The star of the long-running “TV-Showcase” (1951-1971) got his start at the age of ten when he joined Doc Lewis’s traveling medicine show performing in circuses, carnivals, burlesque houses, and vaudeville theaters. From these humble beginnings, Red Skelton rose to become one of America’s most beloved sentimental clowns, endearing audiences with his portrayals of Freddie the Freeloader, Clem Kadiddlehopper, The Mean Widdle Kid, Willie Lump Lump, Sheriff Deadeye, Cauliflower McPugg and Mickey the Rat among many others.
Although he is often remembered for his TV antics with his rubber-like face and wild hair peeking out from under a beat-up porkpie hat, Skelton made his film debut alongside Ginger Rogers in the RKO picture “Having a Wonderful Time” (1938) and performed his own material in two Warner Bros. short films, “Seeing Red” and “The Broadway Buckaroo.” MGM signed him to contract in 1940 and started him out as comic relief in “Flight Command.” In 1941, Skelton carried a full-length comedy vehicle on his own merit and won praise across the board for “Whistling in the Dark.” Following that, Skelton developed a working relationship with Buster Keaton. The two went on to develop such comedy classics as “I Dood It” (1943), “A Southern Yankee” (1948), “The Yellow Cab Man” and “Watch the Birdie” (1950). In the 1946 film “Ziegfeld Follies,” Skelton showcased his comedic masterpiece, “Guzzler’s Gin,” which is considered one of his finest solo routines.
For the twenty years he starred on “TV-Showcase,” Skelton closed the show with his trademark “Good night, and God Bless.” During his career, he wrote more than 5,000 musical numbers that were recorded by such artists as Arthur Fiedler, Van Cliburn and David Rose, and he had the distinct honor of performing for eight U.S. Presidents, including Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan.
His unique interpretation of “The Pledge of Allegiance” garnered numerous awards and was twice read into the Congressional Record. Skelton was also a major supporter of children’s charities and earned honorary doctorate degrees from Boston’s Emerson College, Indiana’s Vicennes University and Indiana State University. “There is plenty of time,” Skelton said in his 1986 acceptance speech at the Oscars for the Governor’s Award. “The thing is to apply it.” Red Skelton is certainly one who lived by his words.