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"creator" of Clem Kadiddlehopper, Freddy the Freeloader, Willie Lump-Lump, San Fernando Red, etc.
Richard Bernard Skelton was born in Vincennes, Indiana, on July 18, 1913. His father, Joseph Skelton, a former circus clown with the Hagenbeck & Wallace Circus, died two months before he was born; his mother, Ida Mae Skelton, was a cleaning woman. He began working early in life to help his family. At the age of 7 he was a newspaper delivery boy who learned to "sass the customers so that they bought papers to get rid of him." He was first exposed to show business by Ed Wynn, who took him to a vaudeville show in Vincennes.
At age 10, Skelton left home to travel with a medicine show throughout the Midwest. At one show he fell off the stage by accident and broke several bottles of medicine. The accident drew laughter from the audience, and Skelton realized that he could make people laugh easily. He dropped out of school after the seventh grade and auditioned for dramatic roles. At one point he got a job with a stock company, but lost it because he made the audience laugh when they were supposed to take his lines seriously. By the time he was 14, Skelton had performed in rural vaudeville shows and on Captain Happy's Showboat, "The Cotton Blossom," which plied the Ohio and Missouri rivers.
At the age of 17, Skelton married Edna Marie Stillwell, an usher who became his vaudeville partner and later his chief writer and manager.
In 1932, Skelton was given a screen test, but failed it. A few years later he made some comedy reels in New York, but they were never widely circulated. His first big break came in 1937, when he appeared on Rudy Vallee's radio show. People liked him even though they couldn't see him, and Vallee kept inviting him back. He made his film debut at RKO, in Having a Wonderful Time (1938). In 1941, Skelton appeared in The People vs. Dr. Kildare and Whistling in the Dark. The success of the latter film led to his own radio show, "Red Skelton's Scrapbook of Satire."
Edna Skelton (whom he had divorced in 1943) negotiated a seven-year Hollywood contract for him in 1951, the same year "The Red Skelton Show" debuted on NBC (later moved to CBS), and it was this show that would make Skelton a household name. A show full of pratfalls, pungent one-liners and comic characterizations of everything from bumbling yokels to a couple of seagulls named Gertrude and Heathcliffe, "The Red Skelton Show" introduced a plethora of familiar characters to American audiences, including (below, left to right): Clem Kadiddlehopper, a slow-witted hayseed; Freddy the Freeloader, a silent tramp; the Mean Widdle Kid, an impish prankster; the inebriated Willie Lump-Lump; and the self-promoting San Fernando Red. Every episode ended with his trademark line "Good night, and God bless." Although the show never ranked below the Top 20 in the ratings and was No. 5 in 1972, CBS ordered it canceled that year, saying that the "vintage acts" did not appeal to younger viewers.
As if to prove CBS wrong, Skelton took his act to college campuses, where he consistently drew enthusiastic audiences of young people. He never got another regular television show, but he refused to retire. In 1989, he was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame.
Red Skelton died at a hospital in Rancho Mirage, California, on September 17, 1997. He is interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Glendale, California.
In his spare time, Skelton did paintings of clown faces that fetched $80,000 and more apiece. He estimated that he earned over $2.5 million a year selling lithographs.
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This page was last updated on 06/07/2017.