Biography of Red Skelton (July 18, 1913 – September 17, 1997)
“If some day you’re not feeling well, you should remember some little thing I have said or done and if it brings a smile to your face or a chuckle to your heart then my purpose as a clown has been fulfilled.” — Red Skelton
Red Skelton, America’s greatest clown (in my humble opinion) has passed away. The great comedian has, thankfully, left a large body of work behind in the form of The Red Skelton Show, movies, songs, radio shows, records, books, paintings, etc. At the bottom of this page you will find many Red Skelton resources.
Biography of Red Skelton
Richard “Red” Bernard Skelton was born in Vincennes, Indiana. His father, Joe, who died two months before his birth, was a former clown with the Hagenbeck & Wallace Circus. Before Red Skelton had turned sixteen, he had also clowned in this same show, and acted, sang, or did stand up comedy in medicine shows, minstrel shows, and on board a river showboat. Years later, Red Skelton wrote the poem “The Circus” in honor of his father.
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.
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. Read a story of Red Skelton’s concern for a sick child for a story about Red, his son Richard who died of leukemia as a child, and how Red Skelton reached out to help another child.
As part of Red Skelton’s Funny Faces video, Red Skelton had this to say about Freddie the Freeloader:
“I get asked all the time; Where did you get the idea for Freddie the Freeloader, and who is Freddie really?
Well, I guess you might say that Freddie the Freeloader is a little bit of you, and a little bit of me, a little bit of all of us, you know.
He’s found out what love means. He knows the value of time. He knows that time is a glutton. We say we don’t have time to do this or do that. There’s plenty of time. The trick is to apply it. The greatest disease in the world today is procrastination.
And Freddie knows about all these things. And so do you.
He doesn’t ask anybody to provide for him, because it would be taken away from you. He doesn’t ask for equal rights if it’s going to give up some of yours.
And he knows one thing … that patriotism is more powerful than guns.
He’s nice to everybody because he was taught that man is made in GodÃs image. He’s never met God in person and the next fella just might be him.
I would say that Freddie is a little bit of all of us.”
Red Skelton was inducted into the Clown Hall of Fame in 1989.
Red Skelton died of pneumonia on September 17, 1997, at his home in Rancho Mirage, California, USA.
Editor’s note: Originally published at Red Skelton, used with permission.