Richard Red Skelton (July 18, 1913 – September 17, 1997) was an American entertainer best known for his national radio and television shows between 1937 and 1971, especially as host of the television program The Red Skelton Show. He has stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in radio and television, and also appeared in burlesque, vaudeville, films, nightclubs, and casinos, all while he pursued an entirely separate career as an artist.
Skelton began developing his comedic and pantomime skills from the age of 10, when he became part of a traveling medicine show. He then spent time on a showboat, worked the burlesque circuit, and then entered into vaudeville in 1934. The “Doughnut Dunkers” pantomime sketch, which he wrote together with his wife, launched a career for him in vaudeville, radio, and films. His radio career began in 1937 with a guest appearance on The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, which led to his becoming the host of Avalon Time in 1938. He became the host of The Raleigh Cigarette Program in 1941, on which many of his comedy characters were created, and he had a regularly scheduled radio program until 1957. Skelton made his film debut in 1938 alongside Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Alfred Santell’s Having Wonderful Time, and would appear in numerous musical and comedy films throughout the 1940s and 1950s, with starring roles in 19 films, including Ship Ahoy (1941), I Dood It (1943), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), and The Clown (1953).
Skelton was eager to work in television, even when the medium was in its infancy. The Red Skelton Show made its television premiere on September 30, 1951, on NBC. By 1954, Skelton’s program moved to CBS, where it was expanded to one hour and renamed The Red Skelton Hour in 1962. Despite high ratings, the show was canceled by CBS in 1970, as the network believed that more youth-oriented programs were needed to attract younger viewers and their spending power. Skelton moved his program to NBC, where he completed his last year with a regularly scheduled television show in 1971. He spent his time after that making as many as 125 personal appearances a year and working on his paintings.
Skelton’s paintings of clowns remained a hobby until 1964, when his wife Georgia persuaded him to show them at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas while he was performing there. Sales of his originals were successful, and he also sold prints and lithographs, earning $2.5 million yearly on lithograph sales. At the time of his death, his art dealer said he thought that Skelton had earned more money through his paintings than from his television performances.
Skelton believed that his life’s work was to make people laugh; he wanted to be known as a clown because he defined it as being able to do everything. He had a 70-year-long career as a performer and entertained three generations of Americans. His widow donated many of his personal and professional effects to Vincennes University, including prints of his artwork. They are part of the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy at Vincennes, Indiana.