.

According to his 1940 Selective Service Questionnaire, Skelton was master of ceremonies for the National Broadcasting Company’s (NBC) Avalon Cigarette Program from 1938-1939, playing opposite Stillwell and portraying famous characters like Clem Kadiddlehopper. Appearances on the immensely popular coast-to-coast The Rudy Vallee Show in 1939 gave Skelton a platform and garnered him national attention.  In 1941, he was given his own NBC radio show, which, in tandem with his film Whistling in the Dark, catapulted him to national fame. Skelton’s radio show featured the renowned radio and television pair Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. He introduced his famous “I dood it!” phrase on the show, uttered by his character “Junior.” Noting the premier of his “outstanding” radio show, the Harrisburg Sunday Courier (Pennsylvania) proclaimed that Skelton’s “spectacular rise to nation-wide fame is one of the most rapid in history.”

[7] Impertinent Information from Background of One Richard Red Skelton, 1; Red Skelton, Handwritten Journal, Box 3, Folder 10 “Military: Handwritten Journals 1945,” Edna and Red Skelton Collection, M1000, Indiana Historical Society; Red Skelton, Typewritten Journal, Box 3, Folder 14 “Military: Red’s Overseas Typed Transcripts 1945,” Edna and Red Skelton Collection, M1000, Indiana Historical Society; Red Skelton, Typed Diary, April 6, 1945, Box 3, Folder 14 “Military: Red’s Overseas Typed Transcripts,” Edna and Red Skelton Collection, M1000, Indiana Historical Society; Red Skelton, Typed Diary, April 7, 1945, Box 3, Folder 14 “Military: Red’s Overseas Typed Transcripts,” Edna and Red Skelton Collection, M1000, Indiana Historical Society; Louella O. Parsons, “’Bad Man’s Territory’ One to be Watched,” Morning News (Wilmington, DE), June 12, 1945, 15, accessed Newspapers.com; “Red Skelton Will Return to Coast,” Miami Daily News-Record (Oklahoma), September 20, 1945, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; Identification Discharge Certificate, Certificate of Army, Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard Officer, September 24, 1945, Box 3, Folder 15 “Military Service: Discharge Papers, October 1945,” Edna and Red Skelton, M1000, Indiana Historical Society; “Hoosier-born Skelton Has Circus in Blood,” Indianapolis Star, February 3, 1952, 76, accessed Newspapers.com; Gehring, 160-165.

Skelton was drafted into the military in June 1944. According to biographer Wes Gehring, by “opting to serve as a regular soldier . . . he inadvertently set himself up for double duty—a soldier constantly asked to entertain.” Skelton performed a backbreaking number of shows at military camps and aboard the USS General Altman, noting the strain in his diary: “It has been a bad day but the shows for the guys I don’t mind,” “Did show at 1:30 fainted. –I feel ok now, but felt so silly-I forgot my gin bit-I covered up ok,” and “I walked around, then was stopped for more autographs. Seems I’ve signed three thousand.” Speaking to Skelton’s sense of responsibility regarding his comedic talent, he wrote in his diary on April 7, 1945: “I met a chaplain. He said, ‘You’re a great moral factor.’ I never realized it before. He said ‘Why didn’t they let you stay at home and bring us our American humor in some other way . . . radio or pictures.’ I thanked him and said, ‘I was doing a job and there must be a reason for me being here.’”

Wanting to be closer to military conflict, Skelton requested to serve overseas and in April 1945 was shipped out to Italy. Once in Naples, Skelton informed his second wife, Georgia Davis, in a letter that he performed 41 shows within six days. This strenuous schedule, in addition to his military training, caused him to have a nervous breakdown and he traveled back to America shortly after arriving in Italy. The Miami Daily News-Record noted September 20, 1945 that Skelton “has been recuperating in a hospital for three months from a nervous breakdown he suffered while entertaining troops in Italy.” According to his Identification Discharge Certificate, he was discharged four days later on September 24. A 1952 article in the Indianapolis Star reiterated the intensity of Skelton’s schedule, noting that “Both in the United States and in the Mediterranean theater of operations he established records for shows for servicemen, many of them at the front lines.”

[8] Hedda Hopper, “Red Skelton Scans the Television Screen,” The Hartford Courant Magazine, June 17, 1951, 94, accessed Newspapers.com; Bob Foster, “Red Skelton Show Places Radio Comic at TV Peak,” The Times (San Mateo, CA), October 1, 1951, 17, accessed Newspapers.com; “Red Skelton’s Show Well-Liked,” The Indiana Gazette (Indiana, PA), October 2, 1951, 8, accessed Newspapers.com; Robert C. Ruark, “Overdue Public Apology Goes to Red Skelton, TV Comedian,” Arizona Republic, October 16, 1951, 15, accessed Newspapers.com; Emmy Award, “Best Comedian,” February 18, 1952, Exhibit, Red Skelton Museum, submitted by applicant; “Best Comedian or Comedienne,” and “Best Comedy Show,” 4th Emmy Awards Nominees and Winners, 1952, accessed Emmys.com; “Right Up There,” TV Guide, April 28-May 4, 1956, 5-6, Box 2, Folder 14, Edna and Red Skelton Collection, M1000, Indiana Historical Society; “Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy,” 13th Emmy Awards Nominees and Winners, 1961, accessed Emmys.com; Cynthia Lowry, “Something is Missing in Red Skelton Show,” The Courier-News (Bridgewater, NJ), October 27, 1970, 28, accessed Newspapers.com; Vernon Scott, “Someone Bothers to Bid Red Skelton Farewell,” The Raleigh Register (Beckley, WV), June 7, 1971, 7, accessed Newspapers.com; Gehring, 198-201, 225; Greg M. Smith, “Red Skelton, The Crack-up, and the Quick-change,” Journal of Popular Culture 45, iss. 3 (June 2012): 592, accessed EBSCOhost.com.

