(VINCENNES) - One of the biggest stars to come out of Indiana would have turned 100 years old today, and Red Skelton's hometown of Vincennes is throwing a big party with a big birthday gift.
Fans of the comedian from across the country have made reservations for tonight's grand opening of the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy, built next to the performing arts center named for Skelton at Vincennes University. It also just happens to be across the street from the home where Skelton grew up.
The last of four children, Skelton was born two months after his father died. But Skelton appeared to inherit one trait - his father was once a clown for the Hagenbeck & Wallace Circus. It was another historic building in Vincennes where Skelton, as a boy, decided he wanted to be in show business.
"He sold newspapers outside the Pantheon Theater," said Anne Pratt, director of marketing for the Red Skelton Museum. "He credits (comedian) Ed Wynn with igniting his passion for performing."
Skelton told the story that while Wynn was in town to perform at the Pantheon in 1923, he bought every newspaper from the 10-year-old Skelton because he enjoyed the boy's newspaper-selling patter. Skelton says Wynn then gave him a ticket to the show, and later invited him to the stage to get a look at what soon became Skelton's future.
Skelton starred in radio - with his own show for 12 years, and also starred in dozens of movies in the 1940's and early 50's. But many remember Skelton as one of television's longest lasting comedians - he had a show on the air without interruption for 20 years - from 1951 until 1971, with the only significant time he took off coming when his nine-year-old son died of leukemia in 1958.
The museum will feature items donated by Skelton's widow, Lothian, who was 25 years younger than the 60-year-old Skelton when she became his third wife in 1973 - Lothian Skelton will be among those attending the grand opening. "There will be old-style TV's playing some of his classic shows," said Pratt. "The main feature at this time is the character gallery, and six of his most beloved characters each have a section in the gallery." Lothian Skelton donated original costumes her husband used for each of the characters.
The interactive exhibits also include a biographical film in the museum theatre and Red's famous interpretation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Plans are already underway to continue to expand the Museum with exhibits of Skelton's career in Vaudeville, radio, television and the movies.
Actor Jamie Farr, best known for his role in M*A*S*H, will also appear at the grand opening. Farr grew up a fan of Skelton's radio show, and one of Farr's first jobs in television was as a co-star on Skelton's show in the late 1950's.
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