The character actor has a special talent…the ability to wrap a unique persona around a role to give it a dimension, depth and mood soon identified with that actor alone. In the golden age of film, stars brought the audiences to the theater but often it was the character actors who kept them in their seats.
1913 - 1997
America's Clown Prince
One of America's greatest storytellers, Red Skelton loved to make people laugh and laugh with them. Born into a very poor and very dysfunctional family, he turned his personal tragedies into gentle humor that he shared with the world at large. He once admitted to a reporter that he was above all a storyteller. “That's my trouble. If you want a story...talk to me. If you want the facts...talk to Edna (his manager, co-writer and first wife).” The “story” of his early life was just that and, until his private papers were presented to the Vincennes University, the real life of Richard Bernard Skelton had never been told.
Red's childhood home
He was born in Vicennes, Indiana on July 18, 1913 just two months after the death of his father, Joseph Elmer Skelton. History had repeated itself because Joseph never knew his father either. When Joseph Skelton died he left a wife, Ida Mae and three sons. Ida Mae was 7 months pregnant with their fourth child but it is possible that the baby died in childbirth. Across town a woman called Lillian, a prostitute, was also pregnant with Joseph's child and gave birth within days of Ida Skelton. Red believed Lillian was his biological mother. Lillian died shortly after the birth and Ida Mae took the child as her own. But the story takes even a stranger turn. The madam of the brothel where Lillian worked was Joseph's mother, Ella.
Ida Mae took in laundry and cleaned houses to feed her children. But the wolf was not only at the door but had one paw inside. Poverty was a word Red would know intimately. By the age of 7 he was selling newspapers on the street corner then graduated to racking balls at the pool hall and selling sandwiches on the local passenger train. “My family was hungry and I had to make money somehow”. And there were other problems in Red's young life....the taunting of his schoolmates because of his patched, mismatched clothes and bright red hair. Even his half-brothers told him that he didn't “belong”. Red, in turn, found his childhood friends among those who were also “on the outside looking in”.
Red and Edna Stillwell Skelton at home
While there was no record that Red's father had ever been a clown, there is no doubt that Red believed it. The circus and circus clowns were an obsession with him and any time a circus came to town, Red was first in line. At age 15, he joined the “Doc” Lewis Patent Medicine Show that toured the the small towns of middle America. He also fell in love for the first time with a pretty hometown girl named Velma Thompson. Her parents soon broke up the romance on the premise that Red “had no future”. So he went back on the road in any show he could find...vaudeville, burlesque, showboats, minstrels and, of course, circuses. Then, in 1930, he met and married Edna Stillwell. She was just 16 and he was a month shy of 18. Red always claimed if it hadn't been for Edna, he would have ended up a bum. She joined his act first as his stooge, then his money manager and finally his sketch writer. The marriage lasted 13 years but the business arrangement lasted longer. Edna remained his manager and writer and Red credited her with much of his success.
Red finally hit the big time in 1937 when he made his debut in radio and on Broadway. In 1938 he made his first film “Having a Wonderful Time” for RKO but the movie was a dud and Red's career hit a bump in the road. He did his “Guzzler's Gin” sketch for a MGM screen test. Studio execs liked it so well they picked him up to add a little levity to their “Dr. Kildare” medical series and kept him around for comedy features and musicals. Red (and Edna) insisted that any contract with MGM had to give Red the freedom to do radio and television. Louis B. Mayer agreed to the radio but had second thoughts about television now slowly developing its own “roar”. Red never really got that until he renegotiated the MGM contract in 1951 after Mayer resigned. However, the screen test sketch showed up in the 1945 film “Ziegfeld Follies”.
A star's dressing room
In October, 1941 Red got a radio program of his own backed up by Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard who was the vocalist on the show (the Nelsons would later have a very successful show called Adventures of
Ozzie and Harriet). Skelton performed what he called his “picture-oriented” sketches....the kind of material “listening audiences” could visualize. His characters came to life for them...the singing cab driver Clem Kadiddlehopper, the punch drunk boxer Cauliflower McPugg, con man San Fernando Red, inebriated Willie Lump Lump, the cross-eyed eagles, Gertrude and Heathcliff and, of course, Junior the “mean widdle kid”. He also made “Whistling in the Dark” for MGM, a box office hit that spawned two sequels “Whistling in Dixie” and “Whistling in Brooklyn”.
He's in the Army now!
The Skeltons divorced in 1943 but Edna remained his business partner until 1952, a problem that scuttled one of Red's remarriage plans and complicated the other. It also made unmarried Red 1-A and he was drafted in 1944. He insisted he wanted to be a regular buck private and began intensive training for the field artillery at Camp Roberts, California. But Red forgot to drop his other job and spent all his free time entertaining the troops. He did manage a few hours to romance starlet Georgia Davis and married her just before he went overseas. But a bad sea trip on top of all that training and entertaining took more of him than he was able to give. Shortly after reaching the Italian war zone, Red had a complete collapse. After a hospital stay, he came home to recuperate at Camp Picket in Blackstone, Virginia. He also went back to his other passion... painting. Both wives, past and present traveled together to visit him.
In May, 1947, Georgia and Red had their first child, a girl they named Valentina Marie. Edna broke the news to the press. In May ,1948 they repeated the event with the birth of a son, Richard Freeman Skelton. It is probable that Edna sent out that press release, too.
