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, then entered into vaudeville in 1934. The Doughnut Dunkers, a pantomime sketch of how different people ate doughnuts written by Skelton and his wife launched a career for him in vaudeville, in radio and in films. Skelton's 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 Cigarettes Program in 1941 where many of his comedy characters were created and had a regularly scheduled radio program until 1957. Skelton made his film debut in 1938 alongside Ginger Roger and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in Alfred Santell’s Having Wonderful Time, and he went on to appear in numerous musical and comedy films throughout the 1940s and early 1950s such as Whistling in the Dark (1941), Lady by Good (1941), I Dood It (1943), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Texas Carnival (1951) and The Clown (1953). However, he was never comfortable in films and was most 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, his television show was canceled by CBS in 1970 as the network believed 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. After he no longer had a television program, Skelton's time was spent making up to 125 personal appearances a year and on his artwork.
Skelton's artwork of clowns remained a hobby until 1964, when his wife, Georgia, convinced him to have a showing of his work at the Sands Hotel in
Skelton believed his life's work was to make people laugh and wanted to be known as a clown, because he defined it as being able to do everything. He had a 70-year career as a performer and entertained three generations of Americans during this time. Many of Skelton's personal and professional effects, including prints of his artwork, were donated to
Legacy and Tributes
Skelton preferred to be described as a clown rather than a comic: "A comedian goes out and hits people right on. A clown uses pathos. He can be funny, then turn right around and reach people and touch them with what life is like." "I just want to be known as a clown," he said, "because to me that's the height of my profession. It means you can do everything—sing, dance and above all, make people laugh." His purpose in life, he believed, was to make people laugh.
In Groucho and Me, Groucho Marx called Skelton "the most unacclaimed clown in show business", and "the logical successor to [Charlie] Chaplin", largely because of his ability to play a multitude of characters with minimal use of dialogue and props. "With one prop, a soft battered hat," Groucho wrote, describing a performance he had witnessed, "he successfully converted himself into an idiot boy, a peevish old lady, a teetering-tottering drunk, an overstuffed clubwoman, a tramp, and any other character that seemed to suit his fancy. No grotesque make-up, no funny clothes, just Red." He added that Skelton also "plays a dramatic scene about as effectively as any of the dramatic actors." In late 1965 ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, reminiscing about the entertainment business, singled out Skelton for high praise. "It's all so very different today. The whole business of comedy has changed — from 15 minutes of quality to quantity. We had a lot of very funny people around, from Charleyt Chase to Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy. The last one of that breed is Red Skelton." Harry Cohn of Columnia Pictures also praised Skelton, saying, "He's a clown in the old tradition. He doesn't need punch lines. He's got heart."
Skelton and Marcel Marceau shared a long friendship and admiration of each other's work. Marceau appeared on Skelton's CBS television show three times, including one turn as the host in 1961 as Skelton recovered from surgery. He was also a guest on the three Funny Faces specials that Skelton produced for HBO. In a TV Guide interview after Skelton's death, Marceau said, "Red, you are eternal for me and the millions of people you made laugh and cry. May God bless you forever, my great and precious companion. I will never forget that silent world we created together." CBS issued the following statement upon his death: "Red's audience had no age limits. He was the consummate family entertainer—a winsome clown, a storyteller without peer, a superb mime, a singer and a dancer."
The Red Skelton Performing Arts Center was dedicated in February 2006 on the campus of
The town of