Everything’s Funny but Love, by John R. Franchey
Originally published in Radio and Television Mirror, June 1942
Their romance was touched with amiable lunacy, and the groom borrowed the license-money from the bride — but Edna knew that Red Skelton was the man for her
By JOHN R. FRANCHEY
On Tuesday nights af 10:30 EWT, over NBC, you con listen to Red Skelton, who came to stardom by dunking doughnuts. Below, with Edna who, of course, had everything to do with it.
SOMETIMES Red Skelton gets to thinking about how close he came to losing Edna Stillwell and he gets cold chills.
Without Edna Stillwell, he has admitted on a dozen occasions, he would never have become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s inimitable funny man and radio’s outstanding new star, the only performer to receive six major radio awards in the year 1941. Not that it would have mattered. Nothing much would have mattered — without Edna.
The first time he saw Edna came near to being the last. She could spot his type a mile away — ^breezy, full of tired jokes, a little on the familiar side, and very sure of himself; the type, she had discovered after a mere three months of being a vaudeville theater usherette, that seemed to come and go in an almost uninterrupted procession.
So, when Red strolled up to her, without an introduction, just before going on that very first day and said, “Now I know why my hand trembled when I was signing for my appearance here,” she came back quick as rain, with the sally: “Maybe your conscience was bothering you.”
He stared, then regained his composure.
“Conscience bothering me — phoney, you’re terrific! Why Red Skelton at severity-five a week is grand larceny — even in Kansas City!”
“You could have hollered for help,” she reminded him just before she walked away, leaving him standing there, completely flabbergasted, in the center aisle of the Pantages Theater of Kansas City, precisely twenty-five minutes before the first matinee.
For a comedian, he was quickly and easily squelched, Edna concluded at the end of the third day. He did his stint on the stage — mostly not- very-new jokes which for some reason the customers found outrageously funny — and departed by the stage entrance. He didn’t tell her good-bye when he left, as most of the performers did, but maybe it was all for the best. She had a few rernarks ready for him that would have completed the squelching process. It was a good thing — for him — he didn’t show up.
It must have been a month later, just about the time she had put him out of her mind for good, when lo and behold! he was back to do a return engagement at the Pantages.
He didn’t come around the front of the house, and naturally she didn’t go back stage looking for him. She did, however, pay a little more attention to his act. It wasn’t bad, she decided. Still, it wasn’t good, either. She had just about decided that he had forgotten the incident — all men are the same — when he showed up after the Thursday matinee, somewhat subdued, apologized for being an oaf, made a few jokes, and wound up asking if he could take her home that night.
EDNA was just a wee bit snippy about the whole affair. She told him she thought she could find her way home by herself that night, but tomorrow would be all right if it would make him feel any happier. Well, he took her home the next night on a trolley car that bounced them around like a milkshake. At the door, she said good night, and he tipped his hat and walked away with the same feeling that General Lee must have had in his heart the day he walked away from the historic scene at Appomattox Courthouse. She hadn’t given him a tumble.
The way Edna felt about it is best surmised by this: when Red finished his last performance on the following night she hung around the theater for fifteen minutes pulling up seats and looking for a lady’s purse which had never been lost. Red never showed up. And it was her turn to be disappointed.
She had graduated from usherette to cashier at a local sports palace and was enjoying her work no end, when something quite unexpected happened. She was breaking open a roll of nickels, fresh from the bank, when, for no reason at all, she happened to look up just in time to see this Skelton fellow heading — or so it seemed — for the cashier’s window. , But, to her amazement, he by-passed the cashier’s cage and walked right into the sports palace just as if he owned the place.
“Who would that be?” she asked the ticket-taker.
“That’s Red Skelton. He’s going to emcee the walkathon next week. Funny fellow, this Skelton.”
“Very funny,” Edna said, “extremely funny — he thinks.”
If this romance hadn’t been engineered in heaven, heaven knows it would never have blossomed into a five-alarm courtship. Certainly neither one of them made any overture toward the other. Although, in a way, you might say Edna did. Actually all she did was to get mad, enter the walkathon, and win it. At which point a messenger of heaven appeared on the scene in the person of a photographer who thought it would be a swell idea if the contest-winner would kiss the master of ceremonies, who had just handed her a cup and a fair-sized check.
That’s all, brother.
Two weeks later they were married, after Red, seventeen, had hiked his age up to nineteen and Edna had obtained her mother’s rather reluctant permission. And after Red, come to think of it, had borrowed three dollars from Edna to pay for the license.
That loan to the average woman would have been the fatal hint, the stitch in time. But not to Edna. True, Red was broke, he worked irregularly, and he was underpaid. But it was equally true — at least to Edna — that he had great things in him. They needed only to be brought out.
THE Skelton symphony had been written almost exclusively in a minor key, Edna Stillwell discovered in due time. Born in Vincennes, Indiana, shortly after the death of his father, a former circus clown, he was the youngest of a brood of four for whom the widow Skelton wrested a living by serving as laundress, elevator operator and even scrub-woman. At eight, he was selling newspapers. At ten, he was doing impromptu entertaining in Vincennes pool halls. At eleven, he was working in a department store after school and putting on a one-man variety show after supper wherever he could draw a crowd. And at twelve, he had left Vincennes in the care and custody of one Dr. Lewis, proprietor of a medicine show.