Now married to director Frank Borzage, Edna was still totally immersed in the everyday management of Red's career. So much so that any family gathering where business was discussed, Edna was there. Once Red decided to buy mink coats (identical) for both his manager and his wife as Christmas presents. As money manager, Edna had to approve the purchase.
F(red)die and Georgia
Red was booked to play the Palladium in London in July, 1951 but decided to entertain the troops in West Germany and France as well. Georgia went along while the children stayed home. Edna stayed home, too. The commercial airliner ran into mechanical problems over the Alps and had to lose altitude and jettison fuel in the event of a forced landing. There was a Jesuit priest in the Skelton Party, Father Edward Carney. “Okay, Red, you take care of your department and I'll take care of mine.” The priest gave last rites and then turned it over to Red who spent 35 minutes of pantomime and patter to 54 very frightened passengers. Newsweek called it “the performance of his life”. They all landed safely and Skelton was a gigantic hit in London.
Skelton, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson
It was NBC who first invited Red to the small screen and he took all his radio characters with him while adding one more....Freddie the Freeloader who reminded everyone of the great clown Emmett Kelly. At first the shows were done live but later NBC allowed Red to film the shows. It eased the wear and tear on the comedian. In 1952 Skelton took home an Emmy for Best Comedy Show. When NBC decided to drop the show Red picked up all his marbles and moved to CBS.
Things weren't going well on the home front and Red and Georgia were fighting in public. Georgia was drinking and, more often than not, Red was joining her. One big divide was Red's insistence that they try to convince Edna to come back as his manager. They reconciled when Red was hospitalized for surgery on his diaphragm but it was like a patchwork quilt. You could still see the sore spots. Things eased up a bit after a hugely successful Las Vegas show in July, 1953 and a new lucrative CBS contract.
But his movie career was winding down. After 1953 Red had only one starring role (“Public Pigeon #1” 1957). Television handed him another nemesis....the increasingly popular Western. By 1957 “Gunsmoke” and “Have Gun, Will Travel” had comedy shows in their gun sights.
“See-It-All” tour with Red, Georgia. Valentina and Richard
In January, 1957 Red and Georgia learned that their 9 year old son Richard had leukemia. They had no chance to keep the news from Richard because it had already reached the press. Red planned a “See-It-All” tour for the family before Richard got too ill to travel but the tour ended early because the press began making a spectacle out of it.
Richard died on May 10th, 1958 less than two weeks before his 10th birthday. He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Red asked that everything in his room be left exactly as it was when he died. He went back to work but Georgia was left at home to grieve alone. Skelton stopped drinking hard liquor and never touched it again but Georgia just added prescription drugs to the mix. Finally, in 1962, Red moved his family to Palm Springs but he kept both houses.
He was doing a show at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas on July 20th, 1966 when Georgia “accidentally” shot herself with a .38-caliber handgun while in their suite. The family realized it was a suicide attempt but said nothing. The press probably recognized it, too but also said nothing. Georgia saw a psychiatrist for a short time then discontinued treatment.
One of Red's paintings
By 1970 both Red 's television career and his marriage were over. CBS, in an attempt to attract younger viewers (as they still do today), canceled “The Red Skelton Show” after the 1969-1970 season along with “Petticoat Junction”, “Green Acres” and “Beverly Hillbillies”. They kept “Gunsmoke”. A brief move to NBC kept Red alive for one more season and then it was all over. He went back to doing live shows in nightclubs, casinos and resorts. He even did Carnegie Hall. And when he wasn't performing...he painted clowns!
The Red Skelton Performing Arts Center
at Vincennes University.
In 1973 Red married Lothian Toland, 25 years his junior. Lothian was the daughter of famous cinematographer Greg Toland. The marriage estranged him from first his daughter Valentina Skelton Alonso and then his granddaughter, Sabrina but they finally resolved their differences. Georgia Davis Skelton took her own life on May 10, 1976 the 18th anniversary of her son's dealth. Edna Stillwell Skelton Borzage Pound died of cancer on February 11, 1982 Red Skelton, 84, died of pneumonia on September 17, 1997. He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park next to his son, Richard.
“ Red, to my mind, is the most unacclaimed clown in show business. With one prop, a soft battered hat, he successfully converted himself into an idiot boy, a peevish old lady, a teetering-tottering drunk, a tramp and any other character that seemed to suit his fancy”
The circus! The magical city
That appears and disappears with the bat of an eye.
A cathedral for children and adults
Made of canvas and trimmed with red wagons.
A sunburst of wheel, pink lemonade and cotton candy.
A temple housing the unity of man and beast...
All performing for the good of their fellow man
With shouts of glory.
The performers’ only reward is the echo of the applause
And laughter of children.
It cradles them to sleep.
As the red wagons roll from city to city.
The clown hides his sorrows behind a mask --
Sometimes grotesque, sometimes sad,
but always with a whimsy that is an encouragement
That makes any deformity of life seem minute.
A lesson in humanity, where man and beast risk life
and limb for the meager reward of applause.
How sad it would be if my youth would pass away
And not see the beauty of the big red wagons,
And taste the rare vintage of pink lemonade!
Or become so blasé’ that I couldn’t offer a silent prayer
For the man on the flying trapeze,
Or sigh as I watch him swing to and fro.
I see my own life in motion like the pendulum
On the huge clock that ticks away life.
Oh, keep me young without prejudices.
Without haste, so that I will be young.
So that my heart will be filled with glee
Next year, when the big red wagons roll in again!
To me, a great clown said that—my Dad.