BIG VAUDEVILLE (RED)

Red Skeleton

 

Red Skeleton joined a medicine show at the age of ten. In his late teens he began his vaudeville career. When Red was in his late 20’s he began a successful career in radio and movies. He pioneered in television starting in his late 30’s.

He was in his 70’s when I threw the chair at him.

Red Skeleton was one of the two BIG vaudeville stars that I was privileged to have worked.

 

American vaudeville reached it’ peak in the 1880s. It began it’s decline in the early 1900s, the dawn of movies. At first, when the films were very short, some vaudeville theaters incorporated a film in with the live show. But the films grew in length and in popularity.

The release of D.W. Griffith’s epic THE BIRTH OF A NATION sounded the death warning of vaudeville as America’ favorite form of entertainment. Running over three hours, this film could never be a part of the vaudeville format.

An old stagehand told me how his father, one of the first movie projectionist, toured the movie from city to city. Sometimes there would be a live vaudeville show during the day and a showing of BIRTH at night. Sometimes, depending on how big the city was, the vaudeville theater would simply turn the theater into a movie house and play it for an extended run.

The popularity of movies caused an exodus of the top vaudeville stars. They realized that they could make more money in films with a lot less work and travel. In a very short time, names like W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, and many others left and made their names in the movies.

Another entertainment phenomenon was the birth of the Golden Age of Radio. Actually radio was more popular than movies, because it reached a greater audience, it was free. Some vaudeville stars like Edgar Bergen, Fanny Brice, Burns and Allen, etc., became big stars in radio but never really made a hit in the movies.

When the vaudeville circuits had lost that first wave of headliners, two things occurred. Another wave of talent filled the gap at the top and helped vaudeville survive for another few decades. Names like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, Judy Garland, and Red Skeleton and others headlined the bills and became household names.

The second occurrence was these greats and many of their routines were filmed for posterity. I have never really enjoyed, or perhaps learned to enjoy, much of what passes for today’s comedic movies; but I never tire of my dvd collections the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and others of that era.

 

Richard, (Red), Skelton was born two months after his father, a grocer and prior to that a circus clown, died. His mother lost the store and the house shortly afterwards. Red went to work before he was 7, selling newspapers, to help his mother out. Barely 10 years old, he left home and joined a traveling medicine show, sending money back to his mother, a practice that continued until her s death.

If anyone personifies the entertainment in America in the 20th Century, it would be Red Skelton. Discovering that he had a gift to make people laugh and he could get paid for it, he followed his work in a medicine show with work in a minstrel show, followed by work on a riverboat. He joined a dramatic stock company but he was too comedic for drama. He was 16 when he worked as a clown and sometimes lion tamer with the circus his father had worked for. He worked as a comic in a burlesque theater. He became a popular emcee for dance marathons. And this was before he was even 18.

He fell for a contestant in one of the marathons, Edna, who worked as an usher in a Pantages vaudeville house, and the two were married. He was almost 18 and she was just 16. She ‘home-schooled’ Red and he got a high school diploma. They worked up an act for clubs and toured some theaters in Canada, where a vaudeville promoter offered Red work in New York if he got some different material.

Again Edna to the rescue. She watched how different coffee drinkers dunked their doughnuts and helped Red develop the skit, Doughnut Dunkers. This show of Red’s ability for physical comedy led to more of the same, and he began to create his cast of characters which would grow in numbers and in popularity over the years. He became a vaudeville celeb in 1937. Soon he was too big for vaudeville, and began doing his skits in Broadway musicals.

He got his first radio show gig in 1938, again with under the direction of Edna working out vocal skits and new characters for him. He got his own radio show in 1941. His radio skits numbered well over 300 and his show was so popular, hundreds of people were unable to get seats for each show.

Red had failed a screen test in 1932 but in 1938 he did make two shorts, but no more film offers. In 1940, Mickey Rooney saw Red perform at F. D. R.’s birthday celebration and convinced both Red and MGM to resurrect his short film career. At first he was used as comic relief, but soon began playing leads. He was usually cast as a good hearted, naive, bumbler who saved the day and got the girl.

During these years, his mentor and good friend was a king of physical comedy, Buster Keaton. In later years, Red developed a friendship and collaborated with the great classic mime, Marcel Marceau.

America’s world erupted in 1941. Red was married with children and was undraftable. Like many show business celebs in the same boat, he devoted a great deal of time selling War Bonds and working at places like the Hollywood Canteen entertaining our Service people.

Red’s world erupted in 1942. His wife, Edna, told him that she would stay on as his adviser and money-manager, but not as his wife. He didn’t believe her until the divorce papers were served. Now he was unmarried and he got drafted. Because his birth dates had been juggled many times over the years, both MGM and his radio sponsors tried to keep him out of the Army by claiming he was too old to be drafted. Red gladly accepted being drafted.

