There is quite the birthday bash being planned for next week in Vincennes to honor the most famous native son of Indiana’s first community.
Thursday will mark the 106th birthday of Red Skelton and the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy is planning two days of activities. It’s a fitting celebration for Red, who proved himself to be a true Vincennes Renaissance man, succeeding as a clown, comedian, actor, stage performer, painter, writer, composer, and pantomimist in a show business career spanning more than 70 years.
The festivities will start Friday with a special 7 p.m. performance at the Red Skelton Performing Arts Center starring official Red Skelton impersonator, Brian Hoffman, direct from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and world famous mime, JJ Jones. Hoffman returns to Vincennes while Jones, who first studied mime after watching one of his heroes, Red Skelton, perform it on television, makes his first festival appearance.
In addition to Saturday’s 11 a.m. parade along Main and Second streets and Red Skelton Boulevard, the festival includes several activities at the Performing Arts Center and on the museum grounds between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The schedule includes children’s games, free stage entertainment, a donut-eating contest and bathtub races.
The late comedian Tim Conway, this year’s winner of the Red Skelton America’s Clown Award (The Freddie), given by the museum, will be honored posthumously. The ceremony will include video highlights from Conway’s 1966 appearance on the “Red Skelton Hour” television show.
There will be a screening of the 1943 Red Skelton hit movie, “Du Barry Was A Lady,” with Lucille Ball, Gene Kelly, Virginia O’Brien and Tommy Dorsey with his Orchestra hosted by Dr. Annette Bochenek, a Turner Classic Movies Backlot columnist.
Born July 18, 1913 inside the house that still stands at 111 West Lyndale Ave., Red (I use his nickname out of respect since that is what he told me to call him the first time we met) spent most of his first 16 years surviving an impoverished boyhood in Vincennes before leaving to pursue a simple dream to make others laugh. His widowed mother, Ida Mae, had to raise Red and his three brothers the best she could after the patriarch of the family, Joseph, died on May 22, 1913.
Joseph Skelton at the time owned a nearby neighborhood grocery store on Lyndale Avenue with his half-brother, but succumbed to the effects from massive stroke. Do some quick math and you realize Red was born nearly two months after his father died.
By age seven Red was working odd jobs to help support the family and around his 10th birthday he claims to have entered show business when the Doc Lewis Medicine show meandered into Vincennes. Doc Lewis hired Red to go out into the crowd to sell his patented, um, let’s just say, alcohol-enriched medicine.
Red tripped leaving the stage and the crowd laughed, thinking the pratfall was part of the show. Red said he heard the laughter and from that moment knew he wanted to somehow make his living being one of America’s clowns.
Apparently the fall by Red helped sell plenty of the remedy, since Doc Lewis asked Ida Mae if her youngest could travel with the show all over the Midwest. I guess Doc promised to have Red back by September for school and mom figured one less mouth at the dinner table could be a plus as well.
He departed with the medicine show that July to start an annual ritual lasting through age 16, where Red spent the summers performing with medicine shows, tent shows, at Chautauqua assemblies and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” minstrel shows. He came back to Vincennes each September for school.
Red left his hometown somewhere between Dec. 13, 1929 and April 10, 1930.
He was the featured comedian during “Midnight Frolic,” a local benefit show written and produced by his mentor, Clarence Stout, to buy clothes for poor children, in December at the Pantheon Theatre. The 1930 federal census recorded on April 10 does not list Red, who should have been included living with his grandmother, Susan Fields, mother and brother, Paul, at 1023 N. Ninth St.
Material in the museum collection indicates Red performed on a showboat, Cotton Blossom, from May 1 through Aug. 21, 1930, along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Newspaper clippings report Red as a burlesque show comedian working at the Gayety Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri, in February of 1931.
Red went on to star in vaudeville, motion pictures, radio, television and in Las Vegas and while performing his family-friendly comedy around the world. His last stage show took place in late 1984 before knee surgery and other ailments forced him to retire.
The World War II veteran earned countless entertainment and humanitarian awards and citations and fondly is remembered for his resounding rendition of “The Pledge of Allegiance,” first spoken during his TV show broadcast of Jan.14, 1969. The museum is in the midst of a year-long 50th anniversary celebration for “Red’s Pledge.”
Among his achievements are two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his radio and television careers. The Emmy and Golden Globe award winner is a member of halls of fame for television, radio, international clowns and American comedy.
Red Skelton passed away in Rancho Mirage, California, on Sept. 17, 1997.
Doug Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.