Once a French fur trading post, Vincennes, Indiana is known not only as the state’s oldest city, but the site of its first bank, first newspaper, and first Catholic church. But the city also holds an important place in the history of comedy in the U.S.
Richard Bernard Skelton was born to a family of humble means in Vincennes in 1913; his father, a circus clown by trade, had died only months before his birth. The clown’s red-haired son was selling newspapers on the street when the renowned entertainer Ed Wynn came to play Vincennes. When the newsboy reported to the famous comic that he, too wanted to make people laugh when he got older, Wynn bought out all Red’s papers so that he could afford a ticket to the show. When ten-year-old Red Skelton arrived that evening, he found a balcony seat waiting for him in the lavish Pantheon Theatre, completed just two years earlier.
Built for three times its budgeted cost, and decorated by the most expensive interior designer of the era, the Pantheon Theatre at 428 Main Street was also the first theatre in the Midwest to be air conditioned. But it was the theatre’s audience that most impressed young Red, when he peeked through the curtain after having been escorted backstage at intermission.
Having caught the show-biz bug, Red Skelton left home soon thereafter to perform with a traveling medicine show, going on to work on a river boat, in a circus, on the vaudeville stage, in radio, TV and the movies. Some of the most memorable characters Red created were Clem Kadiddlehopper, the singing cabdriver of radio days, and Freddy the Freeloader, the hobo Red played on TV. In production for twenty years, the Red Skelton Show goes down as the second-longest-running entertainment program in network TV history.
The comic was also a prolific writer, music composer and painter who had three long marriages and two children. Though Skelton passed away in 1997, a number of landmarks in his home state bear his name, including a bridge spanning the Wabash River, the performing arts center on the Vincennes University campus, and the proposed Red Skelton Stage at the Pantheon Theatre, whose restoration was undertaken in May 2006.