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A Condition Of Being Famous

The first celebrities of the ancient world were the powerful and fascinating gods of Greek and Roman pantheons. (In fact, the word "celebrity" has its roots in the language of the ancient Roman civilization. The word we now know to mean as "a condition of being "famous" or "a famous person" derived from the Latin word celeber, meaning "frequented or populous.") Citizens of these civilizations believed the gods had a direct impact on their lives, and it was, therefore, important to know about the gods' personal lives. This need to know led to the creation of myths, which personalized the gods and involved them in ancient celebrity scandals that titillated and excited the common people. While monarchs and political leaders were also important celebrities of the time, their fame could not compete with that of the gods.

During ancient civilization, amateur and professional athletes also began to make an impact on the celebrity culture. Victors in the ancient Olympic games were treated as hometown heroes and were often elevated to god-like status. In the ancient Roman civilization, gladiators (the equivalent of today's professional athletes) were also revered by the common people for their heroics and seemingly superhuman strength.

As print media expanded into film and radio in the early 1900s, movie stars began to be the true A-list celebrities. The bright lights and warm sun of Hollywood became a perfect setting for the city of the stars, and the lives of these celebrities became increasingly more interesting to regular people. As radio began to make its way into the average home in the 1920s and 1930s, professional athletes also began to take on star status, as their games and exploits could be broadcast over the air for an entirely new audience. The rise of television in the 1950s only cemented the premier level of celebrity film stars, professional athletes, and television actors now shared. While political and religious figures would still maintain some celebrity, their fame paled in comparison to the new celebrities of the modern era.

Some professional activities, by the nature of being high-paid, highly exposed, and difficult to get into, are likely to confer celebrity status. For example, movie stars and television actors with lead roles on prominently scheduled shows are likely to become celebrities. High-ranking politicians, national television reporters, daytime television show hosts, supermodels, successful athletes and chart-topping pop musicians are also likely to become celebrities. A few humanitarian leaders such as Mother Teresa have even achieved fame because of their charitable work.

While some film and theatre directors, producers, artists, authors, trial lawyers and journalists are celebrities, the vast majority are not, or they garner much less celebrity than their professional importance in the business might seem to warrant.

Individuals with their own television show (or sections of television shows) often become a celebrity, even when their profession would not normally lead to celebrity status: this can include doctors, chefs, gardeners, and conservationists on shows like Trading Spaces and The Crocodile Hunter. However fame based on one program may often prove short-lived after a program is discontinued.

Born Richard Bernard Skelton, July 18, 1913, in Vincennes, IN; died of pneumonia, September 17, 1997, in Rancho Mirage, CA. Comedian, actor, artist, writer. Skelton was known to millions as an affable performer who used pantomime and humorous dialogue to bring delight to audiences around the globe. A professional clown, Skelton drew from a stock of memorable characters such as bumpkin Clem Kadiddlehopper, hobo Freddie the Freeloader, Old West lawman SheriffDeadeye, drunkard Willie Lump-Lump, seagulls Gertrude and Heathcliffe, and the Mean Widdle Kid who often confessed "I Dood It." "His innate flexibility combined with a rubber face and superb comic timing virtually guaranteed that audiences would dissolve into laughter during his routines," noted the LondonTimes. "What was surprising was that Skelton, often amused by his own antics,would stop his own act to join them in their mirth."

The clowning professioncame naturally to Skelton, who was nicknamed "Red" in his youth because of his hair color. His father, Joseph, had been a circus clown. Skelton never knew his father, as the elder Skelton died two months before his son's birth. The future comic was raised in poverty as his mother struggled to make money byscrubbing floors. Skelton himself began work at the age of seven, selling newspapers. By age ten he had joined a medicine show. He began to learn about comic timing during his first day on the job when he accidentally fell off thestage and knocked over some bottles, bringing laughter from the crowd. Thereafter the "accident" became part of the act.

Skelton, who dropped out of school in the seventh grade, went on to jobs performing in a minstrel show, on the Cotton Blossom showboat, and with the Hagenbeck & Wallace Circus - the same company that had earlier employed his father. He later worked the burlesque circuit. "It was realburlesque - not the sex show that it became in later years, but comedy parody of well-known Broadway shows and top vaudeville acts."

