Whoever successfully argued for Red Skelton as the recipient of the Governor's Award at this year's Emmys--presented Sunday night in Pasadena--is responsible for an intriguing bit of business.
As far as television is concerned, Skelton has been washed up for 16 years. In contemporary videoland, he's a non-person.
The choice of Skelton for the highest tribute presented by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is the choice for someone who keeps a more shadowy media profile than, say, Bob Hope, George Burns or even Lucille Ball. But it represents a rare and wholly welcome acknowledgment of an authentic comedy genius, who remains a hero in the American heartland.
At 73, Skelton is out on the road 75 times a year, playing state fairs, colleges and conventions. His only entourage consists of Clem Kadiddlehopper, Gertrude and Heathcliff, his lonely old man on New Year's Eve, and several other originals of his creation.
Otherwise, he travels virtually alone (his agent and musical director catch up with him close to show time) arriving in town two or three days early to visit local shopping malls, as he did in Hutchinson, Kan., recently, acting as an unofficial advance man for himself.
The moment he stepped out of his hotel room, people recognized him and stopped him for an autograph or an acknowledgement. Skelton always responded. He was smiling, upbeat, just this side of silly.
A young woman in the lobby stopped him and said "Oh, Mr. Skelton, you're the grandfather I never had." When he found out she teaches swimming, he said "I told Esther Williams I'd take her to Venice and make a street walker out of her."
"You're the greatest thing we ever saw," said a permed, portly, white-haired woman in a pink pant suit. "Yes, those were the good old days," Skelton said. "The nights weren't bad, either."
A mother and daughter asked him to pose for a photograph. A trio of state troopers stood in the lobby. He grabbed a walkie-talkie from one of them and answered the crackly voice inside. There was a pause. Then, the disembodied voice squawked, "I remember you!"
"Will I do better than Willie Nelson?" Skelton asked.
"We're going to have a good crowd for ya," the voice answered.
To the group of people beginning to assemble, Skelton said, "Willie Nelson asked me what to do about getting bigger crowds. 'Get your voice taken out of your nose and grafted in your throat.' I told him, 'If you ever blow your nose you're out of business.' "
At Hutchinson's main mall, photograph hounds clustered around him. "I saw you in a bank in Denver five years ago," one person said. "You signed the teller's tie."
"You're getting a fan club here," someone else said. "On a day like today (referring to the late summer Kansas heat) a fan comes in handy."
Many of the people in the crowd were of an age to remember Skelton's television variety show, which lasted from 1952 to 1970, or his movies (he made 48). Some might even recall his radio show before that. Probably no one saw him when he was a vaudeville headliner at the Paramount Theater in New York, or in his stint as a walkathon emcee.
Skelton is one of the few living figures who grew up with show business in the 20th Century.
"I've been in every facet of entertainment except the carnival and grand opera," he said on another occasion at his Rancho Mirage office. "My mother once said, 'Destiny caught up with you at an early age.' "
Destiny did--Skelton went off to join a medicine show at the age of 10 ("It was a platform show they set up to sell their products. It's called television now") and destiny held him in a kind of freeze frame. The boy has remained a powerful precursor of the man.
To this day he remains partly unconvinced of the magnitude of his talent, as if he hasn't been around long enough for the meaning of success to sink in. He's irrepressibly eager to please his public--aside from his comedic skills, it's his unguarded hunger for affection that makes people want to protect him. That's one of the qualities, along with his masculine size and knockabout good looks, that made him in his movie roles a plausible romantic figure as well as a clown.
He's never lost his boyish capacity to be wounded. The loneliness, uncertainty ("I've been stranded everywhere, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago--you name it") and harrowing poverty of his youth made their mark on him.
That, and more than the usual share of melancholy events in his life--including the death from leukemia of his only son at the age of 10 and the subsequent suicide of his second wife--exacerbated the tensions of an innately complex character.
He's both gregarious and guarded, sentimental and sardonic, straight-laced and bawdy, close with a dollar and prodigiously generous, (he reportedly once gave away his Rolls-Royce to a friend who admired it), a chronic life of the party whose fame as a painter has been achieved through his preoccupation with the sadness of clowns.