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.’

 

 

 

MARCEAU / HAMILTON BOOED

After the first performance of his sold- out week at the Minneapolis Pantages, the great mime, Marcel Marceau stepped to the apron of the stage, and breaking out of his character, Bip the Clown, SPOKE.

And the Audience BOOED!

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hamilton

Shortly after the election VP-To-Be Pence attended a performance of the hit musical HAMILTON on Broadway, and as he walked down the aisle to his seat, the audience booed! The ­­audience, not the cast, booed.

I can’t believe Pence attended a hip hop/rap musical/opera, based on the life of an immigrant bastard, whose mother was reported to have been part Black, for his own entertainment. More of an ego trip, a test of his newly granted status to be able to jump in line ahead of others.

Mr. Pence was a good choice to ride shotgun on Mr. Trump’s Hatemobile. He has a record of attacking Human Rights and the laws that protect them, first as a right wing radio talk show host, and later in his political career. Unlike Trump’s Twitter approach, Pence uses the evangelical-tunnel-vision-Tea Party-judgmental method. Thump the Bible, or what you think should be in the Bible, to support your stance against fellow human, and be sure to avoid any reference to the second part of what Christ said was the most important commandment: To love your neighbor as yourself.

As Pence was walking out after curtain call, Brandon Dixon, who played Aaron Burr, stepped foreword from the cast and spoke to Pence, who turned and listened. The words were courteous, well thought out, short and to the point. It was a thank you for attending, followed by an expression of fear that the new regime will not defend the planet, the children, their parents and uphold the inalienable rights of every American. The closing was, ‘We thank you for sharing this wonderful American story, told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds, and orientation.’

Pence was silent about the affair but not the Head Hater, Mr. Trump. Trump got on Twitter, declaring Pence was harassed by the cast of HAMILTON. He demanded an apology from the cast and producers of the show, which Trump said he heard was very overrated. Trump also said the theater should be a ‘safe’ place.

To say the theater should be a ‘safe’ place is proof he knows about as much about theater as he does about Human Rights and the Constitution. From the time of the ancients Greeks the theater has been a place to shake up the audience and their hard fast ideals, whether the performance is tragedy, comedy, or a musical.

Nothing is more topical in our current atmosphere of hate than the play that premiered in London during the worse persecution of English Jews. The popular actor, director, theater owner and playwright, William Shakespeare, risked his career, his theater, his life, alone with the specter of causing riots with his new ‘comic’ offering, The Merchant of Venice. Going along with the hatred of Jews, he created a villain, Shylock, in the stereotypical role as a Jewish money lender. And then addresses the hatred and prejudice against the Jews  by giving Shylock one of the most poignant speech in literature against prejudice and hatred. ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’.

            As Mr. Dixon argued against an apology, he pointed out, ‘Art is meant to bring people together; it’s meant to raise conscientiousness.’

To say that it was not the time or place to issue such a statement goes against the history of theater. To step forward and speak to the audience directly, to break the 4th wall, is a time honored tradition. No playwright was more adept at it than Shakespeare, in the play itself, like Hamlet’s many monologues: at the end of the play, like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream which starts: ‘If we shadows have offended…’  While the type of breaking the 4th wall as Mr. Dixon did, is not that common in America, it is quite common in other countries.

Personally I have seen this speaking directly to the audience used many times.

From the serious: On 9/11, we were setting up for a run of RIVERDANCE. Prior to the performance that evening, the multi national cast assembled in full on the stage. A spokesman spoke of the sorrow and offered condolences and prayers. At the end of the curtain call a dancer stepped forward and requested the audience join the cast in silent prayer.

To the silliest: During a performance of a play by the Stratford Theater at the Guthrie, Bill Hutt, a veteran Canadian actor made his entrance in a scene; but before he spoke his lines, he informed the American audience that the Canadian National Hockey Team had just beaten the Russians.

Trump’s Tweets accomplished what he wanted, keeping his Cesspool of Hate aboiling, giving his Brown Shirts something to rail against.

They called for a boycott against HAMILTON, a record breaking Broadway show with tickets sold out for months and waiting lists for more tickets both in NY and other cities where the touring companies are or will be playing. Frankly, I don’t think many Trump hard core supporters would go to HAMILTON with or without a boycott.

Of course there is a good possibility that the new regime will declare the musical to be VERBOTTEN and shut it down. But even then it will continue to be played around the globe as a symbol of American art and a remembrance of American freedom.

The Brown Shirts also called for a boycott of a small theater which has nothing to do with HAMILTON the musical. It has had the name Hamilton for decades because it is located in – wait for it – Hamilton, Ontario, Canada!

Then there was incident during a performance of the road company in Chicago, where upon hearing the word ‘immigrant’, a drunken Follower went ape. Screaming, swearing, threatening to kill the ‘Democratic assholes’and women and Blacks. threw wine on his own son. His wife was in tears pleading for him to stop. And even as he was being expelled from the theater by three security guards, he kept screaming, ‘We won! Get over it. This is Trump’s America now!’ PS: He is the CEO of a national company.

(That kind of behavior hits close to home for me. My nephew, Rick Dalglish, is Head Props for that touring company of HAMILTON.)

