By Susan Hayhurst
Special to the Tribune-Star
“I personally believe that each of us was put here for a purpose. If I can make people smile, then I have served my purpose.” — Red Skelton
And served his purpose indeed. For more than 60 years, millions of Americans grew up listening to the slapstick Skelton on radio or watching his hilarious comedic skits on stage, television and film. His tenure in those entertainment industries taught us so much about the language of laughter, “a language everyone could understand,” according to Skelton, and one of the reasons for the new Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy opening on Thursday at Vincennes University.
The brainchild of Phillip M. Summers, chairman of the Red Skelton Museum Foundation board of directors and former president of Vincennes University, “the museum will celebrate comedy and humor as seen through Red’s life and his love of making people laugh,” Shirley J. Ray, the museum’s executive director said.
“Summers was president of VU when Skelton died of pneumonia in 1997,” according to Anne Pratt, the museum’s Marketing and Development director. “He approached the university’s board of directors to do something for Red and donors, visitors and volunteers came together to help create and open the adjacent Red Skelton Performing Arts Center in 2006. The plan was to later open an accompanying museum celebrating his legacy and we’re thrilled to do that on July 18.”
Performing Arts Center
You know you have arrived in Skelton territory on the east side of VU’s campus when street banners sporting Skelton in his various characters and a huge caricature of him adorning the museum greet you. Upon entering the acoustically perfect 850-seat performing arts center, visitors can’t help but smile at the gigantic black and white pictorial gallery of Red captured in some of his favorite personas, including “Freddie the Freeloader” and “Sheriff Deadeye.” A glass case of his numerous Emmy awards, one of his tuxedos, reading glasses, a cigar “carried on stage, but never smoked,” and a volume of his original bound scripts adorn its shelves.
Recently encased is a dedicated display of Skelton’s Masonic and Shriner’s artifacts. Skelton was a 33rd Degree Mason at Vincennes Lodge No. 1, and became a member of Scottish and York Rite bodies on Sept. 20, 1939.
The center offers a vast array of campus, community and professional events annually, and has hosted such celebrity performers as the Smothers Brothers, Debbie Reynolds and Crystal Gayle. Information on upcoming activities can be found at www.vinu.edu/red-skelton-theater.com.
American Comedy Museum
Aptly themed “A Legacy of Laughter,” the new, colorful museum is a “collection of exhibits where Red connects us to his life of inspiring laughter during the advent of radio, vaudeville, movies and television,” Ray said. “It’s a story beyond just him, it’s about history. From his early childhood days watching circuses and vaudeville performers come to town, to offering a reason to laugh during the Great Depression and World Wars, the exhibits provide connection for those who grew up listening to and watching him, but it’s also about rediscovery for new generations.”
Known as a clown with many faces, a mime, an actor and a comedian, Skelton was respected by many — including the late talk show host and former script writer for Skelton, Johnny Carson, and actor Jamie Farr of M.A.S.H. fame. He was a master of physical and verbal comedy. Throughout the museum, guests will read Skelton was an “observer of life and a commentator on its idiosyncrasies.”
Skelton was inspired by such noted actors as Ed Wynn and Charlie Chaplin. His observation, “being funny is a business — but one that takes a bit of learning to bring the laugh that counts,” is represented in the time and effort he put into his loveable characters who are immortalized in individual museum exhibits. “Clem Kadiddlehopper: Country Bumpkin” is remembered for his mustard-colored garish three-piece plaid suit, an exaggerated lisp, crossed eyes and exaggerated overbite. He liked to say, “What I lack in training, I make up in stupidity.”
“George Appleby: Henpecked Husband” was stereotyped as a neurotic 1950s husband who just didn’t get what marriage was all about. He was usually dressed impeccably and even wore his derby hat to bed. Nobody wanted to mess with “Cauliflower McPugg: Punch Drunk Boxer,” the fighter who had taken one too many knocks to the head. His outfit, a floppy plaid newsboy cap worn askew, a gray turtleneck emblazoned with his name, and vivid gold boxing shorts, accentuated the goofy character Skelton loved to portray.
Pompous and wily “San Fernando Red: Eccentric Self-Promoter” was a slick con artist whose outfit included a broad Stetson hat, top shoes, a blond wig, and a coat with tails. “Sheriff Deadeye: Good for Nothing Cowboy” was inept and always wore a hand-tooled leather belt with guns and holsters, in his one-horse western town.
Perhaps the most beloved and endearing character Skelton created was “Freddie the Freeloader: Tramp Clown.” His ever-present five o’clock shadow, white face makeup, scuffed brown shoes and bedraggled costuming even garnered Lucille Ball as his hobo companion several times while performing.
Visitors will love pulling copies of Skelton’s signature hats off of bobble heads and appraising themselves in mirrors. A virtual makeup booth will show you how authentic you look as a clown. A 32-seat theater and several individual screens through the museum play portions of Skelton films. A detailed timeline guides sightseers through Skelton’s life from boyhood (his childhood home is located across the street from the museum) through his storied career, and parallels our country’s significant events.
A museum store will offer prints of Skelton’s paintings, make-up kits, and books on comedy. And eventually traveling exhibits will be available for rotation at libraries and other museums and venues.
The public and donors alike — including Lothian Skelton, Red’s third wife, his daughter Valentina Skelton, and Jamie Farr — will participate in the opening celebration and events. Mrs. Skelton has graciously given more than $3 million worth of Skelton’s memorabilia to the Red Skelton Museum Foundation. In 2010, the foundation entered into a partnership with the Indiana Historical Society to create the IHS Red Skelton Research Archive, which includes archival material donated by Lothian, other designated archival material from the foundation, and a growing number of items that IHS separately acquires. For more information on the archive, contact the IHS’ reference staff at (317) 234-0321 or email@example.com.
Those interested in attending the festivities, including family and seniors days, can access information at www.redskeltonmuseum.org or by calling Pratt at 812-888-2105.
Once you’ve immersed yourself in all things Skelton and laughed until you cry, you’ll remember Skelton’s oft used parting words, “So until next week, I’ll say good night and may God Bless.”