If it weren’t for his wife, Edna, he would be a bum – says Red Skelton
Originally published August 17, 1941, in The Telegraph-Herald – by Fredrick C. Othman, UP Hollywood Correspondent
The girl we want to meet is Edna Skelton, one-time usherette at Loew’s Theater in Kansas City. She’s made her red-headed husband worth $2,000 of the movies’ money every week. If it weren’t for her he’d be a bum. That’s exactly what he said.
As it is, with Edna writing the gags and managing the business and teaching her husband the rudiments of trigonometry and medieval history, he’s one of the funniest comedians in the business, starring in the hit “Whistling in the Dark,” and one of the principals of the upcoming musical “Panama Hattie.” Edna did it all. Red insists she did.
Young Skelton who was born in 1913 in Vincennes, Ind. and got his first theatrical experience at the age of 10 tooting a horn in a medical show, tried his hand as a minstrel, a show boat comedian, a circus clown and a red-nosed burlesque tramp before he met Edna.
“I was 17 and I was playing in Loew’s in Kansas City.” he reported today. “Edna Stillwell was head usherette in the balcony. She’d come back stage with our paychecks on Saturday night and she took an instant dislike to me. So okay. I knew a lot of girls.”
Red’s next job was that of master of ceremonies at one of those weird athletic events known as a walkathon. Edna was cashier. She finally made a date with him. He took her home on a streetcar. It was such a long ride Red said never again. He knew girls who lived closer.
“And one night they called in the photographers to take some pictures and they wanted a picture of me kissing a girl,” Red continued. “There was Edna and I grabbed her and kissed her and it made me dizzy. This was it. This was love. I guess we both were dizzy. We got married. Edna paid for the license. I borrowed $10 from her and bought her a new hat. And we went to St. Louis, where I had a deal to do another walkathon show at $75 a week. Only they wanted to cut my salary.
“Edna made me sore by going to the boss and playing manager for me. I told her I’d handle my own affairs. Only she shut me up with the news that I’d get $100 a week. She also tossed the boss into doing my dry cleaning. I said I’d have to have free food, too. I was still mad. The manager said I could have my meals on the cuff. That’s when Edna floored me first. But that was only the beginning. She gradually worked me up to $500 a week in the walkathon business.”
Then Red went into vaudeville. He had a 25 week run in Montreal and he began to run out of material. Edna wrote him some. It didn’t seem funny to that experienced comedian, Red Skelton.
“But the customers laughed,” he said. “Edna knew what she was doing. She kept on writing my material.”
His wage went up to $1,000 a week. That wasn’t enough for Edna. Her husband was a prosperous man, but he made a lot of bad grammatical errors. He’d never had a chance to pass the seventh grade. So she bought some books and started teaching him English and spelling and arithmetic. Then she hired a tutor and forced to take a high school final examination. He passed it.
“She made me study,” he said, “and pretty soon I didn’t feel like such a fool when I was in a room full of people talking about something besides burlesque.”
The Skeltons came to Hollywood three years ago, with Red earning $2,000 a week for twelve weeks in “Having a Wonderful Time.” He was funny, but the picture was bad. You remember — Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Back to the stage went Red and he went broke because he wouldn’t accept any job under $1,000 a week. Edna made him stick to that. In New York once they went three days without food because Red didn’t have the 40 cents that would buy them two meals at their favorite Chinese restaurant.
Then he got a coast-to-coast radio program and soon he was clicking in vaudeville — at Edna’s price. She invested his money in real estate and kept on writing his jokes, and there was Red in Washington at the Earl Theater last winter when the Hollywood contingent arrived for the President’s Birthday Ball.
“Edna says that we came to Hollywood because she owned a pair of slacks and a mink coat and this was the only place she could wear ’em,” Red said. “That isn’t so. She was just making up a gag. What happened was that Mickey Rooney caught our show. He liked it. He went to Nick Schenck in New York about me. Then he went to Louis B. Mayer in Hollywood. So MGM brought me out here. Mickey is the boy who did it.”
That’s the story to date of Red Skelton, as related at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Edna wasn’t there. Red said she was home thinking up jokes for him so he wouldn’t have to go back to bottling Epsom salts, brown sugar and river water for the medicine show.
But we’ll meet her yet.