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.’

 

 

 

I REMEMBER MICKEY

Young Mickey      THE MICK 

Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!

          Mickey Rooney’s mantra. His first time in the spotlight was at the age of seven months, when crawled onstage during his parents’ vaudeville act and sneezed. For the next nine decades he continued to put on a show.

          Very few people, that I worked with over the years, took such complete joy in their work as Mickey did. And his joy was infectious, not only to the audience, but to everyone who had the good fortune of working with him. On three separate one-week engagements, two weeks of SUGAR BABIES, one week of THE WIZARD OF OZ, I had this good fortune. What a pro! What a warm, kind, friendly man!  And working with him was like shaking hands with history. Consider just a little of his career:

          VAUDEVILLE: Joined his parents’ act at age 15 months, singing, dressed in a tux, and sporting a rubber cigar. He was the last living, big time star that had made their start in vaudeville.

          SILENT MOVIES: He started acting in silent films at age 5. At age 7,he had his own series, MICKEY MCGUIRE. He played Mickey in 78 shorts, 23 of which were silent films. Although there are still a few people living who were in silent films, like Dickie Moore of Our Gang shorts, none were stars of their own series nor became a star of Rooney’s magnitude.

          GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD: He was one of the biggest stars in MGM’s studio, home of the greatest stars in the era. The year 1939 has been acknowledged as the greatest year for movies, with such features as GONE WITH THE WIND and WIZARD OF OZ, and that year the biggest box office draw was Mickey Rooney. He followed up the honor in 1940 and 41. His two series at the time, ANDY HARDY and the Garland/Rooney musicals were, not only MGM’ s most popular features, they were also the most profitable. Of the stars of the MGM studio those years, Mickey outlived all of them except for Olivia de Havilland.

          THE GREATEST GENERATION: Mickey tried to enlist right after Pearl Harbor, but was turned down. Later, he was drafted. Served 21 months entertaining the troops. He was awarded the Bronze Star for entertaining in combat zones.

          FILM CAREER:  Prior to the MGM years, he worked in many films for various studios, like Warner Brothers, where he played Puck in A MIDSUMMER’S DREAM. He was 15 at the time and had a broken leg. After his military service, his physical stature worked against him. He he continued to work in the movies, but never reached the superstar status he had as a teenager. While his nominations were many, the only Oscars he received was a ‘Juvenile Award’ and a Life Time Achievement Award. Both Lawrence Olivier and Marlon Brando called him the greatest film actor. He is the only person who made at least one film in ten consecutive decades.

          RADIO: One of the busiest voices during Radio’s Golden Age. In addition to appearing in the great radio shows of the day, he headlined in three series.

          TELEVISION: He has countless credits on TV, including many starring roles during the Golden Age of TV. He headlined in 4 different series. He won an Emmy for BILL in 1981.

          STAGE: His stage work ran the gamut from Shakespeare to the revival of burlesque. His Broadway appearances were in SUGAR BABIES and WILL ROGER’S FOLLIES. After 1,208 performances of SUGAR BABIES in New York, he and Ann Miller, his co-star, spent five years touring it. They brought it to Minneapolis twice. He toured in many other stage productions including THE WIZARD OF OZ with Eartha Kitt, which spent a week in Minneapolis.

          HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME: He has 4 stars, Motion Pictures, Television, Radio, and Live Theater.

          He worked extensively doing voice-overs in animated films. He recorded music albums, cast albums, singles, and spoken word. It was said that he never found a musical instrument he couldn’t play. He wrote books, directed and produced films, and his last ‘big show’ was speaking out about elderly abuse before a Senate committee.

And in amongst all that work, he managed to marry 8 different women. “I had a  license made out ‘to whom it may concern’. I always got married in the morning, that way if it didn’t work out, it didn’t ruin the whole day. Took me eight times before I got it right,” he said. Joking aside, his last marriage lasted over 30 years.

 sugar babesANN MILLER – ANN JILLIAN – AND ?

          He had a rider that called for cable TV in his dressing room. Why I don’t know. He spent very little time in his dressing room. When he wasn’t on stage, he was usually offstage talking to people.

          He’d see a new face and he would stick out his hand. ‘I’m Mickey, and you are?’ The second time through with SUGAR BABIES, he said to me, ‘I forget the name but I remember the hat.’

          ‘Don,’ I told him, which opened the door for one of his improv skits.

           ‘That your name or the hat’s? You know all the stagehands use to wear a hat. Now there’s just you and maybe that prop man in Peoria. Course he’s probably long gone by now.

          ‘And women! They always wore hats. Feathers and fruits.” In your Easter Bonnet, with all the frills upon it”.’ Then he  broke into a little dance. ‘I taught Astaire these steps. Adele, not Fred.’

          Mickey was never above telling a joke, no matter how corny or how old. Once he came off stage after doing the skit LITTLE RED SCHOOLHOUSE to thunderous applause. He cupped his hand to his ear listening to the cheers from the audience. ‘And they said I was a has-been. But just think where I has been.’

          Once I was in a wing waiting to do a cue, when Mickey started telling me about how a bellboy led him to find religion. ‘Changed my life. Now Mickey Jr. really got born-again. Has his own church. Wants me to go there and preach a ser..

         Just then the chorus girls came off stage. One ran out through the wing where Mickey and I were. Mickey reached out and pinched her behind. She jumped and gave a little squeal. Mickey laughed. ‘She’s new. You don’t see the other girls get that close to me,’ he laughed.

          Somehow I couldn’t picture Mickey as a preacher man.

          Another time he came up to me just as I finished a cue. It was a Goodbye Sunday, two shows and an Out. Between shows I stocked up on protein with a big steak. He asked what I had for dinner. I told him steak and he said he would have bet that would be my answer. Then this little guy, about a foot shorter than me, looked up at me and began to tell me how it wasn’t good for me to eat red meat.

