It took a while longer than I thought for me to finish reading Red Skelton: The Mask Behind the Mask, but I'm glad to say, it is done.
Actually, that's not accurate. I finished reading it Wednesday, but it's not done. It's still circulating through my brain.
The book, by Wes D. Gehring, is the focus of this year's Henry County Reads, a program of the New Castle-Henry County Public Library. The library obtained 500 copies of the book - published by the Indiana Historical Society Press - and then provided them to people who asked for them. The hope is that a large number of local folks would read it and share conversations about the book's topic.
For me, the book reinforced something my dad used to say: Everybody puts his pants on the same way as you do. In other words, no matter who we are or our station in life, we are all alike in many ways.
If you read this column on Oct. 5, you realize that the extent of my knowledge of Red Skelton was that of a boy growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, when Red Skelton was a beloved TV comedian. His weekly TV show was one we tried not to miss. I also knew he was a Hoosier by birth.
As a casual TV viewer, I had not given any thought to what Red Skelton did before I tuned in. And other than a dim memory that Skelton and his wife had lost their son to leukemia, I had little idea of his personal life.
Gehring, in this book, has shared what can only be seen as an encyclopedic knowledge not only of Red Skelton but of the Hollywood entertainment world of which Skelton became a part. Gehring is, after all, a professor of film at Ball State University, and it should be no surprise that he would have that kind of knowledge. But he uses that to put Skelton's life into perspective and occasionally challenges commonly held perceptions of the great comedian by citing newspaper reviews and other authoritative materials.
It turns out Red Skelton had a remarkable career in vaudeville, in movies and in radio, along with TV. Some of his role models were early movie comedians like Joe Brown, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and W.C. Fields. Turns out that his TV show was an instant hit, only to bomb in its second season, and that it took several years to rebuild its popularity.
So Red Skelton was not always the super popular comedian whose show was taken off the air first in 1969 by CBS and then, a year later, by NBC. Gehring says demographics did in Skelton's show: Too much of its audience was rural or small town and older than the crowd the networks wanted. I thought such use of demographics was a more modern phenomena, but Gehring makes his case by listing other very popular shows with the same demographics that were canceled during the same years.
Gehring makes a case that Skelton actually was better liked than Bob Hope, who many regarded as the mid-to-late 20th century's king of comedy. But in his later life, Skelton adamantly refused to let his shows be re-broadcast. Reruns of comedy by Jackie Gleason and others have kept their memory alive while Skelton has faded, Gehring says.
Gehring also details Skelton's personal life. I've heard that some have been critical of Gehring's book because it delves into Skelton's childhood, impoverished in Vincennes. It deals at some length with Skelton's three marriages, especially with his first wife, who, more than anyone, shaped Skelton's career, as his writer, his coach, his manager, even for many years after they divorced. Without getting into details, the book also reports that Skelton had affairs.
In my article of three weeks ago, I said Skelton is remembered as a defender of family values. That was based on his refusal to put foul language over the air. Through this book, I found out that studio audiences of his TV show were treated to Skelton's Dirty Comedy Hour before the TV show was taped.
So you see, I have learned several things from Gehring's book. And I'm continuing to think about what I read. If I can, I want to make it to a program that the library is planning to talk about the late comedian.
Like many of us, Skelton's exterior masked his real life. I had known him only from his many TV characters. Now, my life and his have crossed thanks to Gehring's book and thanks to the New Castle-Henry County Public Library. Maybe, by talking with some others who have read the book and perhaps even with Gehring, I can gain further insights into what went into the making of a remarkable man who, nonetheless, put his pants on one leg at a time.
Bob Hansen is managing editor of the Courier-Times. Contact him by sending email to email@example.com.