Eventually Skelton worked at various clubs in the United States and Canada. In 1937 he made his debut on Broadway and was invited to appear on Rudy Vallee's radio show and later at the White House for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Although he had failed a screen test in 1932, Skelton found success in motion pictures in the 1940s. Among his film appearances during his career were roles in Having a Wonderful Time, Around the World in 80 Days, The People vs. Dr. Kildare, Whistling in the Dark, I Dood It, The Fuller Brush Man, Ziegfeld Follies, Ocean's Eleven, and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. He also established a presence on radio with Red Skelton's Scrapbook of Satire, a weekly show.

During World War II he joined the U.S. Army and ultimately began performing infifteen shows a day. Trying to maintain that schedule, he suffered from exhaustion and was hospitalized; he was later discharged. Unlike other comedians of the vaudeville era, Skelton was able to overcome the difficulties of adapting to new media, such as television. In 1951 he began a twenty-year stint on network television as the star of his own series. The Red Skelton Show was asuccess with audiences young and old. Although the comic's popularity continued into the 1970s, and his show continued to draw significant ratings, his show was canceled by network executives who felt his squeaky-clean comedy wouldn't continue to reach their target audience. Nevertheless, Skelton didn't veer from his brand of comedy. "I'd rather have people say, 'Boy, he's hokey, isn't he?'... rather than, 'Who was the guy who told all those dirty jokes?'" His attitude on profanity was summed up simply: "I don't think anybody should have to pay money at the box office to hear what they can read on restroom walls." Skelton continued to perform into the 1990s drawing huge crowds in college concert halls and in othervenues. He used to joke that "I can't retire... I've got a government to support."

He was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1988. Skelton wrote some of his own material, including compositions for Red Skelton in Concert, dialogue for his television series, and comic pieces for other television shows such as The Red Skelton Timex Special, Red Skelton's Christmas Dinner, Red Skelton's Funny Faces, and Red Skelton: A Royal Performance. He also penned Clown Alley, a story coloring book; I'll Tell All, an autobiography; and Red Skelton's Gertrude and Healthcliffe.

He once remarked: "I don't want to be called 'the greatest' or 'one of the greatest' ... let other guys claim to bethe best. I just want to be known as a clown because to me, that's the height of my profession. It means you can do everything - sing, dance and above all, make people laugh." His one regret was "that I didn't meet one particular guy, a clown named Joe Skelton. You know, he sure picked the right profession. I mean, a clown's got it all. He never has to hold back: He can do as he pleases. The mouth and the eyes are painted on. So, if you wanta cry, you can go right ahead. The makeup won't smear. You'll still be smiling." His classic signoff for his performances was always "Good night, and God bless."

When Red Skelton does a nightclub or television show, a man with a towel stands by at all times in case Red's stomach suffers one of its frequent reactions to the strain. Throughout the performance, whether he is Clem Kaddiddlehopper or Cauliflower McPugg, his characters have at least one thing in common: they are all but afloat in nervous perspiration. Red trembles and his eyes are alight with tears as, in the end, he inhales his grand ration of applause; and the people who swarm backstage for his autograph find an obliging man, usually dressed in an old kimono, whose lips quiver and whose hands shake.

One such experience would be enough to tire the average light-heavyweight longshoreman, but Skelton does it—and needs it—night after night in clubs, week after week on television. While that feared acetylene torch called overexposure has singed, seared or crisped one comedian after another, Red Skelton's popularity has never really stopped growing.

The shuffling, pratfalling, rubber-faced, cross-eyed Skelton characters are as familiar to audiences as their own neighborhood eccentrics, but Richard Bernard Skelton himself is more eccentric than any of them. In an age of canned biographies and prefabricated flamboyance, he is one Hollywood character that no pressagent yet born could possibly have invented.

All the lights in his 27-room Bel Air mansion can be turned on from a single switch, and they are generally left on from sunset to sunrise, for Red is admittedly afraid of the dark. He has the gates of his estate bugged so that he can hear in his bedroom anyone who might be prowling about, and another electronic device tells him when people have entered his property. He once discouraged a visit from CBS's Person to Person show, which he describes as "kinda nosy." He prefers to keep the place to himself, his wife Georgia, his 13-year-old daughter Valentina, and three servants. Also on the premises: a stuffed gorilla, five dogs, a macaw, and a parrot that occupies a refrigerator during spells of warm weather.

Deep into the night, every night, Red sits up and writes a short story. He has them bound in red morocco leather, with the words "By Red Skelton" lettered on each volume in gold. None has been published or even read by any but his closest friends. The late Gene Fowler ("my only father"), who was to have been Skelton's biographer, once reported that every Skelton story was about a redhead—redheaded boys, redheaded men, even redheaded old ladies. He likes to paint, too, committing to canvas an endless series of clowns.

