Whoever successfully argued for Red Skelton as the recipient of the Governor’s Award at this year’s Emmys--presented Sunday night in Pasadena--is responsible for an intriguing bit of business.
As far as television is concerned, Skelton has been washed up for 16 years. In contemporary videoland, he’s a non-person.
The choice of Skelton for the highest tribute presented by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is the choice for someone who keeps a more shadowy media profile than, say, Bob Hope, George Burns or even Lucille Ball. But it represents a rare and wholly welcome acknowledgment of an authentic comedy genius, who remains a hero in the American heartland.
At 73, Skelton is out on the road 75 times a year, playing state fairs, colleges and conventions. His only entourage consists of Clem Kadiddlehopper, Gertrude and Heathcliff, his lonely old man on New Year’s Eve, and several other originals of his creation.
Otherwise, he travels virtually alone (his agent and musical director catch up with him close to show time) arriving in town two or three days early to visit local shopping malls, as he did in Hutchinson, Kan., recently, acting as an unofficial advance man for himself.
The moment he stepped out of his hotel room, people recognized him and stopped him for an autograph or an acknowledgement. Skelton always responded. He was smiling, upbeat, just this side of silly.
A young woman in the lobby stopped him and said “Oh, Mr. Skelton, you’re the grandfather I never had.” When he found out she teaches swimming, he said “I told Esther Williams I’d take her to Venice and make a street walker out of her.”
“You’re the greatest thing we ever saw,” said a permed, portly, white-haired woman in a pink pant suit. “Yes, those were the good old days,” Skelton said. “The nights weren’t bad, either.”
A mother and daughter asked him to pose for a photograph. A trio of state troopers stood in the lobby. He grabbed a walkie-talkie from one of them and answered the crackly voice inside. There was a pause. Then, the disembodied voice squawked, “I remember you!”
“Will I do better than Willie Nelson?” Skelton asked.
“We’re going to have a good crowd for ya,” the voice answered.
To the group of people beginning to assemble, Skelton said, “Willie Nelson asked me what to do about getting bigger crowds. ‘Get your voice taken out of your nose and grafted in your throat.’ I told him, ‘If you ever blow your nose you’re out of business.’ ”
At Hutchinson’s main mall, photograph hounds clustered around him. “I saw you in a bank in Denver five years ago,” one person said. “You signed the teller’s tie.”
“You’re getting a fan club here,” someone else said. “On a day like today (referring to the late summer Kansas heat) a fan comes in handy.”
Many of the people in the crowd were of an age to remember Skelton’s television variety show, which lasted from 1952 to 1970, or his movies (he made 48). Some might even recall his radio show before that. Probably no one saw him when he was a vaudeville headliner at the Paramount Theater in New York, or in his stint as a walkathon emcee.
Skelton is one of the few living figures who grew up with show business in the 20th Century.
“I’ve been in every facet of entertainment except the carnival and grand opera,” he said on another occasion at his Rancho Mirage office. “My mother once said, ‘Destiny caught up with you at an early age.’ ”
Destiny did--Skelton went off to join a medicine show at the age of 10 (“It was a platform show they set up to sell their products. It’s called television now”) and destiny held him in a kind of freeze frame. The boy has remained a powerful precursor of the man.
To this day he remains partly unconvinced of the magnitude of his talent, as if he hasn’t been around long enough for the meaning of success to sink in. He’s irrepressibly eager to please his public--aside from his comedic skills, it’s his unguarded hunger for affection that makes people want to protect him. That’s one of the qualities, along with his masculine size and knockabout good looks, that made him in his movie roles a plausible romantic figure as well as a clown.
He’s never lost his boyish capacity to be wounded. The loneliness, uncertainty (“I’ve been stranded everywhere, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago--you name it”) and harrowing poverty of his youth made their mark on him.
That, and more than the usual share of melancholy events in his life--including the death from leukemia of his only son at the age of 10 and the subsequent suicide of his second wife--exacerbated the tensions of an innately complex character.
He’s both gregarious and guarded, sentimental and sardonic, straight-laced and bawdy, close with a dollar and prodigiously generous, (he reportedly once gave away his Rolls-Royce to a friend who admired it), a chronic life of the party whose fame as a painter has been achieved through his preoccupation with the sadness of clowns.
In conversation, Skelton is hard to pin down. Had Sartre been American he might have written about Skelton the way he wrote about Jean Genet in Paris as someone re-creating himself in a perpetual present. Virtually all of Skelton’s social transactions are conducted in terms of mirth, as if too much were lurking in the shadows. His conversation is made up mostly of jokes and anecdotes that displace and even occasionally distort facts and sequential events. (He disavows the single biography about him, an unauthorized but well-researched book by Arthur Marx, whom Skelton calls ‘Karl’.)
