For many decades of the 20th century, folks in Mansfield wanted to claim Red Skelton as a local boy. In the 1930s, newspaper stories in the city paper referred to him as “Mansfield’s Red Skelton,” or sometimes “Mansfield’s contribution to stage and screen.”
It’s not hard to understand the attraction: hundreds of thousands of homes across the nation had him on their radios in the 1930s and 40s; every city in the country had him in their movie theaters in the 1940s and 50s; millions of folks everywhere welcomed him back into their living rooms when he became a television phenomenon in the 1950s and 60s.
Untold millions loved the man, and he had a place in the heart of American culture through seven decades. Any town would be proud to claim him.
Hollywood had him, of course, and NBC studios on both coasts. Vincennes, Indiana has always had the strongest claim, because he was born there, and his memory is kept alive there today in the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy.
But Mansfield also had a small role in the Red Skelton story, and was always proud to be mentioned somewhere in the credits.
Before the curtain
Richard “Red” Skelton was the youngest of four brothers born in Vincennes between 1905 and 1913. The oldest Skelton brother, Denny, moved to Mansfield when he was about 20, and that was the foothold that set the family into Mansfield history.
The boys didn’t have the easiest time growing up in Indiana: their father died before Red was born, and so quite a bit of their childhood involved helping their mother keep the household together. Adversity made for a tight bond between the brothers however, so when the oldest boy moved to Mansfield, it was only a question of time till they were all drawn here.
Denny Skelton always loved tinkering with things, and when he came to Mansfield he got a job as a repair mechanic at the Indian-Henderson motorcycle dealership on Weldon Avenue. There was already a significant club of motorcycle enthusiasts in the city when he got here, and it is not unlikely that somehow this is what drew him to Mansfield, because he was immediately an integral member of the cycling community.
Denny lived above the motorcycle repair garage in a small apartment, and even though that building on Weldon Avenue is long gone, nevertheless it has a certain commemorative importance to the Skelton legacy, because that is most likely where Red Skelton lived during his short residence in Mansfield.
Years later Red was quoted as saying that while in Mansfield he “lived in an attic.” At that time—around 1925-26—he was still known as Richard Skelton, and that is how he was enrolled during his brief stint in Mansfield Public Schools.
Red was a kid here living with his brother for only a few months, and he didn’t leave any particular impression on Mansfield at the time. He was back in Vincennes as a teenager, and it was from that city that he launched the mercurial travels that were his path to fame.
Legend has it that he was involved in a traveling medicine show selling a famous miracle remedy; and then acting with minstrels on a showboat.
Red was footloose enough to land anywhere he could get a spot on the stage, and those early years had him in Kansas City at a burlesque theater; and doing comedy routines for 6 hours at a stretch during Depression Era “walkathon” competitions: as contestants proved their endurance by walking hour after hour, Red entertained the audience. These marathon performances gave him the time and experience to develop his early vaudeville routines and characters—some of which stayed with him to the end of his career.
He jumped from stage to stage, from state to state, building strength as a comedian; and then sometime in the 1930s, the directors of show business finally caught up with him and put him on the radio. That was when he became a familiar name to millions of people in America, and his voice, jokes and characters took on the authority of a bona fide star.
Eventually, in 1938, he had a role in an RKO major movie musical, so the nation got to see his face; and from that point on he was a part of American life.
The Mansfield stage
During the time when Red was climbing his ladder of success, half of the Skelton brothers were living in Mansfield.
Denny Skelton became well known with a vital role in town, because it was the age of radio, and he was the radio repairman. While on call for the customers of Quality Furniture, he found his way into homes all over the city so everyone knew him. He was a chief radio consultant for Westinghouse when they needed to develop wartime radio products.
Denny was married in the Methodist Church on the Square, where he was superintendent of Sunday Schools; he had two daughters, and operated his radio service out of his home on Foster Street.
Paul Skelton lived on Second Street, and was also well known in town as the cook at a popular restaurant—the Max Diner on Walnut Street.
Every time Red stopped in town to visit his brothers in the 1930s, he was increasingly better known on the radio; so that with each Mansfield appearance he was bigger news in the paper. It started out as a casual mention in a chat column in 1936, and grew to headline news by 1938 when reporters started calling him “Mansfield’s radio star.”
One time Red went to the Madison Theater to sit in on a screening of his latest movie, and was greeted with thunderous applause: enough to coax him up on the stage before the film to do one of his famous pantomime skits. It didn’t take a lot of coaxing.
He was a fountain of entertainment wherever he went: kids on Foster Street saw him do his famous characters on the front porch of Denny’s house; and folks at Max Diner got to see him dunk donuts without buying a ticket. Having him in the room was like sharing the space with a whole neighborhood of characters.
Whenever word was out that Red Skelton was in town, the congregation tripled at the Methodist Church because he had once been spotted there with his brother’s family.
In the 1940s, as Red Skelton’s star was still on the rise, Mansfield lost its immediate connection to him when Denny Skelton passed away, and Paul Skelton took his family to California to live near Red and their mother.
Red spoke of Mansfield occasionally during interviews, and his words were always kind with fond memories.
It has been a tradition in Mansfield lore that during the months when Red was a kid in our town, he did a stint as a newsie—hawking the Mansfield News at the corner of Fifth and Main.
This tale could be as fictional as the plots for his movies, but that only makes it a more charming legend to sew into the mythos of his story and ours.
There is something irresistible about picturing young Red Skelton selling papers on Main Street. It gives him a role to play in the life of downtown; and actually, it is not difficult to see him playing three different roles in that script, as he did so often on stage: he could be the Mean Widdle Kid, bullying people into buying papers; and also a rubber-spined adult like Clem Kadiddlehopper, buying the paper; and then when the paper is discarded on the sidewalk, Freddie the Freeloader picks it up to use as a blanket when he falls asleep on a park bench in the Square.
Red was a kid when he was in Mansfield, and everyone who loved him would say he was a kid his whole life: so he will always belong here as a youngster in the memory of our town.