At the height of his career, Red Skelton’s radio comedy show rivaled Bob Hope's, and his mastery of mime and clowning instantly made him a Hollywood star. His rubbery makeup, rusty hair, and quick wit also earned him a hit TV series for CBS in 1951, resulting in three Emmy Awards. Skelton even considered fellow redhead comedienne Lucille Ball a close friend.
However, the arrival of the ‘70s ushered in a new wave of comedy that relied on boundary-pushing topics, like sex, religion, and politics, with a generous serving of swearing, to entertain audiences.
CBS, believing Skelton’s vintage acts just couldn’t resonate with younger viewers, cancelled his show in 1970. Saddened, but unwilling to change his gentler comedy, Skelton retreated to a quieter life until he passed away at age 84 in 1997.
“He was heartbroken when CBS let him go because of demographics, and that was because of the change in comedy at the time,” his widow Lothian Skelton told Fox News on the occasion of the 20th anniversay of her husband's death. “He moved on to NBC for a half-hour show. And although the shows were good, the ratings weren’t quite the same. In a half hour, he just couldn’t be the way he used to be. So in 1971, he decided to do personal appearances, whether they were in nightclubs or universities. He was easily doing 70 concerts a year…He lived a good, solid, all-American home life…That extended Red’s life, and for that I will always be grateful.”
The longtime friends were married in 1973 when the actor was 60 and she was 36. It was the star's third marriage and one that lasted until his passing.
Lothian, 80, said her husband never regretted staying true to his humor.
“Red used to say, ‘I’m not going to have my audience and their mothers, fathers, children, and grandchildren hear me recite what they can read on bathroom walls,’” she explained. “And it was a simple as that. He was not going to lower his standards. He might have a funny innuendo, but he would never say anything to offend his audience. It just wasn’t Red, a man who said ‘Good night and God bless’ after every show. He meant it. He was normal when it came to telling jokes with the boys, but not in front of ladies and not in front of his audience.”
Skelton’s achievements in entertainment are relatively unknown among younger viewers today, which compelled Lothian to help preserve his legacy. In 2013, the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy opened in his native Indiana where she donated numerous personal items belonging to her late husband. She hopes the space will teach visitors about the beloved entertainer.
“Red loved his fans,” she explained. “After a show one day, he went out through a back door and was ready to go home — he was so tired working two hours non-stop on stage. But everyone was waiting.
"It was raining like heck and I thought we would be on our way home. But Red said, ‘Stop here. If those people can stand in the rain waiting for me to come out and sign an autograph, then I will do so.’ And without an umbrella, he signed for all those people. That was Red Skelton.”
While Lothian considered herself to be shy, Red was one who would always answer his door and attempted to be friends with whoever might come by. She pointed out that a gate was installed in their home to ensure more privacy.
Skelton, who came from humble beginnings, also never took for granted where he came from. Two months before he was born, his father, a circus clown, passed away. By age seven, he was a newspaper delivery boy to help his family make ends meet. Lothian said he was a proud Patriot and often encouraged others to feel the same through his work.
“Red had a good relationship with many, many presidents and elected officials through the years,” said Lothian. “He was so proud of his country. And whatever party was in office, he respected that person. He entertained the White House and wrote jokes for presidents…I think that’s good for today’s world to show how non-partisan he was.”
But even after Skelton’s career came to a halt, he enjoyed the new phase of his life. He painted clown faces that fetched at least $80,000. And his marriage was also filled with laughter behind closed doors.
“Red was always telling jokes,” recalled Lothian. “And I’m a bit of a prankster myself…We laughed a lot and never argued. We never had a fight. Honestly, we never did. Red would write me a letter every day and if I had been what he would consider a naughty girl or had been a little bit out of line in some way, he would write me a letter that he might never give me. Those letters were folded in half.
"Long after I lost Red, I found some of those letters. And the museum found more letters. They were kind enough to return them to me.”
It’s been 20 years since Red’s passing, but Lothian is determined now more than ever to keep his memory and wholesome comedy alive with the help of the museum.
“We do have to think about the generation to follow because life is not eternal for any of us, so we try to do something with our lives that makes it better for the generation to follow,” she said. “And what I’m basically trying to do is to make certain that Red’s good work is not forgotten and that maybe through his work he will inspire young people to do the same - to be innovators, to be creative, and do all of these things without hurting anyone in the process. To make their lives happier.”