Celebrating 20th century clown Red Skelton

By Bill Brioux

For 20 years, he was one of the biggest stars on television. Today, however, more than two decades after his death, this beloved comedian is but a name from the past to most viewers under 40.

The star in question is Red Skelton, one of the most famous performers of the 20th century. Those of us who grew up watching him on television still smile at the memory of his signature characters: the seagulls Gertrude and Heathcliffe; slow-witted bumpkin Clem Kadiddlehopper and classic clown Freddie the Freeloader. That many of his skits were performed in pantomime further endeared him to those of us who pleaded to stay up late enough to hear him say his signature phrase at the end of each show, “Good night and may God bless.”

Skelton was such an important star at CBS in the ‘50s and ‘60s that he was given the rare honour of being able to drive in and park his car right inside Television City — the American network’s iconic, cube-shaped main studio. He enjoyed great success in radio, feature films, television and on vaudeville stages — some years, juggling two or three of those achievements simultaneously.

Yet, more than 20 years after his death at 84 in 1997, few under 40 have ever heard of him. In 1970, after 19 consecutive years as a TV headliner, CBS dumped his top-rated variety show in a network sweep of older-skewing fare. Two other long-running variety shows headed by Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan also felt the sting of the CBS axe.

Skelton soldiered on for one last season on NBC before his 20-year TV run finally ended. By the mid-‘70s, as edgier shows such as “Saturday Night Live” stole the comedy spotlight, Skelton’s broader brand of humour seemed out of step with a brash new generation of comedy turks.

Of late, however, the comedian’s star seems to be on the rise. Credit for helping restore Skelton’s reputation and introduce him to a whole new generation must go to The Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy. Open to the public, it stands on the campus of Vincennes University in Indiana, in the Hoosier town where Skelton was born Richard Bernard Skelton in 1913.

Curator Mark Kratzner says that — after a great deal of fundraising — the museum opened five years ago on what would have been Skelton’s 100th birthday. Much of the collection of sketches, photographs, props and costumes were donated by Skelton’s widow, third wife Lothian.

“We get a steady stream of visitors, some of them crossing the border from Canada,” says Kratzner, who points out that it was on Canadian stages where Skelton got his biggest early break.

Back when he was performing with first wife Edna (who had a hand in writing his early material), Skelton was booked into Montreal’s famed Lido Club. He and Edna became a must-see act there, leading to bookings across Canada. 

The pair perfected a new “Doughnut Dunkers” routine, a bit that got them a key gig in Washington, where Skelton was billed, says Kratzner, as “this sensational new comedian from Canada.”

The lanky red-head was partially to blame when his star began to dim in the ‘70s. Bitter after being cast aside by CBS despite high overall ratings, Skelton threatened to keep his video legacy locked up in the vault. While some episodes eventually were released in home formats (and can be seen at the museum), his old shows did not get the rerun exposure they could have enjoyed.

In his later years, Skelton became better known as an artist, painting countless clown portraits. They turned out to be best sellers and prints are still popular items at the museum.  

There were also memorable guest appearances on “The Tonight Show” starring Johnny Carson (the late night host was a former writer for the comedian) and The Academy Awards. And there was also a rare, hour-long TV interview on a Canadian daytime series, “The Dina Petty Show.” On that broadcast, the elder comedian is relaxed, charming and — most importantly — as funny as his fans remembered him.

Finally, Skelton left one last nugget for his Canadian fans. The comedian scored with a recording of the US Pledge of Allegiance — complete with a break down of each word’s meaning — that was solemnly delivered towards the end of his CBS run. Less known is the fact he also recorded a similar salute to his northern neighbours a few years later with a moving reading of the Canadian national anthem. Seems Skelton never forgot those Montreal audiences who stood on guard for thee, or he, in the 1930s.