Red Skelton was a pioneer of early television whose variety show was on the air from 1951 to 1971. He was a television institution after becoming a radio and movie star. But there’s quite a few generations who have never experienced him outside of a history of television special. Turns out that this lower profile is Red’s doing. Red never felt the need to syndicate his old shows like Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason and Groucho Marx did. This made good career sense for two decades since Red wasn’t competing against his reruns while he was making new episodes. But even after he went off the air, the material remained in the vaults. Those who loved him for so long had to remember him with memories of his television episodes instead of repeats on a UHF channel. Luckily those in charge of Skelton’s estate have begun to recharge his legacy by putting out his best moments on DVD. The Red Skelton Show: The Early Years 1951-1955 takes viewers back to the birth of network television. The boxset contains 90 episodes that haven’t seen the light of day since they were broadcast all those years ago.
Red had already spent a decade on the radio (minus his time in the service during World War II) so audiences were eager to see his various characters in action. The show was originally broadcast from an old NBC radio theater. Red was in a familiar space when the cameras were rolled inside the studio. This was more than just recycling his old radio scripts. Red understood TV was visual. “Smokeless Saturday” opens up with a rather silent sketch as Red plays checkers with a dog. The half hour show normally opened with Red standing in front of the curtain to give an opening monologue. He’d mangle his hat to resemble a sailor cap and slip into the voice of Junior. Sure people enjoyed his routines on the AM dial, but Red’s face and gestures made it worth upgrade to VHF.
The remaining parts of the show involved sketches featuring his major characters that had already become legendary on the radio. Cauliflower McPugg was a boxer who had been hit around way too much. Clem Kadiddlehopper is a rather backwoods fellow who can’t get things quite right. Deadeye brought a taste of the old west to the small screen. George Appleby is a goofy husband. Willy Lump Lump was his friendly drunk who can’t see too well through his pie eyes. His being boozed up is prefect for visual jokes. He arrives in his house with a lost kitty that’s really a skunk. He also introduced his mostly silent hobo/clown Freddie The Freeloader. This was a character that couldn’t quite come across with just a microphone.
Red was a rather big deal so he was able to land a few big time guest stars on several of these episodes. Milton Berle takes a break from the Texaco Star Theater to laugh it up. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis drop by the Thanksgiving special to plug the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. Peter Lorre haunts the stage. The coolest of them all is a triple threat visit during “Dial ‘B’ for Brush.” Clem Kaddiddlehopper arrives at a mad scientist’s house to sell some brushes. Who is inside? Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and Vampira. This Halloween treat trio have plenty of fun on stage. Bela doesn’t look too out of it as he has to keep up with Red. Especially considering what was exposed about the original Dracula in Ed Wood.
The Red Skelton Show: The Early Years 1951 – 1955 is a treasure trove that is filled to the brim with the comic’s hidden gems. The 90 episodes are enough to please a fan that had fond childhood memories of the show all those decades ago. Red’s performances as the various characters hold up over the years. Most of the comedy is timeless. There are jokes with references that will lead to Wikipedia in hopes of understanding why the studio audience was howling. This bulk release from Red Skelton’s vault will go far in reviving his legacy as TV comedy king.
The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The show was broadcast on video so these are the kinescopes. They’re not the most beautiful of transfers because of this fact. But the rugged quality adds to the pioneer of TV feel. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. The boom microphone guy does a good job of keeping up with Red on the set.
America’s Clown: An Intimate Biography of Red Skelton (81:36) is an extensive look at Skelton’s life and long running variety show. They talk about how Red’s dress rehearsals were notorious for uncensored pushing the material. There’s extensive use of clips from his 20 years on the air.
Dress Rehearsal for the Episode “Deadeye From Mars” (27:17) is a chance to see Red working before the broadcast recording. He’s a bit looser which is strange since he’s really loose on a normal show. He’s testing out the crowd’s reactions to the punchlines. This was recorded on June 21, 1953.
Special Bonus Episode “Deadeye From Mars” (26:52) allows the viewer to see the finished product after the rehearsal.
The Look Magazine Movie Awards from March 8, 1955 (25:24) is the strangest award show since it’s like part of Red’s show. Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, Jack Lemmon, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby appear to accept their Awards. Maybe all award shows should be this low key and fast paced.
The Red Skelton Show: The Early Years 1951-1955 provides 90 episodes of classic early television. Red Skelton uses all of his characters to full effect. A perfect collection for fans of vintage television.
Timeless Media Group presents The Red Skelton Show: The Early Years 1951-1955. Starring: Red Skelton. Boxset Contents: 90 episodes on 11 DVDs. Rated: Unrated. Released: October 21, 2014.
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