I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did, but the Red Skelton Museum in Vincennes is really well put together and an enjoyable museum to wonder through. Red Skelton’s last wife, Lothian Toland, donated many items for the museum, which opened on July 18, 2013 on what would have been Red’s 100th birthday.
I knew Red Skelton from my childhood, but I didn’t know anything about him. His slapstick humor seemed to be from another era. The museum walked me through his personal and professional life—starting with a short video about his life. We, the audience, were seated in movie seats from the set of The Muppets—in other words, the museum was off to a good start!
Red didn’t have an easy early life. His father died the year he was born. (Incidentally, his father was a graduate of Valparaiso College, now called Valparaiso University—that bit of trivia caught my eye.) Red got involved in entertainment on the radio and then on TV. He was inspired by the early physical comedy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
The museum includes audio and video exhibits of his work, which show his goofy nature and quick wit. In one radio sketch, he mentions to a cohort that his wife told him to expect the pitter-patter of little feet—so he set out mousetraps.
He starred in movies, many movies, thirty-five in total. He co-starred in several with Lucille Ball. Two of his most successful movies are Southern Yankee and The Fuller Brush Man. Ten of his movies were translated or dubbed into other languages.
When TV arrived on the scene, he moved from radio to TV and reigned there for twenty years. (Johnny Carson actually wrote for Red Skelton on his show before becoming the host of The Tonight Show in 1962.) Red received three Emmys: Best Comedian (1952), Best Comedy Show (1952), and Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy for 1960-1961.
In addition to his show, Red was busy—to the point that his health was suffering. For example, in 1958 he toured Korea to entertain the troops with Jamie Farr—yes, that Jamie Farr of later MASH fame. This was the same year that his son Richard succumbed to leukemia.
In 1971, his TV show was cancelled. The American public was changing. In the words of the museum, there was a rural purge. The audience was younger, more sophisticated, and intellectual (ouch!). But Red didn’t stop. He moved to the stage, continuing to perform well into his 70s.
The museum highlights many of the characters he used in performances, displaying costumes and showing video clips. Many originated during his radio days and moved with him to TV. Some of the characters on display: San Fernando Red (a shady real estate agent), Deadeye (an inept sheriff), Cauliflower McPugg (a punchdrunk boxer), Freddie the Freeloader (a bum clown), George Appleby (a henpecked husband), and Clem Kadiddlehopper (wise fool, or country bumpkin depending on your perspective).
Red was much more than a variety show performer. He was an artist and—to my surprise—a musician. He started painting in 1943 and is best known for his paintings of clowns. He also sketched and created children’s books. And he composed 8,000—yes, 8,000—pieces of music. The museum exhibits some of his paintings, music, and other artistic works.
Although his sketches don’t appeal to me—being of the more urbane post-1970 crowd—I can appreciate his talent and creativity. The museum did a wonderful job of telling the story of his life through different forms of media and with items from his shows. As a bonus, his childhood house still stands nearby at 111 W Lyndale Ave. You can’t miss it. A large sign announces the house’s pedigree.
Red was the consummate clown, seeking to make others laugh. “If by chance some day you’re not feeling well and you should remember some silly thing I’ve said or done and it brings back a smile to your face or a chuckle to your heart, then my purpose as your clown has been fulfilled.” ~ Red Skelton
If you are in Vincennes or its environs, spend a couple hours wandering through the Red Skelton Museum. You won’t be disappointed.