America’s Clown Prince, Richard Bernard Skelton was born on this day, July 18, 1913. Affectionately known throughout the world simply as Red, if you are old enough to recollect him from television or radio, you remember him as Red Skelton.
Born the son of a circus clown with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus turned grocer and a cleaning woman, Red Skelton was introduced to showbiz at the age of seven by Ed Wynn, at a vaudeville show in Vincennes, the town of his birth. At 10, he left home to travel with a medicine show through the Midwest, and joined the vaudeville circuit at 15.
At 17 he married Edna Marie Stilwell, an usher who became his vaudeville partner and later his chief writer and manager.
In 1937 Red debuted on Broadway and radio and in 1938 on film.
His ex-wife/ manager negotiated a seven-year Hollywood contract for him in 1951, the same year “The Red Skelton Hour” (1951) premiered on NBC.
For two decades, until 1971, his show consistently stayed in the top twenty, both on NBC and CBS. His numerous characters, including Clem Kaddiddlehopper, George Appleby, and the seagulls Gertrude and Heathcliffe delighted audiences for decades.
In 1971, following a successful 30 year run on CBS (often placing among the top ten shows) his ratings finally slipped and “The Red Skelton Hour” (1951) was quickly canceled by the network. He never forgave them. Television historians have long suspected that he was a victim of the 1971 television purge that took place after the success of “All in the Family” (1968) wherein CBS rid itself of all “nice shows” and “rural shows” in favor of shows with edgier subject matter.
He was extremely offended by “blue humor” and publicly made note of any comedian who used it because he felt that it cheapened the art of comedy. He very closely observed every skit that went on his show to make sure that it could not be twisted into a double double entendre.
First and foremost, Red Skelton considered himself a clown, although not the greatest, and his paintings of clowns brought in a fortune after he left television.
His home life wasn’t completely happy–two divorces and a son Richard who died of leukemia at age nine– and he didn’t hang around with other comedians. He continued performing live until illness, and he was a longtime supporter of children’s charities.
He was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Radio at 6763 Hollywood Boulevard and for Television at 6650 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California.
1902 – Chill Wills (actor: Billy the Kid, McClintock, Giant, The Yearling, Tarzan’s New York Adventure, The Wheeler Dealers; died Dec 15, 1978)
1911 – Hume Cronyn (Blake) (actor: Sunrise at Campobello, The Seventh Cross, Cocoon, The Four Poster, Fox Fire, The Gin Game; Jessica Tandy’s husband; died June 15, 2003)
1913 – Marvin Miller (Mueller) (actor: Kiss Daddy Goodbye, Red Planet Mars; died Feb 8, 1985)
1940 – James Brolin (Bruderlin) (actor: Hotel, Marcus Welby, M.D., Angel Falls, Westworld, Von Ryan’s Express, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Fantastic Voyage, The Boston Strangler, The Amityville Horror; married to singer/actress, Barbra Streisand)
1956 – Audrey Landers (actress: Dallas, Somerset, California Casanova)
1961 – Elizabeth McGovern (actress: Ordinary People, Racing with the Moon, The Bedroom Window)
1962 – Lee Arenberg (actor: Cradle Will Rock, Robocop 3, Waterworld, Bob Roberts, The Apocalypse, Cross My Heart, Dungeons & Dragons)