Today, clowns are almost entirely the domain of horror movies, but this wasn’t always the case. In the early parts of the 20th century, the American clown was a beloved comedic entertainer, and perhaps no clown was more beloved that Vincennes’ own Red Skelton.
Viewed through a contemporary lens, calling Red Skelton a clown, no matter how beloved, reads like a disservice to the man’s body of work. He was a comedian, a vaudeville entertainer, a radio, film and television star, not to mention an accomplished painter and artist. So yes, there are those who would balk at calling Red Skelton a clown, but Red Skelton himself was not among their ranks.
“I just want to be known as a clown, because to me that’s the height of my profession. It means you can do everything—sing, dance and above all, make people laugh.”
Whatever his title was, Red Skelton was a funny man.
Born as Richard Bernard Eheart on July 18th, 1913, Skelton grew up as the youngest of 4 children in an impoverished Vincennes household. His father, Joseph Skelton, was a former the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus clown, but he died months before Red’s birth.
Because of his father’s untimely passing, young Red, or Richard as he was then known, started working as a street corner newspaper boy at the young age of 7. He uncovered an ability to make others laugh as a child and quickly developed a love for performing. He had dropped out of school entirely by 13 or 14 and found work in Vincennes minstrel shows and The Cotton Blossom showboat.
He reportedly loved the showboat, and only gave up the gig because the industry was dying. Skelton finished out his teenage years as a performer, taking work with various theatre companies, a medicine show and even the circus that his late father previously worked for.
Eventually, Skelton found his (first) wife, and his calling in Edna Stillwell and vaudeville, respectively. With Edna serving as a comedy partner, joke writer, and GED tutor, the Skelton act became more refined, and the young couple hit the road, first in the Midwest, then the East Coast. From there, Skelton’s career took off.
He conquered film, radio, and television in succession, and was a household name in the United States from the 30s all the way through to the 70s. In many ways, Skelton was a throwback to an older era of comedy, bearing more in common with Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers that the “contemporary” comics of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
Despite having strong ratings, the Red Skelton Hour television program was abruptly canceled in 1970, as the networks attempted to skew younger. Skelton was betrayed by this and stepped back from the limelight. His next television appearance was in 1975, when one of his former writers, Johnny Carson, had him on as a Tonight Show guest.
In his later years, Skelton began a second career as an artist, which was something he had always done as a hobby. He became known for his paintings of clowns and, in fittingly ironic fashion for a comedian, reportedly made more money from his art than from his comedy.
Red Skelton passed away in 1997, but his legacy lives on in Vincennes. There’s the Red Skelton Performing Arts Center, the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy and even the Red Skelton Memorial Bridge. Skelton is remembered on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and has won a number of ‘Lifetime Achievement’ awards.
More notably, he was named an honorary faculty member of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in 1968 and again in 1969.