"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
At the age of 17, Skelton
married Edna Marie Stillwell, an usher who became
his vaudeville partner and later his chief writer
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: 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,
Edna Marie Stillwell, 1930-1943 (divorced)
Georgia Davis, 1945-1971 (divorced)
Lothian Tolan, 1973-his death
Red had one son, Richard, who died of leukemia at
the age of 9.
He was survived by one daughter, Valentina.
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.
Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com/name/nm0804826/
Red Skelton Performing Arts Center
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