It was clear from an early age that Richard "Red" Skelton was destined to be an entertainer and make people laugh. His father died before he was born, and despite growing up in poverty to a single mother with his three brothers, he still thoroughly enjoyed putting a smile on other people's faces. Little did that little boy with humble beginnings in Vincennes, Indiana, know, he would grow up to host one of the most iconic variety shows of all time.
Skelton grew up performing, even participating in a traveling medicine show and a showboat as a child. After meeting comedian Ed Wynn, he was inspired to leave home at 15 to pursue an entertainment career that would take him all the way to Hollywood. After spending years in vaudeville and burlesque as well as making a name for himself in radio and film, NBC came calling. During the golden age of Hollywood, Skelton had already appeared in films opposite the likes of Lucille Ball and Gene Kelly. His early years had definitely prepared him to lead his own show.
The Red Skelton Show
The Red Skelton Show premiered on September 30, 1951 and the TV show immediately became a hit, even winning Emmy awards for Best Comedy Series and Best Comedian for Skelton in its very first year. It moved over to CBS in 1963, where it stayed until 1970, before moving back over to NBC for its final season in 1971. Twenty seasons of laughs became an integral part of many Americans' lives, which people of a certain age can look back on fondly.
The hilarious Skelton would begin each episode with a comedic monologue. Did you know those monologues kicked off the career of many talented writers, including the Johnny Carson? A guest star appearance followed each monologue, and there were some incredible ones over the years — western stars Amanda Blake, Roscoe Ates and John Wayne, as well as Jack Benny, Phyllis Diller, George Raft, Martha Raye, Ed Sullivan, Carol Channing, Mickey Rooney and Diana Ross & the Supremes. The show was even the television debut of The Rolling Stones. Every episode would end with Skelton bidding farewell to his audience with, "Good night, and may God bless."
According to The New York Times, Skelton was committed to creating family-friendly entertainment and didn't approve of swearing.
''I don't think anybody should have to pay money at the box office to hear what they can read on restroom walls,'' Skelton once said.
It was really Skelton's sketch characters that made the half-hour comedy show so memorable. Some of his classics included skits featuring "Sheriff Deadeye," the inept Wild West sheriff, "San Fernando Red," the boxer "Cauliflower McPugg," "George Appleby," "Junior, the Mean Widdle Kid" ("I DOOD IT"), "Clem Kadiddlehopper" and "Freddie the Freeloader," the hobo with a heart of gold. Freddie, who would sometimes only pantomime on the air, wore clown makeup and, unlike many of Skelton's characters that had originated during his radio show days, was created especially for the television show. Skelton's father had been a part of a circus and he based the clown makeup off what his father used to wear.
Unfortunately, at the start of the '70s, television networks started canceling shows that they felt were too focused on a "rural audience" or lacked youth appeal. In addition to Red Skelton, networks canceled comedy shows hosted by other longtime veterans like Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan. Skelton was heartbroken over his cancelation and never headlined another TV show for the remainder of his career. Despite this, he remains beloved for his contributions to the world of comedy and for always being one of America's greatest clowns, which is how he liked to view himself.
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