          It was funny at the time; but hey, he lived to be 93.

          One of the hands asked him about his Bronze Star. He smiled and shook his head. ‘What an honor! They gave me some other awards like the WWII Victory medal and they even gave me a Good Conduct Medal. Kept me awake at night wondering when they would come to their senses and take the Good Conduct Medal back.’

          As carefree as Mickey was, his co-star, Ann Miller. was the polar opposite. Very serious. Appeared backstage only when she had to. Spent the rest of the time in her dressing room. She was close to 60 but neither her face nor her figure betrayed her age. She looked younger than many of the girls in the chorus line. In addition to her years on stage and in films, she was famous for two other things. One, she popularized pantyhose, and two, she was billed as the world’s fastest tap dancer. And she hadn’t slowed down, even a tap.

          When the show was being loaded in, Joe, the road prop man, immediately began to lay the plywood dance floor. It was a work of perfection. He selected only the best panels for the center, using the less than perfect panels on the outside. He used his whiskey stick, (level), and shims to assure was as flat as could be. He used a portable sander to removed any bumps, which only he could see. And then Ann came in.

          ‘Are you ready for me, Joseph?’ she would ask. And then she would walk and dance on the floor, stopping every so often and pointing down. Joe would take a piece of chalk and later would sand down the bump that even he couldn’t see, Ann had felt it through her dance shoes. Joe used the sander and Ann would try again. She checked out the floor before each show, always finding a little something that had to be sanded down.

          Between Ann in her tap shoes and Mickey in his baggy pants, the show was a real winner. It disbanded and for a while a bus and truck version toured, stopping for a week in Minneapolis.  It had Jaye P. Morgan and Eddie Bracken. Jaye P. was funny and had a good voice. Eddie Bracken, whose latest claim to fame had been as Roy Wally, owner of Wally World, the Griswalds’ favorite amusement park, was capable but… Mickey had been an aggressive comic, in the manner of Phil Silvers, who had been a top banana both in burlesque and in the movie, TOP BANANA. Bracken was a passive comic, relying more on reaction than action. The tour was short lived.

          Luckily, a few years later, SUGAR BABIES came back to town as a national tour with both Mickey and Ann reprising their routines. And of course with Joe, or Joseph as Ann called him, as the dance floor layer extraordinaire.

          The third time Mickey came through was as the Wizard in the stage version of WIZARD OF OZ. His co-star, playing the Wicket Witch of the West, was another of my favorites, Miss Eartha Kitt.

          Mickey was Mickey –  warm, friendly and funny. He enjoyed playing the role made so famous by Frank Morgan. The audiences loved it and it was fun to work.

          Mickey and the stage manager had a little skit prior to the start of each show. The stage manager would caution Mickey about talking too loud backstage and Mickey would jump behind a masking leg, peek around the end, and shake the cloth. ‘Paaaay no attention to the man behind the curtain,’ he would say. Funny bit!  I don’t think we could have done the show without it.

          And he brought back a lot of his backstage routines. One of my favorites was him telling about losing money on the horses. ‘First time I bet on a horse, I lost two bucks. Been spending the rest of my life trying to win it back.

          ‘But you know what nag cost me the most money?  Santa Claus! Norman Lear wanted me to play Archie Bunker. I turned him down to do the voice of Santa Claus – in a cartoon. Lear told me Archie Bunker was a rough, bigoted-blow hard. Never work, I told him. Doesn’t sound funny and people just won’t buy it. I took what I thought was a sure thing and did the Santa Claus. Didn’t want to take a chance playing an old racist. What’d I know? What’d I know?’

          This coming from a man who created the only speed bump in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, namely the role of the bucktooth Asian landlord, Mr. Yonioshi . Both the critics and the general public hated the portrayal, calling it both racist and unfunny. Mickey took a lot of heat on that one. But what’d he know? What’d he know?

          And while Mickey was his usual outgoing self, Eartha Kitt was quiet and introspective. Quite unlike the Eartha that had come to town years before in TIMBUKTU. Then she was funny, talkative, and of course, very sexy. There  had been a cue I had to do standing in the wing that Eartha used to go on stage. Each time she passed by me, she rubbed my stomach and gave out a sexy purr as only Eartha could do.

          During WIZARD, I was reading a paperback written by Loren Estleman. In it, his protagonist, P.I. Amos Walker says he is going home, open up a bottle of whiskey and listen to his Eartha Kitt albums. His idea of heaven. I marked the passage and gave it to the stage manager to show Eartha. Eartha came out of her dressing room and smiled, handing me back the book asking where she could get a copy. ‘You keep this one. I finished it,’ I lied. Later, Mickey came up to me and thanked me for ‘being so nice to Eartha’. Mickey cared about people.

          That week was the last time I was privileged to work with either Eartha. or Mickey .

          I’ll always remember how serious and silent Mickey was, almost as if he was standing at attention, whenever the girl playing Dorothy was singing SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW. And his silence thundered backstage. One could almost hear him thinking back to a different time when a different actress was playing Dorothy and singing that song. The Golden Days.

          OZ came back a few years later with a very forgettable actor playing the Wizard and Grace Jones replacing Eartha. The only thing I really remember about that production was how small Grace Jones was in real life. In all her roles in action movies, she always appeared to be a tall no-holds-barred woman. Of course, when I met her co-star in Conan, Mr. Schwarzenegger I was shocked at how short he was also.

          It’s a wonder what camera angles, shoe lifts, and apple boxes can do to make a person look taller. Some things that Mickey Rooney never had to  use. He always stood tall, both as a talent, (Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!), and as a human being, (He ain’t heavy. He’s my brother.).

          Good bye, Mickey. It’s been an honor to know you.rip Mickey