Friday, July 18, 2008

WE REMEMBER RED SKELTON




Today would have been the 95th birthday of one of the greatest and most natural clowns of all time-- Red Skelton. As a child, I remember watching this amazingly gifted man create characters and routines that were so very original and incredibly funny. Nobody could mime like Skelton. Born in Vincennes, Indiana, Red was the son of a Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus clown named Joe who died in 1913 shortly before the birth of his son. Skelton himself got one of his earliest tastes of show business with the same circus as a teenager. Before that, however, he had been given the show business bug at age ten by entertainer Ed Wynn, who spotted him selling newspapers in front of the Pantheon Theatre in Vincennes, trying to help his family. After buying every newspaper in Skelton's stock, Wynn took the boy backstage and introduced him to every member of the show with which he was traveling. By age 15, Skelton had hit the road full-time as an entertainer, working everywhere from medicine shows and vaudeville to burlesque, showboats, minstrel shows and circuses. While performing in Kansas City in 1930, Skelton met and married his first wife, Edna Stillwell. The couple divorced 13 years later, but Stillwell remained one of his chief writers. Red Skelton caught his big break in two media at once: radio and film. In 1938 he made his film debut for RKO Radio Pictures, in the supporting role of a camp counselor in Having Wonderful Time, Two short subjects followed for Vitaphone in 1939: Seeing Red and The Bashful Buckaroo. Skelton was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, believe it or not to lend comic relief to its Dr. Kildare medical dramas, but soon he was starring in comedy features (as inept radio detective "The Fox") and in Technicolor musicals. When Skelton signed his long-term contract with MGM in 1940, he insisted on a clause that permitted him to star in not only radio (which he had already done) but on television, which was still in its early years; studio chief Louis B. Mayer agreed to the terms, only to regret it years later when television became a serious threat to the motion picture industry. Many of Red's films, especially the Technicolor musicals, were issued on home video.In 1945, he married Georgia Davis. The couple had two children, Richard and Valentina; but young thirteen year old Richard's childhood death of leukemia devastated the household. Red refused to do "The Mean little Kid" forever after the boy's demise.Red and Georgia divorced in 1971, and he remarried. In 1976, Georgia committed suicide by gunshot. Deeply affected by the loss of his ex-wife, Red would abstain from performing for the next decade and a half, finding solace only in painting clowns.John and I went to Forest Lawn Glendale and saw his grave along with those of George Burns and Gracie Allen (the inscription on the grave now reads "together again') Nat King Cole,(my all time favorite singer) Alan Ladd, Douglas Fairbanks, Chico and Gummo Marx and Larry Fine of the Three Stooges. The one thing that was so impressive was first the Walt Disney grave site where Walt's ashes are (no, he was NEVER frozen) His wife Lillian's ashes are there too. It's in a little garden right off the mausoleum steps. Then we both saw L. Frank Baum's grave. The good soul who gave the world "The Wizard Of Oz" and his many children and his wife Maude. I'm on disability now and had an MRI this week. We'll find out what that says soon. So Happy Birthday Red!. We love you!

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