Red Skelton, America’s Greatest Comic

Photo and Comment by Murray Silverjr

He was born in 1913 and grew up as both man and performer in a traveling medicine show, on a showboat, in burlesque and vaudeville before finding a national audience by way of radio. He was among the first generation of television stars and produced one of the highest-rated programs for TWENTY years. He never uttered a bad word or told an off-color joke, was an unabashed patriot, a fervent Mason and Shriner, and a devout Christian. Yet if Red Skelton was alive today he wouldn't survive in the business five minutes: His two most popular sketches celebrated the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance and the biting satire of a homeless bum named Freddie the Freeloader– and we can't have any of that now, can we?

Red's personal life was marred by the tragic loss of his son Richard at age 10 in 1958. In the wake of that setback Red divorced his wife who later committed suicide. When network television decided that this 57-year-old clown was no longer relevant to the hip generation it catered to, Red stepped away from the show that helped invent the medium in 1970 and turned to the solitary joy of painting. His subject matter was almost always the portrait of a clown. After creating hundreds of these images he was encouraged to have a showing in Vegas and his career as an artist exploded. It is estimated that Red made more money from selling prints of his paintings than all the money he ever earned in twenty years of running a hit television show.

Red returned to the stage in his sixties, touring the nation and playing 3,000-4,000 seat theaters, a return to his vaudeville days. He commanded the stage in a vintage suit, a slouch hat and overcoat in which he could transform into any number of classic characters none of whom would be politically correct today: Cauliflower McPugg, a punch-drunk boxer; a hen-pecked husband turned drunk, Willie Lump-Lump; Freddie the Freeloader; and a conman with political aspirations named San Fernando Red. He could at other times hitch his thumbs under his armpits, cross his eyes and turn into the seagulls Gertrude and Heathcliffe. 

By the end of the night you had been thoroughly entertained, and Red shuffled offstage with the benediction, "Good night, and may God bless"…and we can't have any of that, either, now can we?

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