When Skelton finally turns in, he lies down—usually with two or three of his dogs—on something that suggests a discount house with springs. His 49-square-foot bed has a control panel hooked up with three television sets (plus a portable for emergencies), an air purifier to combat his asthma, a tape recorder, and gadgets that close curtains and regulate the air conditioning. Two secretaries arrive for breakfast, and while Red eats they play a newspaper "Brain Game" with him, firing general information questions at him. If the phone rings, he shudders. He has such a phobia for telephones that he will talk to no one but his wife and manager.

So goes the normal routine, but beneath the spread of idiosyncracy in Skelton's life there has been true misfortune; often he retreats to the toy-filled room of his late son, Richard, who died of leukemia in 1958. He sits there and broods for hours. Once Skelton kept a small trailer at the back of his property and would close himself away in it for days at a time.

Skelton, the Bel Air millionaire who recently gave away one of his three Rolls-Royces, was born so poor that he sang for pennies in the streets of Vincennes, Ind. when he was seven. His father, a circus clown, had died before Richard Skelton was born, and when Red was ten he ran away from home to join a show-business type known as Dr. R. E. Lewis—an itinerant medicine man who peddled a solution of water, sugar and Epsom salts called the Hot Springs System Tonic. Mississippi showboats, minstrel shows and vaudeville later gave Red his secondary education and set him up for radio, Hollywood and television, but Dr. Lewis, inadvertently, had already shown him his best professional asset. The "doctor" pushed Red off the medicine wagon one day, and when the boy nose-dived to the ground, the crowd shook with laughter. Skelton has fallen like rain ever since, spattering himself all over sets and stages. He has banged up arms, fingers, ribs, and suffered one serious concussion.

The second largest asset of his early career came indirectly from vaudeville. He married a Kansas City usherette named Edna Stilwell, a hardheaded girl who managed his business affairs so well that she continued to do so for five years after they were divorced and he married Girl-about-Hollywood Georgia Davis. But even as Edna helped guide him toward the stability of oil wells and real estate holdings, she could not overcome his deeper fears. According to a friend, Skelton feels that vague assailants known as "they" have always been after him. He once went around with a suitcase full of cash, explaining: "They won't get this away from me."

Between Edna and Georgia, Skelton filled in with alcohol, but now drinks very little and does not smoke, although he almost always has a cigar with him and manages to chew up some 25 to 30 stogies a day. Nor does he gamble—in public—since that might disillusion his followers. When he is in Las Vegas, the hotel management installs a slot machine in his room, last month turned back to him $350 he had lost while playing his enormously successful engagement at The Sands.

Skelton has 22 Bibles, has studied assorted Oriental and Occidental faiths, often says that he believes all people are placed on earth by God for a purpose and that his is to make people laugh. The soundest proof of this, as he sees it, comes when small children approach him after shows, and climb silently into his lap. A master malapropist, Skelton perhaps sums up what draws children and all people to him when he speaks of "extra-sensitive perception." His troubled life has given him the sensitivity that has made him a great clown. "I've got the sixth sense," he admits, "but I don't have the other five."

Skelton was said to be bitter about CBS's cancellation for many years to follow. Ignoring the demographics and salary issues, he bitterly accused CBS of caving in to the anti-establishment, anti-war faction at the height of the Vietnam War, saying his conservative politics and traditional values caused CBS to turn against him. Skelton invited prominent Republicans, including Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen, to appear on his program.

As if the loss of his show was not enough, his wife Georgia committed suicide in 1976, five years after their divorce and on the anniversary of their son's death years before. This was her second attempt at suicide. When he was presented with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Governor's Award in 1986, Skelton received a standing ovation. "I want to thank you for sitting down," Skelton said when the ovation subsided. "I thought you were pulling a CBS and walking out on me."

In addition to performing, Skelton excelled at several other interests. That he was a renowned oil painter of clowns is well known, but he also designed dishes and was an expert at creating bonsai trees. Skelton also composed about 8,000 songs, including the theme for the film Made in Paris (1966). For his lifetime of contributions in entertainment he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Literature from Emerson College of Boston, a Doctor of Human Letters from Vincennes University, and a doctorate of Theater Arts at Indiana State University. Skelton was a 33rd Degree Mason, the order's highest possible level.

Television: Sixth Sense Only. TIME . Monday, October 03, 1960.


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