He wasn’t placed in the Entertainment Corps but the Regular Army. During Basic the officers pulled rank and he did his required work during the day and entertained the officers at night and on the weekends. A cruel schedule!

He finally got transferred and became a more than full-time entertainer. Alone, no cameras or dancing girls, just Red and his ‘cast’ of his familiar characters toured in both the U.S. and Europe. Sometimes he stayed in one place and one audience was replaced with another. Sometimes he was sent from one sector to another the same day. Shows night and day. There was times he did ten shows in one day. The longest he stayed in one country was in Italy when the fighting was the fiercest.

The constant work, the constant moving around, the constant stress, coupled with his problems with Edna, and the fact that a woman he became engaged to married someone else, all this took his toll on his health. He developed a stutter and throat problems that had to be operated back in the States. He was given a medical discharge and had to undergo months of strict rest.

That early discharged bothered Skeleton and several years later he used his dark time to tour Korea and Japan. Again, no hoopla, no cameras, but his time he took an emcee, Jamie Farr, along with him.

Farr had worked on Red’s radio show before being drafted in WWII. He was on Active Reserve when he toured with Red. Little did Farr know while touring Korea that that country would serve as a backdrop for M.A.S.H., a TV show that would make him a household name. He never would have gotten if it wasn’t for Red. Farr had decided to drop out of show business to support his recently widowed mother. When he told Skelton that, Red gave him money and hired him under a private contract. Farr was able to stay in show business and eventully got the big break playing Corporal Klinger in M.A.S.H.

Red was one of the first to realize the impact TV would have; but because MGM’s contract would not allow him to go on TV, he had to wait until 1951 when the contract expired to make his leap into the new medium. For 20 years his show was a must-view for most of America. From a half hour to a full hour, from black and white to pioneering in color, from basically a vehicle for Red and his ‘cast’ of characters, it became a full blown variety show with the biggest names in the business lining up to be his guest stars.

Then some executive-suit at CBS decided variety shows were old-hat. Red got the bad news while perfoming in Vegas. His, and other popular shows like Ed Sullvan’s and Jackie Gleason’s got the axe.

 

For years afterword Skeleton was in a funk. He devoted his time to writing fiction and to painting his popular clown portraits.

Finally, he remembered his love of entertaining live audiences. He began to tour, bringing his cast of characters to his older fans and to his new fans. It was during this period that I got to work performance of the great entertainer

 

It was at Northrop Auditorium at the U. of Mn. I was head props. My nephew, Mark, had been props for Red a few months before at the State Fair. He told me about a bit that Red did. He asks for a chair. The prop man brings out a folded chair and throws it at Skeleton.

The punch line is as the prop man leaves the stage is, ‘I guess maybe I never should taken his girlfriend out for supper last night.’

Prior to the show, Red explained the schtick to me. ‘Come on stage so the audience can see you. Look mad. Then throw the chair so it lands about ten feet from me. Throw it hard. Don’t worry about it hitting me. Once it hits the floor it slides and I just stop it with my foot. Look mad. The madder you look the bigger the laugh.’

I played the game, but something happened! When the chair hit the floor, instead of sliding, it bounced right up again. It continued to fly toward Red. For a brief second I thought perhaps this happened sometimes. But the look on Red’s face told me this was not something that happened ever before.

One of my favorite comedians. I loved his TV shows. More importantly, my mother loved his TV shows. She would sit in her big chair in the living room and actually watch the entire program without falling asleep, or she would argue, ‘I wasn’t sleeping. I was just resting my eyes.’

And now I am going to be responsible for harming him!

Red remained still, watching as the chair flew toward him. Then at the last second, he reached back to his youth and made like a bullfighter, turning slightly, leaning slightly, and allowing the chair to sail harmless pass past him. It hit the floor but stayed onstage.

I gasped along with the audience. Red ignored the chair. Ignored the punch line. He stepped center stage, crushed his hat and went into a Clem Kaddilehopper skit.

He did several other bits, still ignoring the chair, and finished his show. He came back to acknowledge the standing ovation. For an encore he did his popular Pledge of Alligence. He bowed and finished with his familiar sign off line, ‘Good night and God bless.’

When the house was clear, I went and picked up the chair. I thought I found the reason why it bounced back up. Instead of just small rubber tips on each leg, there were large rubber boots. I presumed it hit just right and the boots caused it to bounce.

When Red went to leave, he stopped on stage to tip the spot operator. Then he came to me. I started to apologize and explain why I thought the chair did as it did. He just miled and waved it off. ‘Thanks God,’ I said, ‘Your got out of the way in time.’

‘And thank Buster Keaton for being such a great teacher,’ he laughed. ‘I never liked that shtick. My agent’s nephew thinks he’s a gag writer. Now I have a reason to drop it without hurting anybody’s feelings.

‘You know,’ he continued, ‘first time I forgot a punch line. The very first time. I’m getting old, son.’

He shook my hand and palmed off a $20 bill into it. And then he said,

‘Good night and may God bless.’