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marcel  

          The Marcel Marceau incident took place at the first performance of his farewell to America run at the Pantages in Minneapolis. And in spite of the boos, this brave man repeated his breaking the fourth wall after every performance.

            It was that terrible time in our history. Using the never proven pretext that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Bush the Younger was about to loosen the dogs of war against Saddam Hussein. It was a time of bad intel, half truths, and outright lies.

            Unlike the 1st Gulf War, where Bush the Elder had a large coalition of nations and U.N. approval, the only backing Bush the Younger had was Tony Blair of the U.K., who later admitted he had been wrong in his backing of Bush.  Neither Bush nor Blair had approval of the majority of their advisors. And even though the terrorists of 9/11 were Egyptians and Saudis, and had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein, much of the backing for this invasion of Iraq was wanting revenge for 9/11.

            France, who backed the 1st Gulf War, was outspoken in its disapproval of invading Iraq this time. France was hated by the American hawks. A Congressman sensing a chance to pick up future votes, actually submitted a bill to change the term French Fries to Freedom Fries.

            It was in this time of rupture in America and in the Western World, that Marcel Marceau spoke to the audience and was booed. This French Jewish gentle man of peace did not preach, did not take sides. This man who had known the horror of war first hand, simply asked the audience to pray the whole affair could be worked out without violence, without war.

            I doubt if many in the audience feaared they would have to fight in Iraq. Let the kids in the service take the risks. I doubt if many in the audience had ever served in the military, let along fought in a war. Yet these chickenhawks booed Marceau’s request for prayers for a peaceful resolve.

            Marceau was just a teenager when Germany breached the Maginot Line, the ‘Wall’ that France had built to stop any German invasion and took over France.  The Nazis took his father to Auschwitz where he was ‘exterminated’. Marcel and his brother joined the French Resistance.

            (This also strikes home to me. My wife’s birth father, a French Jew, left his Mexican wife and new baby girl, my wife, and to back to his homeland and fight in the Resistance. He was never heard of again.)

            Marcel was personally responsible for smuggling 500 or so children to Switzerland. It was during this time, he got into mime, silent entertainment to keep the children quiet.

            With the Liberation of France he joined the Free French and was a translator for General George Patton.

            He knew the horrors of war.

            I was standing in the wing with a flashlight waiting to help him offstage. I clapped as loud as I could after his prayer for peace, but the boos won out. As I led him off I commented, ‘Dumb, damn, chickenhawk S.O.B.s!’

            He put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘C’est La Vie, Don. So many fought and died so people can speak their mind, or even boo. This great freedom  is not allowed in a Fascist government . Let us hope it will always be that way in America and France and all over the world. ’

            When Marcel Marceau went to leave the Pantages for the last time, he paused and hugged me. ‘Merci, Don, for joining me in the hope for peace. And, when things happen that you disagree with, just remember, C’est La Vie. That’s Life, mon ami.’ When his farewell tour was over he went back to his home in France where he died a few years later.

            To Mime aficionados Bip the Clown will always be the King of Mime. And we who knew him also as Marcel Marceau, we  are twice blest. We admired his deft artistry of silence and also the deep humanity in his speech. To us he was both an artist and a hero.

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This was written in the time between Trump was elected by the outdated procedure  of the Electoral College, 

which overruled the fact that he did not win the Popular Vote, 

and the time he took the Oath of Office.       

Sorry, Mr. Trump, if you can’t stand the booing you chose the wrong road to travel down. I suggest you have the First Amendment of our Constitution explained to you. And maybe even go to a performance of HAMILTON. Learn how that immigrant from Nevis and the other Founding Fathers created the foundation that makes America great.

Soon Mr. Trump, barring a successful revolt by the Electorial College voters, you will have to take an oath to protect and obey this Constitution for ‘the diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds, and orientation’ that make up our great country, America.

Oh! Oh! Little did we know or even imagine!

And now we must do what we can do

Vote!  Wear a mask! Abolish the hate!

C’EST LA VIE

 

 

MAY GOD BLESS FRANCE

Peace in France

Normally I consider myself ½ half French, in my ancestry. After the events of 11/14/15, I consider myself 100% French, at least in my heart.

I remember in 2003 when the majority of Americans were against France when it refused to back George W.’s unwarranted and illegal invasion of Iraq. I remember the people booing Marcel Marceau at the Pantages when he asked the audience to pay for peace and not have America invade Iraq. (Marcel Marceau who was fighting Nazis in the French Resistance years before America entered the war. The same Resistance that my wife’s birth father fought and died for.) I remember the condemnation of our congress against the government of France. I remember a bill submitted that the name ‘French Fries’ be changed to ‘Freedom Fries’.

I wonder how all those people remember their actions today.


People who either forget or don’t know out history, fail to realize that without the help of the French Navy and the French fighting England at the time, we never would have won our Revolutionary War and even if we did, we would have lost it in 1812 if again France didn’t help us out.


We owe France an awful lot and right now we owe them our prayers.


Que Dieu bénisse la france.


And please, do not forget that this deplorable action by a few fanatics is being condemned by Muslims all over the world. Don’t give in to hatred. Hatred is responsible for this act and others like it on both sides of this ‘war’. Just moments ago, mourners in Paris chased off anti-Muslim bigot that tried to invade the Paris vigil.