The Red Skelton Show, which premiered on 30 September 1951, was not only one of the longest running variety series on television, but also one of the first variety shows to make the successful transition from radio to television. Despite his popularity as an entertainer in nightclubs, vaudeville, radio and 26 feature films, Skelton was unsure of the new medium. Consequently, he continued his weekly radio broadcasts while simultaneously working on the first two season of his television show.
The series originally aired in a half-hour format on NBC. Despite an outstanding first year in which his show was ranked fourth in the Nielsens and won two Emmy awards, the series' ratings toppled in its second season. When NBC canceled the show, it was immediately picked up by CBS, and The Red Skelton Show became a Tuesday night staple from 1954 to 1970.
The format of the series was similar to Skelton's radio program. Each show began with Skelton performing a monologue based on topical material, followed by a musical interlude. He would then perform in a series of blackout sketches featuring one or more of his characters. The sketches were a mixture of new material and old routines (including his popular "Guzzler's Gin") perfected over the years in vaudeville and in nightclubs. At the end of the program, Skelton would become serious and express his gratitude to his audience for their love and laughter. His signature closing line became "Good night and may God bless."
The Red Skelton Show, unlike other variety series, did not rely on guest stars every week. Skelton had a strong group of support players, most of whom had worked with him on his radio program. They included Benny Rubin, Hans Conried, Mel Blanc, and Verna Felton.
Most of Skelton's characters were first developed for radio and worked equally well on television. Among the best known were Junior the Mean Widdle Kid (who was famous for his expression, "I Dood It"), country boy Clem Kadiddlehopper, Sheriff Deadeye, boxer Cauliflower McPugg, drunkard Willy Lump-Lump, and con man San Fernando Red. Skelton had a reputation for his extensive use of "headware." Each character had his own specific hat, which Skelton used as a means to find the center of each personality.
The only television addition to his repertoire of characters was Freddie the Freeloader, a hobo who never spoke. A special "silent spot" featuring the hobo character was added to the program, and provided Skelton the opportunity to demonstrate his talents as a pantomimist.
Skelton's forte was his use of slapstick. He seemed oblivious to physical punishment and often ended his vaudeville act by falling off the stage into the orchestra pit. One of his most popular pieces was created for his premiere show. At the end of his monologue, while Skelton was taking a bow, two hands reached out from under the curtain, grabbed him by the ankles, and swept him off the stage.
Many stars got their start on The Red Skelton Show. Johnny Carson, one of Skelton's writers, was called upon to fill in for the star when, in 1954, Skelton injured himself during a rehearsal. The Rolling Stones made one of their earliest American appearances on the show in 1964.
Critics often chastised Skelton for breaking into laughter at his own material on the air. But, no matter how many times he succumbed to his giggles, took another pratfall, mugged for the camera, or made asides to the audience, his popularity only increased.
Although the series remained among the top 20 rated shows, CBS canceled it in 1970, citing high production costs. But it was also the case that Skelton's main audience was very young viewers and speculation suggested that the network wanted to increase its audience share of young adults. The next season, Skelton returned to NBC in a half-hour format on Monday night, but the new show lasted only one season.
During the run of his variety series, Skelton was also able to demonstrate his dramatic abilities. He played the punch-drunk fighter, Buddy McCoy, in Playhouse 90's The Big Slide (CBS, 1956) for which he was nominated for an Emmy award as Best Actor.
David Rose and His Orchestra
Carol Worthington (1970-1971)
Chanin Hale (1970-1971)
Jan Arvan (1970-1971)
Bob Duggan (1970-1971)
Peggy Rea (1970-1971)
Brad Logan (1970-1971)
The Burgundy Street Singers (1970-1971)
1951-1970; Nat Perrin, Cecil Barker, Freeman Keyes, Ben Brady, Gerald Gardner, Bill Hobin, Seymour Berns
1970-1971; Guy Della Cioppa, Gerald Gardner, Dee Caruso
September 1951-June 1952 Sunday 10:00-10:30
September 1952-June 1953 Sunday 7:00-7:30
September 1953-June 1954 Tuesday 8:30-9:00
July 1954-September 1954 Wednesday 8:00-9:00
September 1954-December 1954 Tuesday 8:00-8:30
January 1959-June 1961 Tuesday 9:30-10:00
September 1961-June 1962 Tuesday 9:00-9:30
September 1962-June 1963 Tuesday 8:30-9:30
September 1963-June 1964 Tuesday 8:00-9:00
September 1964-June 1970 Tuesday 8:30-9:30
September 1970-March 1971 Monday 7:30-8:00
June 1971-August 1971 Sunday 8:30-9:00
Abramson, M. "The Red Skelton Story." Cosmopolitan (New York), September 1956.
Busch, N. F. "Red Skelton: Television's Clown Prince." Reader's Digest (Pleasantville, New York) March 1965.
Chassler, S. "Helter Skelton." Colliers (New York), 29 March 1952.
"Clown of the Year." Newsweek (New York), 17 March 1952.
"Invincible Red: Tormented Skelton is Top U.S. Clown." Life (New York), 21 April 1961.
Jennings, D. "Sad and Lonely Clown." Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 2 June 1962.
Marx, Arthur. Red Skelton. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979.
Pryor, Thomas M. "Impromptu Comic: In TV, Red Skelton is a Free-Wheeling Clown." New York Times, 2 March 1952.
"Rubber Face on TV." Life (New York), 22 October 1951.
"Still Fighting for Laughs." Look (New York), 2 April 1957.