The fine blog It’s About TV recently mentioned the amazing number of variety shows that used to be on during a typical week. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I was aware of many of them, but at our house, we watched only a couple of them regularly. When we were very young, The Red Skelton Show was the highlight of our week, because we were permitted to stay up a half-hour past our regular bedtime—all the way until 8:30—to watch.
Skelton started as a comic actor in the 1930s before moving over to radio in the 40s and on to television in 1951, where he would remain until 1971. Apparently, he was extraordinarily difficult to work with, often refusing to speak to the writers he hired, disdaining their contributions to his success, and sometimes stealing their jokes and passing them off as his own. After CBS dumped him in 1970, he held a publicly expressed grudge against them for years. As children, we knew nothing about all that. To us, Red was a kindly grandfather type who said funny things and played funny characters, and we enjoyed his visits every Tuesday night.
Red Skelton also scored an actual hit record during the rock era. On a January 1969 episode of his show, he did a bit about the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance, and expressed the fear that since the words “under God” had been added, schools might consider it a prayer and ban it. At the height of the roiling 1960s, with the counterculture in full flower and the antiwar movement riding high, Skelton’s sentiments had broad appeal to Richard Nixon’s “silent majority.” “The Pledge of Allegiance” charted in March and spent six weeks on Billboard‘s Hot 100. Forty-four years ago this week, it reached its peak position—#44.
(Skelton was famously conservative. In recent times, a few right-wingers have used his words about the pledge as a club to beat liberals. In fact, there’s nothing in it that a liberal would disagree with and much that conservatives should take to heart—especially “it’s as much your country as it is mine.”)
On November 10, 1964, on an episode of his show taped partly in London, Skelton featured the Rolling Stones, just a couple of weeks after they had been on The Ed Sullivan Show. With the exception of Sullivan, variety-show hosts of the mid 1960s tended to ridicule their rock star guests, and Skelton was no different. He’s seen making faces, holding his nose, and putting his fingers in his ears during the first part of their performance, and he introduces the second part with several unfunny jokes about their hair. I suppose there’s an argument that this shows how small-d democratic these variety shows could be—music for the kids and wisecracks about it for the bewildered parents—but I also wonder how the performers felt. Was being demeaned simply the price of publicity in the middle of the 1960s, or did it sting like the insult it was?
After his TV years, Skelton toured with a one-man show. He was known to show up in a town a day or two before he was scheduled to appear and to walk the streets like a tourist, taking in the local color. In the mid 80s, he appeared in the little Illinois town where I was working. We tried to get word to him that he would be welcome if he were to stop by the radio station. He didn’t, of course, and what we know of him now makes it highly unlikely that he would even have considered it—but for a couple of days, every time somebody walked into the lobby, people looked up to see if it was him. Red Skelton died in 1997 at the age of 84.