Comedian on a medicine show at twelve, a minstrel performer at fourteen, and burlesque buffoon at sixteen! He was doing a trick at a Kansas City burlesque palace as a full – fledged funny man, no less, when the manager of the Pantages saw his show, was delighted with the Skelton repertoire and nimble mind, and signed him up for a week at the Pantages. He was so fired with joy at reaching the turning point in his career — “going legit,” they call it in the parlance of the trade — that the ink on the contract was hardly dry before he was traipsing over to the Pantages to inspect its sacred realms. He was standing there in the middle aisle, feasting his eyes on the huge house where he was about to make his debut, when he caught sight of her coming up the aisle. There was something about her at once pert yet challenging, soft yet spirited, efficient yet feminine. He strolled up to her, smiled, and said: “Now I know why my hand trembled when I was signing to play the Pantages.” You know what Edna told him.
These things about Red, Edna discovered one by one as the marriage progressed. What she also discovered was the fact that while Red was a magnificent entertainer, he was a poor salesman. She didn’t tell him about her discovery. Instead, she waited until he got his next nibble from a prospective employer and called on the p. e., herself — solo. And without so much as a “Would you mind, Red?”
“I don’t get it,” the cigar-smoking impresario protested. “Everyone knows Red’s price is $75 a week. Where do you get this $100 stuff?”
“That’s the new price,” she said, matter-of-factly.
He mumbled something, chewed hard on his cheroot, and nodded. It was a deal.
Was Red happy to learn that his wife had gotten him up into the three-figure class? He was not.
“Any day now and you’ll be doing my routines,” he said frostily.
“You never can tell,” Edna said.
It wasn’t smooth sailing, mind you, even with Edna at the tiller. By degrees she waltzed him out of the walkathons and into the nightclubs where he got $300 a week. And even $400. But only when he worked, of course. The trouble was that the lay-off periods were so long that they consumed what capital they managed to lay by, what with traveling expenses, living at the right hotel, and all that. There were times when Edna Skelton wondered if she hadn’t aimed her sights a little too high, times when they went hungry. But somehow she’d always manage to rustle up a little money, mostly through her mother whom she had talked into liking Red, so much, as a matter of fact, that once when Red was in straits, Mrs. Stillwell pawned a pair of gold teeth — right out of her mouth. Everything else — just about — was already in hock.
“The break will come, Red,” Edna used to tell her disconsolate funny man when things looked hopeless.
THE break was bound to come and it did come. Of course, Edna had a hand in it, but then . . .
It happened in Montreal. Red had just done six weeks at the Club Lido and was buying the tickets back to New York when he ran into a vaudeville producer named Harry Angers. Mr. Angers was in a hurry but he did stop long enough to tell Red that he thought his Club Lido stuff was swell.
“Dream up a new routine and I’ll bill you as headliner at Loew’s State,” Mr. Angers said.
A new routine? The man must be out of his mind. Routines take time to whip up. Also, the classy ones — the kind that rate Loew’s — cost big dough.
“I’ve got an idea. Red,” Edna said, as they sat there eating their farewell breakfast in the hotel coffee shop. She leaned over. “The man on your left,” she whispered, “the man with the lavender tie.”
Red looked and blinked. A Casper Milquetoast of a man was dunking his doughnut, dunking it furtively.
“I don’t see it,” Red said as they were going up the elevator.
“I’ll put it in writing,” Edna said. The rest is history. Edna wrote a little skit about a coffee-dunking little man. The skit got Red into Loew’s State, at a fabulous figure. From then on Edna never stopped writing. True, she was stymied a bit when Red was signed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer where they have a few pretty good writers on salary and all of them rugged individualists who don’t especially welcome collaboration from the outside. But when he landed that Tuesday night radio program, she came out of her momentary retirement with a bonanza of gags, jests, and quips to stuff into the program like plums in a pudding.
“She hatches ’em, I tell ’em,” Red says admiringly.
It’s a long jump from Kansas City to Beverly Hills, where the Skeltons are currently bivouacked in an English manor house staffed by a couple of negroes who will never cease marvelling at their master, and stocked with furniture known as Skelton-Chippendale, made by Red himself. Lottie May, a jovial, moon-faced somebody, is always yelling at Red to eat carrots and his colored man Friday is eternally pestering Red to teach him to be a camera-man.
Redna Rancho, as they call it, has about it a delightfully insane quality. The master has a telephone phobia and never picks one up so that the mistress can be calling from downtown for a solid hour and get no answer, unless Lottie May is about. There is a tiny theater on the place and thither repair Red’s guests, mostly vaudevillians, to sing or dance for their supper. Schedules are frowned about as if they were a device of the devil. Business callers, and even studio executives, tell of visiting Redna Rancho and discovering the master engrossed with electric trains which chug over a maze of track spread out over the living room. It’s a wonderful household and a wonderful marriage. Red is forever talking about Edna. When he isn’t talking about her or just sitting with her nights in the Skelton living room, he is dining with her at Romanoff’s or dancing with her at the Mocambo.
Every now and then when he picks up the check (colossal) and automatically does a double-take, he thinks back over the years and remembers when the two went hungry, and asks:
“Could we be in the wrong pew by any chance?”