The son of a circus clown and a cleaning woman, Red Skelton was born Richard Bernard on July 18, 1913 in Vincennes, Indiana. He was introduced to show business at the age of 7 at a vaudeville show in Vincennes. At age 10, he left home to travel with a medicine show through the Midwest, and joined the vaudeville circuit at age 15. At age 17, he married Edna Marie Stilwell, a theatre usher who became his vaudeville partner and later his chief writer and manager.
Skelton remained in vaudeville until 1937 when he debuted on Broadway and radio. In 1938 he made his big break in film. Eventually Skelton took roles in over 30 films, including “Having a Wonderful Time” with Ginger Rogers.
In 1951, his wife and manager negotiated a 7 year television contract for him and the same year “The Red Skelton Hour” premiered on NBC. One of the show’s highlights included the numerous characters that Red Skelton played and featured regularly: Freddy the Freeloader, Clem Kaddiddlehopper, George Appleby, and the seagulls Gertrude and Heathcliffe, who delighted audiences for decades.
Besides hosting his own show, Red Skelton frequently headlined other popular shows of the time, including The Ed Sullivan Show. Ed Sullivan liked to book acts that could be enjoyed and watched by people of all ages. Red Skelton was one of them. He was known and respected as a comedian who could bring his audience to laughter and tears without uttering a single vulgar word. On February 28, 1954 Red Skelton appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. After that, he went on to appear 11 more times through 1970.
Although he had a full staff of writers, Skelton wrote most of his own material. He also occasionally composed music for his stage shows. After the end of his 20-year run on primetime TV in 1971, Skelton continued to do live appearances, including a 1990 concert at Carnegie Hall, as well as occasional TV commercials.
Red Skelton’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show of September 29, 1968 is available on the “All Star Comedy from The Ed Sullivan Show” DVD.