Red Skelton always wanted a theater of his own.
His career spanned six decades and four genres -- vaudeville, radio, movies and television -- but the rubber-faced comic never owned one of the buildings he often called “palaces.”
Saturday, nine years after his death, hundreds of clowns paraded through his southwestern Indiana hometown to celebrate Skelton’s legacy and the theater that finally bears his name: Vincennes University’s Red Skelton Performing Arts Center.
“He loved the theater. It was his living room. He really believed the audience was family,” said Skelton’s widow, Lothian, 68, who flew in from Rancho Mirage, Calif., for the festival.
The weekend celebration in Vincennes, about 50 miles north of Evansville, Ind., kicked off a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign to build a Red Skelton museum that organizers hope to fill with the actor’s scripts, costumes, songs, writings, paintings and props.
“His legacy is a clown of all times,” said comedian Tom Smothers, who played the buffoon foil to his brother, Dick, as part of the Smothers Brothers, who headlined Saturday’s gala.
About 300 clowns walked or rode scooters, bikes, firetrucks and floats along the mile-long parade route.
Skelton was born in 1913 to a circus-clown-turned-grocer and a cleaning woman. He joined a traveling medicine show when he was 10.
He became known for his signature pantomime, goofy antics, pratfalls and colorful characters including Freddie the Freeloader, Clem Kadiddlehopper, Willie Lump Lump and Junior the Mean Widdle Kid.
Skelton’s radio show debuted in 1941, and 10 years later “The Red Skelton Show” premiered on NBC. The comic spent 20 consecutive years on NBC and CBS.
Skelton died in September 1997 at age 84.