Skelton’s prolific radio and film career paid off and in 1951 he starred in his own television show The Red Skelton Show, signing a “stunning” $5,000,000 contract. Gehring noted that Skelton “recognized the phenomenal possibilities for television, likening the new small-screen medium to the pioneering days of film. In addition, Skelton was drawn to the informal familiarity of the small screen.” Hoping to become the “small-screen Charlie Chaplin,” the film star’s adoption of the fledging medium lent it legitimacy, since typically “hit television personalities were performers who had . . . washed out of film.” The Hartford Courant Magazine declared that with Skelton’s show “the feared new entertainment medium had arrived with a roundhouse wallop. It could no longer be ignored or laughed off.”

The Red Skelton Show debuted to critical praise, such as a San Mateo Times review that declared it the “funniest half-hour in television. With Red’s debut we are opening a new era in TV comedy. He mugged, clowned, danced, jumped, made faces at the camera and had a wonderful time, and so did several million others.” Similarly, Lansing State Journal writer Walt Hackett proclaimed in December of that year “he’s a natural at ad-libbing, a top mimic, and his antics on the screen are always hilarious, whether he’s rolling a cigarette one-handed (a la cowboy) or changing the baby.” The show won two Emmy’s in 1952 and one in Emmy in 1961. According to Greg Smith’s 2012 Journal of Popular Culture article, by 1955 his show appeared in the Nielsen top twenty ratings, “where it remained for the rest of its life (and usually in the top ten of the ratings).” After a twenty year run, the show was cancelled in 1971, devastating the man who made “faces for the camera, playing San Fernando Red, Freddie the Freeloader and other impossibly funny characters on his show” (Raleigh Register).

[9] “Red Skelton Show Returns to TV; Marie, Marilyn Are Guest Stars,” The Daily Herald (Provo, UT), September 30, 1957, 23, accessed Newspapers.com; “Tops in Viewing,” The Greenwood Commonwealth (Mississippi), November 9, 1966, 6, accessed Newspapers.com; Phil Smith, “Red Skelton’s Stock Is Placed in Hats,” The Jackson Sun (Tennessee), May 10, 1968, 26, accessed Newspapers.com.

One of Skelton’s comedic trademarks was his ability to assume the role of various characters on the radio and television. The Jackson Sun contended that “Few, if any comedians have ever created a larger, more popular one-man stock company of comic characters than has Red Skelton.” These characters, often conceived from observation, included Freddie the Freeloader, Willie Lump, Junior the Mean Widdle Kid, Sheriff Deadeye and Clem Kadiddlehopper. The Jackson Sun noted that “Most of the characters have been with Skelton since his radio days and have undergone subtle changes through the years. Television has given them extra dimension because Skelton is essentially a visual comedian, with extraordinary skill at mimicry and pantomime.”

[10] “Red Skelton Pledges Allegiance,” The Daily Herald (Provo, UT), February 10, 1969, 15, accessed Newspapers.com; “Pledge of Allegiance Becomes Radio Hit,” Fort Lauderdale News, March 1, 1969, 24, accessed Newspapers.com; “Red Skelton’s Pledge,” The Call-Leader (Elwood, IN), June 28, 1970, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; Gehring, 295-296.

On Skelton’s January 14, 1969 television broadcast, the performer delivered an interpretation of the Pledge of Allegiance, beginning:

“I-me, an individual, a committee of one.”
“Pledge-dedicate all of my worldly goods to give without self-pity”
“Allegiance-my love and my devotion . . . ”

Delivered during a period of protest to the Vietnam War and following the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., his patriotic recitation was immediately popular with the public. The Daily Herald reported that the pledge “produced thousands of letters and phone calls during the week following its broadcast. The public’s reaction was unanimous in congratulating the comedian for one of the season’s most memorable moments.” The Fort Lauderdale News noted that the pledge became a radio hit, was read into the Congressional Record, and his production company received 200,000 requests for copies. In 1970, he recited it before a crowd of more than 350,000 people attending an “Honor America Day” event. Gehring concluded that the pledge “became a resume item for Skelton, from spawning a minor hit spoken record, to sometimes being included in his concert material.”

[11] “Richard Red Skelton,” California, Death Index, 1940-1997 (Sacramento, CA), State of California Department of Health Services, Center for Health Statistics, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; John Horn, “Red Skelton: What a Character,” Indianapolis Star, September 17, 1997, 1-2, accessed Newspapers.com.

Skelton passed away in Riverside, California on September 17, 1997. Newspapers across the country mourned his death and celebrated his life. In an obituary about the clown, the New York Times described the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame inductee as a “master of mime and clowning whose gently humor captivated generations of Americans.”

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