“Red – The Man, The Mischief and the Clown”
TR Robertson –Saturday evening, in the intimate 61 seat Vine Theatre, located at the Bernardo Winery, a packed house took a step back in time as former college drama instructor Jerry Hager presented an amazing, nostalgic portrayal of a multitude of Red Skelton comical characters, personalities and stories. The weekend performances were part of the 2019 Summer Series produced by Mojalet Dance Collective. Hager’s love of the antics and imagination of Skelton were instrumental in his life and along with his appreciation of other “movement artists”, like Marcel Marceau and Charlie Chaplin, would lead him to a 30 year career as a theater and mime professor at Grossmont College as well as other performing jobs he would develop, along with community outreach programs. He is also an award winning Teaching Artist and Arts Specialist for Arts for Learning of San Diego.
Hager, for 26 years, performed as Kazoo the Clown at Seaport Village and each June can be found greeting visitors to the San Diego County Fair and performing throughout the Fairgrounds as a personality he develops to go along with the Fair theme. This year he was Professor and Wizard Oscar Diggs for the Fair Theme Ozsome San Diego County Fair. Many of his routines and antics come from the personalities he studied for years, especially those of Red Skelton. Hager was able to personally see Red Skelton perform on stage in 1970.
For the Saturday evening, and three shows on Sunday, Hager stepped into a variety of characters Skelton made famous, as well as revealing details about Skelton and Hager’s own life and love of performing. Hager said he remembers fondly sitting on a couch with his mother, watching T.V. and sharing a bowl of popcorn while laughing at all of the routines Skelton presented on “The Red Skelton Show”. Throughout the evening the audience would be treated to some of Skelton’s most memorable personas like, Clem Kadiddlehopper and his goof ball antics, Freddie the Freeloader in a moving and funny recreation of an iconic routine and the funny seagulls, Heathcliff and Gertrude. Hager would also use his skills as a mime artist in presenting some of Skelton’s pantomime stories as well as some personal routines Hager developed. One particular funny one was and old man and his wife choosing to climb the 1,222 steps of the Eifel Tower rather than pay for the elevator. Many of Skelton’s pantomime routines were very moving, such as the Narrative Mime routine Hager would show the audience of an old man attending the remake of a silent movie in which he once performed. We were also treated to a recreation of Skelton’s famous “Doughnut Dunkers” routine, where three different types of doughnut dunkers were demonstrated.
Audience members received a lesson in using specific props in developing certain personalities. In Skelton’s case, that prop would be a hat which he would shape, bend and morph into a variety of designs for whatever persona he was becoming. Hager had his own personal hat he used to show how Skelton would become these characters. He also showed a version of Skelton’s physical comedy in a routine called “Guzzlers Gin” and also presented one of Hager’s own pantomime routines he developed, a funny and moving “The Birth of a Father”.
Throughout the evening we were informed of many of the details, happy and sad, relating to Skelton’s life. Richard “Red” Bernard Skelton was born into poverty which lasted for much of his early life. His father, who owned a small grocery store in Indiana, died 2 months before Skelton was born, July 18, 1913. Skelton, had three brothers. His mother lost the store and their home. As they struggled, Skelton took a job at age 7 selling newspapers, and one day had the fortune of being able to see the performance of the famous physical clown Ed Wynn. He was dumbstruck and knew this was want he wanted to become. At age 13, in 1926, Skelton left home and took a job with Doc Lewis’s Traveling Medicine Show, where his job was to dance and perform to drum up patrons to purchase the supposed magic elixir to cure everything. By age 17 he was a “veteran” entertainer becoming a triple threat performer as a stand-up comic, a visual comedian and excelled at ad-libbing. It was then he met Edna, who would become his first of three wives. Edna became not only his wife, but his agent and began booking Red wherever she could get him a job. She also helped him re-write his comic material.
Skelton would eventually work on showboats, in burlesque shows, and numerous vaudeville shows all around the country. By 1937 he was beginning to work in radio developing a variety of vocalizations and characters like Lump Lump the drunk, Cauliflower McPugg and Clem Kadiddlehopper. On October 7, 1941 Skelton was given his own radio show, The Raleigh Cigarette Program. He divorced Edna in 1943 and as a single man was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. Skelton was assigned to the U.S. Entertainment Corps, performing with Bob Hope and others, but worked a grueling performance schedule that led to a nervous breakdown where he began stuttering. For one year, he battled returning to the person he once was. By 1951, he would perform weekly in his own television show, “The Red Skelton Show”, which would stay on air until 1971.
Hager pointed to two specific years that were crucial in Skelton’s life. In 1953, Skelton had developed a horrible drinking habit, leading CBS to consider cancelling his show. He was booked onto the Ed Sullivan Show and had a personal epiphany experience that changed his life. His performance on the Ed Sullivan Show was a tremendous success and from that day on he would still drink, but only in social situations, never before performing and stayed under control. In 1945, Skelton had married for the second time, new wife Georgia. The couple had a daughter, Valentina, and a son, Richard. In 1957, the couple noticed Richard, age 9, was experiencing some discomfort, they had him checked out and discovered Richard had leukemia. This was devastating news to the family. Skelton tried to hide the situation from the public and he considered dropping out of performing. He was convinced to remain as a performer and one of his iconic phrases, “We Dood It”, becomes a trademark phrase honoring his son. Richard would pass away in 1958 and remain a constant memory for Skelton. Skelton divorced Georgia in 1971. His ex-wife, Georgia committed suicide in 1976, unable to cope with the loss of Richard.
Red Skelton is one of the most honored comedians of all time. In 1978 he received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for Outstanding Contributions in Entertainment. Most people don’t know he wrote over 8,000 songs and symphonies, including a number of marches used by over 10,000 high schools and colleges around the nation. He was an accomplished artist, painting over 1,000 oil paintings of clowns, using his face as the subject. Red also performed in 37 movies. Skelton also has 2 Hollywood Walk of Fame Stars, received a Golden Globe Award, an Emmy Award for Best Comedy Program and a Special Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy. Red Skelton passed away in 1997 at the age of 84, he had continued to perform in various venues until his 80th birthday.
Hager, like Skelton, loves to stand in front of people, doing what he loves. Skelton had as a credo – “Laugh a Little at Life”. He said “Life is a gift every single day, you should embrace it”. He would always tell people to “Have a Merry Day”. Hager said he fully supports what Skelton said in an interview, “I personally believe that each of us was put here for a purpose – to build, not to destroy. If I can make people smile, then I have served my purpose to God.” Hager stated, “Red’s performances were funny, simple, sentimental – any yet so very human. He moved me in many ways and became a model of mine as I entered the world of mime and movement theatre. So, this is a show I’ve longed to do and one that has scared me to perform. I hope I do him justice, or at least, I pray that he smiles down on my attempt!” Be assured, Red would be honored and proud and would say, “Good Night, Thank you and May God bless”.
For more information about future performances at The Vine Theater go to www.mojaleet.com.