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The Red Skelton Show debuted on 30 September 1951 and became one of the longest-running variety series on television.
The series originally aired in a half-hour format on NBC. Despite an outstanding first year, in which the show was ranked fourth in the Nielsens and won two Emmy Awards, the series’ ratings toppled in its second season. When NBC cancelled the show, it was immediately picked up by CBS, and The Red Skelton Show became a Tuesday night staple from 1954 to 1970, garnering a total of 16 Emmy nominations.
Each show began with Skelton performing a monologue based on topical material, followed by a musical interlude. Next would follow a series of blackout sketches featuring one or more of his characters.
The sketches were a mixture of new material and old routines perfected over the years in vaudeville and in nightclubs, including his popular “Guzzler’s Gin” sketch).
Among the best known of his characters were Junior the Mean Widdle Kid (who was famous for his expression, “I dood it”); country boy Clem Kadiddlehopper; Sheriff Deadeye; punch-drunk boxer Cauliflower McPugg; drunkard Willy Lump-Lump; con man San Fernando Red; and Freddie the Freeloader, a hobo who never spoke.
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 centre of each personality.
Week after week, with good material and bad, Skelton made audiences laugh, often when he was physically and emotionally in shreds himself.
Many stars got their start on The Red Skelton Show. In 1954, Johnny Carson ( then one of Skelton’s writers), was called upon to fill in for the star when Skelton injured himself during a rehearsal. The Rolling Stones made one of their earliest US appearances on the show in 1964.
At the end of each show, Skelton would turn serious, expressing his gratitude to his audience for their love and laughter. His signature closing line became “Good night, and may God bless.”
In 1970, The Red Skelton Show was cancelled, with CBS citing high production costs. The next season, Skelton returned to NBC in a half-hour format on Monday night, but the new show lasted only one season. After 20 years of a weekly series, the old redhead was gone from our screens.
Skelton continued to perform live, doing 75 or more shows a year later in his career. He died in September 1997 at the age of 84.