Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Red Skelton Show
Skelton, who had previously been a radio star, had appeared in several motion pictures as well. Although his television series is largely associated with CBS, where it appeared for over 15 years, it actually began and ended on NBC. During its run, the program received three Emmy Awards, for Skelton as best comedian and the program as best comedy show during its initial season, and an award for comedy writing in 1960.
Skelton's network television program began at the start of the 1951 fall season on NBC. After two seasons on Sunday nights, the program was picked up by CBS in the fall of 1953 and moved to Tuesday night, the time slot with which it would become primarily associated during most of his run. After his first CBS season the program was moved to Wednesday night and expanded to an hour for the summer of 1954 only; it was then reduced back to a half hour and returned to Tuesday night, where it would remain for the next sixteen years.
Format during the 1960s
In 1963, the program was again expanded to a full hour and remained in this longer format for the balance of its CBS run. The format of the program itself during this period was quite simple.
Skelton opened with a monologue. The monologue often lapsed into character humor, with two of the recurring bits being "George Applebee", a perennially henpecked husband into whom Red transformed by donning heavy black-rimmed spectacles and a misshapen derby hat, and "Gertrude and Heathcliff, the Two Seagulls", which he performed by crossing his eyes and sticking his hands into his armpits for "wings". (Johnny Carson, who was a writer on this program for a period, has reminisced about writing this spot.)
Guest Star's Performance
This was followed by a performance by a guest star, often a singer. Musical accompaniment was generally provided by the orchestra of well-known bandleader David Rose, who was the composer of the show's familiar main musical theme, "Holiday for Strings". The guest then appeared with Red in a comedy sketch.
The sketches were usually built around one of Red's many characters, including "Deadeye", an incredibly inept sheriff in the Old West; "San Fernando Red", a shady real estate agent (named for the San Fernando Valley, which was still a largely rural area well outside Los Angeles at the time that the show began); "Cauliflower McPugg", a punchdrunk boxer, Clem Kadiddlehopper, a hick who was identified in at least one sketch as being from Cornpone County, Tennessee, and "Freddie the Freeloader". Freddie was a bum with a heart of gold, who was played by Skelton in clown makeup reminiscient of Emmett Kelly but somehow not as sad. Freddie could be either a speaking character or totally pantomimed.
In fact, in its later years the show generally finished with "The Silent Spot", with Skelton pantonmiming Freddie or another silent character. (It was hard for some younger viewers to accept that such an overwhelmingly visual, physical performer had once been a staple of radio.) After "The Silent Spot", the show closed with Red looking into the camera and saying sincerely, "Good night and may God bless."
The Show's Final Years, 1970-1971
CBS ended its association with the program in the spring of 1970. This apparently marked the beginning of one of several attempts by CBS to downplay programming whose primary appeal was to "Middle America", an audience more rural and also somewhat older than that generally desired by network television advertisers, who generally choose to be associated with programming appealing to younger, "hipper", and more urban audiences.
The Move to NBC, 1970
At least in part due to Skelton's iconic status, the program was picked by up NBC in the fall of 1970. However, the program that it aired was quite different than the one that Skelton's CBS audience was used to seeing. The new set was dark, devoid of the backdrops that viewers had seen on CBS. The show was cut back to its original half-hour length. It was moved from Tuesday to Monday nights.
But perhaps the biggest change was that, for the first time, the show incorporated "regulars" beyond Skelton, Rose, and Rose's orchestra. A repertory company of young comic actors and actresses was added, as were The Burgundy Street Singers, previously seen on network television when 1950s folk singing star Jimmie Rodgers had made an abortive comeback to network television on ABC two years earlier.
The new format never really worked; the audience sensed that there was little chemistry between Skelton and his young colleagues. The program ended in March of 1971, although selected programs from this final season were rerun on NBC on Sunday nights during the summer of 1971, so it could be said that Skelton's network television career ended exactly where it had begun.
Skelton's Later TV Career
Skelton continued to make appearances for many years afterwards, increasingly as a nostalgic figure, but was never again a regular feature of network television programming. He was awarded the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Governors Award, a lifetime achievement award, in 1986.
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