There is also the occasional tacit revelation: He pointed to a small chipped statue of Christ he’d placed atop his hotel TV. “That’s my sacred heart,” he said. “It belonged to my mother. I’ve carry it wherever I go since I was a boy.”
During a morning spent with him at Rancho Mirage, this much narrative could be pieced together.
“I grew up in Vincennes, Ind. My father had died in May of the year I was born, and I was born in July. He had been a clown in the Hagenbeck and Wallace Traveling Circus before he became a lawyer. His law career was very short. He handled only one case, successfully, but in the course of it he became convinced that his client was guilty, and quit as soon as the trial was over. He later started a chain of grocery stores.
“My mother couldn’t read or write. She worked as an elevator operator and charwoman to support me and my three brothers. She got us tickets to B. F. Keith’s in Indianapolis to keep us out of trouble. I watched the act and made up my mind that that’s what I wanted to do.
“Ed Wynn was responsible for my start. In 1923 he came to Vincennes to do a show. I was selling newspapers in the street when this man came up and asked me if I wanted to see the show. I said I couldn’t. I had to sell my papers. He bought them all and told me to meet him at the theater. I showed up. He met me out front with a ticket. It was Wynn himself.
“He took me back, introduced me to everyone, showed me the footlights. I looked out through the peep hole at the audience coming in and fell in love with show business. ‘Just do comedy,’ he said.”
Skelton has a long memory for kindnesses as well as slights. Years later, Wynn was so terrified of doing his first dramatic role in “Requiem for a Heavyweight” on TV, that one day he became too drunk to film the part. Skelton, now an established success, had vouched for Wynn to the producers and even promised to go on for him if necessary. In the meantime, he walked Wynn around the studio parking lot to sober him up and stood by him while he managed the role.
Skelton doesn’t tell how much he went to bat for Wynn. He only talks of the parking-lot segment, at the end of which he said to Wynn fondly, “Just do comedy.”
From the medicine show, Skelton joined the John Lawrence Stock Company. He worked with the Hagenbeck & Wallace Circus, then with the Goldenwood Showboat on the Mississippi River. From there he went into burlesque, vaudeville, Walkathon, back to vaudeville as a headline, and under the astute managerial supervision of his wife, Edna (whom he later divorced), his career began to take off. He’s been married to his current wife, Lothian (the daughter of cinematographer Gregg Toland) for 28 years.
“I pushed her in her baby buggy,” Skelton said. “When (second wife) Georgia knew she dying, she said to Lothian ‘You know Red better than anyone. Take care of him.’ ”
Skelton’s TV career was mercurial--the medium’s voracious appetite nearly consumed him. Still, he’s no stranger to the Emmys, having won two in 1952, for best comedian on television and best comedy show. His 1958 show was nominated for best comedy series. His 1961 writing staff won the Emmy for best comedy writing.
“Why the show was canceled in 1970, after 17 years of being in the top 10, I’ll never understand,” said Bob Orben, a writer who came to Skelton’s show in 1964 (the show was rated No. 1 in 1967).
“They said it was demographics. The show appealed to young people and old people, but not the lucrative market in between. I think the show once dropped out of the Top 10 to 13. Thirteen! Nowadays that’d be considered a huge success.”
Demographics is the reason Skelton himself gives and while he claims to harbor no bitterness, his humor implies otherwise.
“In TV, they’re always looking for new faces. I brought mine. They haven’t seen it in 20 years,” and “television gets worse every year. Right now they’re 10 years ahead of schedule.”
Continued Orben: “Red Skelton is a national treasure. He’s a monologuist, a sketch comic, a pantomimist. He can sing and paint and he even raises prize-winning roses. His talent spills out everywhere. When we see the last of Red, we’ll see the last of the all-around comedy performer.”
When he’s not performing, Skelton lives a virtually reclusive life in the mountains above Palm Springs, where he paints and writes in the course of his 21-hour day. When he comes down to mingle in the heartland, however, his energy and ebullience and accessibility are constant.
“I love to make people laugh,” he says. And that confession goes as deep as any psychoanalytic revelation.
“When you see him with the people, you see him at his happiest,” said a knowledgeable observer. “That’s him. That’s Red.”
The late Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn once said of Skelton, “He’s a clown in the old tradition. He doesn’t need punch lines. He’s got heart.”
Apparently that’s how the television industry remembers him, 16 years after he left it.