Childhood & Early Life
Richard Bernard ‘Red’ Skelton was born on 18 July 1913, to circus clown, Joseph E. Skelton and house help, Ida Mae, in Vincennes, Indiana.
Due to the early death of his father he started working as a newspaper boy at the age of seven.
In 1923, fate played its cards when Ed Wynn, a comedian, bought all the papers from Skelton and offered to take him backstage for a show in town. It was during this time he realized that he wanted a career in showbiz.
He dropped out of school and became an expert performer, working in showboats and the local vaudeville circuit.
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After he got married, he and his wife began to put together the famous ‘Doughnut Dunkers’ acts, which gained them popularity and earned them a number of shows throughout Canada.
In 1932, he gave a failed screen test, which was his first connection with Hollywood. Five years later, he made his film debut in the role of a camp counselor in the movie ‘Having Wonderful Time’.
He made his first appearance on radio on ‘The Rudy Vallee Show’ on August 12, 1937. He became so popular, that he was invited for two more segments on the show. The following year, he substituted Red Foley as the host of ‘Avalon Time’ on NBC.
In 1941, he went on air, hosting his own show, ‘The Raleigh Cigarettes Program’, where he introduced his first character ‘Clem Kaddiddlehopper’. The next year, he starred in the films ‘Ship Ahoy’, ‘Maisie Gets Her Man’, ‘Panama Hattie’ and ‘Whistling in Dixie’.
From 1943 to 1946, he starred in a string of comedy films, ‘I Dood It’, ‘Whistling in Brooklyn’, ‘Bathing Beauty’ and ‘The Show-Off’. He also lent his voice for the short-film, ‘Radio Bugs’. During this time, he also began producing art work, but he kept it a secret.
In 1947, he was seen in the film adaptation of ‘Merton of the Movies’. The same year, he was seen in two short-subjects, ‘Weekend in Hollywood’ and ‘The Luckiest Guy in the World’; he lent his voice for the latter.
After his contract with MGM ended in 1951, he was signed a contract with NBC. He stated that he wanted to play the same characters he played on radio, on television as well. The next year, he became extremely famous with his portrayal of the clown in ‘Freddie the Freeloader’.
He switched to the CBS network in 1953–54, where he remained for nearly two decades. During this time, he also starred in the films, ‘The Clown’, ‘Half a Hero’, ‘The Great Diamond Robbery’ and ‘Susan Slept Here’.
By 1959, he became the only comedian with a regularly planned weekly TV show.
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In 1962, he was given a full hour on the CBS network titled, ‘The Red Skelton Hour’, which consistently had high TRP’s on both NBC and CBS. Three years later, ‘Red Skelton’s Favorite Ghost Stories’ was published.
In 1969, he performed a self-written soliloquy about the ‘Pledge of Allegiance’. The next year, after one of his shows on NBC was cancelled, he never returned to television. He continued to entertain audiences with live performances.
In 1976, he appeared in the stop-motion animated film, ‘Rudolph’s Shiny New Year’ as the narrator and as ‘Baby Bear’.
In 1981, he made an HBO Special, ‘Freddie the Freeloader’s Christmas Dinner’ and three years later, he performed at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The same year, the books, ‘The Ventriloquist’ and ‘Old Whitey’ were published.
Towards the end of his life, Red Skelton stated that his daily routine involved writing a short-story a day. He kept himself busy by performing in nightclubs, casinos and other prestigious venues such as the Carnegie Hall.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1931, he married Edna Stillwell, his first wife. They divorced in 1943.
In 1945, he married Georgia Davis and they went on to have two children; Richard and Valentina. However, Richard passed away due to leukemia, when he was a young boy, which left Skelton devastated. The couple divorced in 1971.
He married Lothian Toland in 1973. The couple lived together till his death.
Apart from being a comedian, he also created background music which he sent to corporations like ‘Muzak’. He was also interested in painting and photography. He loved horses and reared quarter horses at his ranch.
He passed away on 17 September 1997, due to pneumonia, and is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Glendale, California.
The ‘Red Skelton Performing Arts Center’ was established in 2006 in his honor. The next year, the historic Pantheon Theater in Vincennes was named after Red Skelton.