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About Richard Bernard Skelton
A vaudeville and burlesque performer who worked his way up from the bottom of the rung clubs and show boats to play the Paramount Theatre in NYC, Red Skelton entered films in 1938 and went on to appear in some two dozen musicals and comedies through the 1940s, mostly for MGM. Skelton, who had his own radio show from 1941-53, embraced TV in 1950 and gained his greatest fame there, showcasing his gift for pantomime and his memorable characterizations, such as Freddy the Freeloader, on the long-running "The Red Skelton Show" which ran on NBC from 1951-53, then on CBS from 1953-70, and finally on NBC for its last year 1970-71.
He was born Richard Bernard Skelton on July 18, 1913 in Vincennes, Indiana, the son of Joseph E. Skelton (1878–1913), who died in 1913 shortly before the birth of his son, and Ida (née Fields) Skelton (1884–1967). In Skelton's lifetime there was some dispute about the year of his birth. Biographer Arthur Marx reported (from second hand information) that Skelton may have been born as early as 1906, and the year 1910 was sometimes cited as the year of his birth. In a People Magazine article in 1979, Skelton admitted that he fudged about his age, and was quoted as saying he was "in his seventies."
His mother, left with four boys to raise on her own, worked as a cleaning woman and an elevator operator. She taught her son Red (nicknamed for his bright red hair) to appreciate art and gave him tickets to vaudeville shows. As Red Skelton later said, "Mom used to say I didn't run away from home. My destiny just caught up with me at an early age." The person most responsible for Red Skelton's involvement in the theater, however, was the famous actor and comedian, Ed Wynn. Wynn came to Vincennes in 1923 to put on a show, and spotted the 10-year-old Red Skelton selling newspapers on the street, to help support his family. Ed Wynn went up to him, bought all his newspapers and invited him to the show. He took Red Skelton backstage where he introduced the slack-jawed Red Skelton to everyone and let him look through the peephole at the audience filing in. Red Skelton fell in love with show business at that moment, which changed his life forever.
At the age of 15, Red Skelton left home to perform with a traveling medicine show, and went on to perform in showboats, minstrel shows, vaudeville, burlesque, and circuses -- including the Hagenbeck & Wallace Circus where his father had performed. In 1930, Red Skelton met his first wife, Edna Marie Stillwell, while performing in Kansas City. They married a year later, and she became his partner in vaudeville, as well as manager and writer. Even though they divorced 13 years later, Edna remained his chief writer -- Red Skelton stated that Edna was responsible for much of his success, having "brought me up from $50 a week to $7,500 a week."
After years of preparation in vaudeville, burlesque, dance marathons and virtually every other venue available, Red Skelton made his debut on both radio and Broadway in 1937. The next year, he made his movie debut, "Having A Wonderful Time." Red Skelton went on to make over 40 movies for MGM during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1945, he married again, to Georgia Davis. This marriage lasted for 28 years, and resulted in the births of his son Richie and his daughter Valentina. Richie, unfortunately, died of leukemia in childhood, a blow that devastated the family.
Red Skelton's radio show, named naturally enough "The Red Skelton Show," ran from 1941 to 1953. On it, he used his own unique brand of comedy, as well as performing comedy skits involving some of his most popular clown characters, including Clem Kadiddlehopper, the slow-witted country bumpkin, Willy Lump Lump, a drunken sot, Cauliflower McPugg, a punch-drunk boxer, The Mean Widdle Kid, who's most famous expression, "I Dood It," became a national slogan, San Fernando Red, a likable rogue and con man, and his famous cross-eyed seagulls, Gertrude and Heathcliffe. His most famous character, the tramp clown Freddy the Freeloader, awaited the advent of his television show in 1951.
Red Skelton's television show finished fourth in the ratings in its' first year, and became even more popular over time. In 1953, it won the Emmy Award for Best Comedy Show. It later moved from NBC to CBS, and won another Emmy Award in 1961 for Outstanding Writing Achievement. At the end of each episode of his television show, Red Skelton would sign off with "Good night and God bless." In 1970, CBS cancelled the show, due to rising production costs and a desire to appeal to a higher class of advertisers. Red Skelton was deeply wounded by the cancellation, and never truly overcame the hurt. In 1986, when he accepted the Governor's Award of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences at the Emmy Awards Show, after receiving a standing ovation, Red Skelton told the audience, "I want to thank you for sitting down, I thought you were pulling a CBS and walking out on me."
The Red Skelton Show returned to NBC in 1970, but was unable to regain its' former success, and was cancelled in 1971. This ended the second-longest run in television history for a television series. After the end of his television series, Red Skelton returned to performing for live audiences, now at clubs, resorts and casinos. In the early 1980s, he performed at Carnegie Hall, and several of his live performances are now available as part of the "Funny Faces" video series. In addition, Red Skelton had nurtured a lifelong interest in painting, with individual paintings fetching in excess of $80,000 -- he estimated that he earned over $2 million per year from his lithographs of clowns.
He was also a very generous man, and established the Red Skelton Foundation in Vincennes, Indiana, which cares for needy children.
Red Skelton died of pneumonia on September 17, 1997 at his home in Rancho Mirage, California, USA.