Seeing Red (Skelton) in new bio

January 9, 2009
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In a previous blog, I mentioned reading "Red Skelton: The Mask Behind the Mask" (Indiana Historical Society Press) by Wes. D Gehring. I was asked for some additional thought. Well, here goes:

In the book, Gehring, a Ball State film professor and author of a stack of books, primarily about film funnymen, does an effective job of straddling the two sometimes opposing forces of academic and popular biographical writing. The opening sections are bogged down with unnecessary and excessive name-drop references with only tangential relationship to the subject at hand (a problem compounded by the photo selection: In a Skelton bio, do we really need full-page pics of Charlie Chaplin, David Letterman and “The Honeymooners”?). But when Gehring gets down to telling Skelton’s story, it’s a fascinating one--from his dubious Vincennes roots to becoming one of the most popular personalities in Hollywood.

Many readers here might ask who Red Skelton was? The reason that question is asked today is one of the more fascinating points in the book. Skelton was, Gehring argues, as important, if not more, to television history than Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason. But nowadways he’s a trivia question answer rather than an icon. In large part, that's because of Skelton's late-career anger with his network for cancelling his show. In a classic cutting-off-his-nose-to-spite-his-face move, he refused to allow clips from his shows to be shown or reruns broadcast. While the popularity of Ball and Gleason grew exponentially, Skelton fell off the radar.

A meticulously researcher, Gehring isn’t afraid to admit, on occasion, the impossibility of separating myth from reality—something refreshingly honest in a biography. And if his book tips more toward analysis of Skelton’s films than his more culturally significant and impactful TV and radio work, so be it. I read through to the end and am looking forward to refreshing my memories of Skelton’s work through some DVD hunting at the library.

Your thoughts? Does anyone else out there have memories of Skelton's films, radio broadcasts, or TV shows?
  • I can't wait to read this. I grew up watching Red Skelton and adored his characters--especially Gertrude and Heathcliff, the lovesick seagulls.
  • When I was a kid I used to hear his name as Skeleton and imagine red bones dancing. I don't know much at all about the actual man or his work. 'Sounds like an interesting book!

    By the way, I know this is only Friday and You-Review-It Monday is not until, well, Monday, but I just HAVE to say right now that last night's opening performance of Love Person at the Phoenix Theatre was...oh, my single adjective will do it justice. I'll write more on my blog in a day or two, of couse, but for now I guess I'll have to make do with wonderful.

    TEXTURED and wonderful.

    Hope Baugh
  • As a child I remember watching Red Skelton every week as a local Indiana success story. His humor was always clean and funny whether he was Clem Kaddlehopper, or the little mean kid or any of his entourage. My working class parents managed to find the money to take the entire family to see Red perform at Notre Dame--not at the auditorium, but in the actual football stadium! Imagine any comedian doing that today--under the elements, no special effects, and all his jokes were family appropriate. We also loved his artwork of clown. I have a VHS tape of old shows that I purchased so my daughter could experience his humor and understand the early TV days so if you can't find anything at the library, let me know Lou!
  • I grew up watching Red Skelton. His multitude of characters was amazing. One show was a special shared only with Marcel Marceau. The two traded times which became a fantastic clinic demonstrating the differences between mime (Marceau) and pantomime (Skelton). One Marceau skit became an instant classic with him being an astronaut on a space walk and at the end being cut adrift.

    I highly recommend you listen/watch Skelton tell the story of one of his teachers explaining the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance at
  • I'm 55 and grew up watching him. He was on between 8:30 and 9:30 on Tuesday and my bed time was 9:00. His show (if memory serves) consisted of an opening monologue and then usually a three act play - which the third act concluded after 9pm. I begged - and was usually rewarded - with the extra time to see that final act. Then if I had been good and the parents werent paying attention, got to see The Silent Spot and the rest of the show.

    I grew up wanting to be Red Skelton. He appeared at Ball State - which I saw that show - and then later (around 1977) at the DuQuoin (IL) State Fair. I wasn't sure where DuQuion was, but bought a ticket and drove forever (4 hrs) to see him.

    Besides being a comedian, Red has countless other credits as an Artist, composer, and writer. He truly was a talented man and great Hoosier.
  • I second Dan Cooper's suggestion of listening to / watching Red's comprehensive explanation of the Pledge of Allegience. This patriotic classic which harkens back to Red's youth should be shared with today's young people at least once a year.

    I, too, remember watching Red on television when I was a child, and was so proud of my fellow Southern Indiana Hoosier!

    I can't wait to read the biography.
  • Thank you for you review of Wes Gerhing's book. I agree that Gerhing is a respected film historian. This comes through when the book is bogged down with comparisons to people. I just wish he compared them to people Red knew well. I would like to read more about the Ed Wynn connection. Ed Wynn inspired Skelton, not Chaplin, Joe E. Brown, Robert Benchley and others unnessary people that were in the book. I would have been happy to loan out photos of Red to replace photos like of Woody Allen and others. Red spent more than 10 years on radio and film. But he had 20 plus years on TV. Again, Gerhing is a film historian and he went into detail of of his film career but there is more. Most of the comments here talk about the TV show. Gerhing deals with this part in his live in the last 3 chapter of a 14 chapter book. I am involved with promoting Red Skelton in his hometown of Vincennes. I will work harder on my web site. Currently I am working on getting his Pledge of Allegiance as a marker on the Courthouse grounds. I'm sorry Wes if you read this but it was not the bio I wanted but thank you.
  • Skelton had many of the classic Indiana traits woven into his life and television skits not least of which was warmth and humility, including those of 'Sad Willie
  • I'm sorry to correct GeorgeOrwell but Sad Willie was a character by an adopted Hoosier, Emmett Kelly. Red Skelton did a tramp character named Freddie the Freeloader. This is a common error I hope education will correct.
  • No comment to make about Red Skelton here, even though I'm in the age group to have caught him on TV. I wanted to note that Skelton's refusal to allow his clips to be shown on TV is similar to Harold Lloyd's refusal to allow his great films to have the kind of wider viewing that has kept Chaplin and Keaton more in the public eye. The comedy of these masters remains fresh today: our children do routines from Keaton's

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