Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Remembering Red Skelton

Whenever I mention Red Skelton to my friends, the name seems to always bring a smile. I know it does for me. Many people our age seem to have grown up watching re-runs of Red Skelton’s old television comedy-variety program from the sixties, and remember him fondly.

My introduction to Red came about through a less traditional route: the re-broadcasting of his older radio comedy shows, from the forties and fifties. (I never did get to see his old tv shows until my mother-in-law gave me a video collection of them on my first Christmas with my wife, a few years ago..)

For almost thirty years now I’ve relied on Red Skelton’s comedy as “depression insurance”; whenever I feel myself falling too deeply into despair I can reach for an old Red Skelton show and invariably, something about his style of self-deprecating humor raises my spirits and rallies me into taking myself and my problems much less seriously. He can always make me smile.

When I lived in Toronto I got the opportunity to see an 80+ year old Red Skelton perform live, three or four years in a row, until ill health conspired with old age to force him finally into retirement from show business. By splendid coincidence his swing through Canada would always result in his annual Toronto visits lining up the same week as my birthday, resulting in a ritual seeing me treat myself to a Red Skelton concert as a prized birthday present to myself.

I had acquired quite a few of his old radio shows on audio tape by that time, all rather well-worn from repeated listening, and this resulted in a fun memory from the first live Red Skelton concert I got to see. Much of his act consisted of Red reacting to his audience, and at one point the audience roared at what they felt was a clever ad-libbed remark. Everyone was laughing, but I did a double-take in my seat, because I recognized the "ad-libbed" line... from hearing it used on a 1946 episode of his old radio show! I smiled at my little secret: Red was using material that was almost 50 years old… and it was still getting laughs.

I’ve been going through a lot of old Red Skelton radio shows this week, and one of them triggered another memory: when I first moved to Toronto I found a copy of the Red Skelton biography by Arthur Marx (son of Groucho!), which I immediately devoured, and for some reason remember much more vividly than many books I’ve read in the last year. It was fascinating to learn about Red’s success on television, since at that time I had never really seen him, only heard him. The chapter on his first foray into television, in 1952, mentioned an anecdote concerning one skit, in particular, which sounded hilarious: a wife is so fed up with her husband’s drinking binges that she arranges to have him wake up from his drunken stupor into a room designed to keep him sober, forever. (Red didn’t think the set was safe, and as I recall the story it took a bit of prodding from his co-star to convince him otherwise)

Today, just for the heck of it I googled it, and I’ll be damned if it isn’t online! Finally, after twenty years of wondering, I can see (and share) Red as Willie Lump Lump enduring “The Topsy Turvy Room”:

Here’s a more famous bit that he was still doing in the 1990s, when I used to see him perform live, and it would still bring down the house: his classic Guzzler’s Gin routine.

Thanks for the memories, Red. And to quote your old sign-off line, "And may God Bless."


truepeers said...

Very revealing, Charles. After viewing the clips, I now think that Red has had a noticeable influence on your demeanor. Thanks for sharing the laughs.

Charles Henry said...

I hate to disagree, but I can assure that when you see me tripping over my feet and spilling my coffee and bumping into people at the Thursday night meetings, it's due to natural-born clumsiness, and in no way represents any attempt at a personal homage to Red's great pantomime skill. :)

Charles Henry said...

oops: "I can assure you"... forgot a word in there.