Throughout our years of travel we’ve visited a variety of specialized museums off the beaten paths, institutions of all sizes that focused intensely on subjects we know a little about, subjects firmly within our respective wheelhouses, and subjects about which we know next to nothing. We’ve enjoyed quite a few opportunities for education, for eye-opening, and for amusement. Despite our ever-advancing ages we still have a lot to learn about any number of subjects and personalities whose heydays were well before our time. If they should happen to provide broader context in some of the past movies, books, and TV shows we’ve consumed over the years, so much the better.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Every year since 1999 my wife Anne and I have taken a trip to a different part of the United States and visited attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. Then came 2020 A.D.
Even in an ordinary average year, sometimes you really need to get away from it all. In a year like this, escape is more important than ever if you can find yourself one — no matter how short it lasts, no matter how limited your boundaries are. Anne and I had two choices: either skip our tradition for 2020 and resign ourselves to a week-long staycation that looks and feels exactly like our typical weekend quarantines; or see how much we could accomplish within my prescribed limitations. We decided to expand on that and check out points of interest in multiple Indiana towns in assorted directions. We’d visited many towns over the years, but not all of them yet.
In addition to our usual personal rules, we had two simple additions in light of All This: don’t get killed, and don’t get others killed…
Our next stop after lunch in downtown Vincennes was the other large, widely advertised museum in town, the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy. We’d already seen glimpses of the celebrated comedian at our other stops, but here he’s been the main attraction since its grand opening in 2013. The museum and the adjoining Red Skelton Performing Arts Center are on the campus of Vincennes University, which provided general acreage for both facilities but also hung signs on every lot out front insisting parking permits were required.
In the middle of our desperate search to put the car someplace, we paused briefly one block east at the hometown legend’s childhood home. Skelton was born in 1913, the youngest of four kids, grew up poor and began working at an early age as a loudmouthed paperboy. He started gracing local stages as a young teen and went on to enjoy a 70-year career in the entertainment biz. His early days progressed from vaudeville to burlesque shows to old-time radio to movies to literally the first year of nationwide American television in 1951. But Skelton never forgot where he came from.
Skelton enjoyed nineteen years as a popular variety-show host until CBS pulled the plug in 1970 because execs decided performers over 50 were dumb and stupid, and youth culture was the wave of the future. His show was an early casualty of the network’s burgeoning demographics-are-everything mentality that augured the following year’s notorious “Rural Purge” that sent numerous high-rated shows to their graves — The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Mayberry RFD. and so on. All this occurred on the same network that would eventually champion such long-running series as CSI, NCIS, Touched by an Angel, and other comfort-food hits beloved by millions of viewers over 70.
Skelton was bitter about the cancellation for years and insisted it had as much to do with politics as it did with generation-gap shortsightedness. He continued live performances for packed audiences for years. He passed away in 1997 and his legacy lives on in the museum. A jaw-dropping plethora of his personal possessions and artifacts were donated to the museum by his widow Lothian Skelton (fun trivia: she’s the daughter of Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland), who was well aware her husband would’ve much rather had his stuff on permanent display in Vincennes than in Hollywood, where he and the industry had parted ways on acrimonious terms.
With all the convenient and deserted lots bearing signs to the effect of “NO PARKING OR YOUR CAR WILL BE DESTROYED” we ended up parking at an apartment complex (or possibly dorms) behind the museum. We walked around to the front entrance and were informed by the lone employee that we would’ve been totally fine to park anywhere we wanted. Apropos of comedy, an exasperated slow-burn response seemed in order.
The docent wore a mask the entire time, We wore masks. We all got along great. Before we began wandering the museum at our leisure and far away from him, he ushered us into the theater we previously showed you in the prologue to this miniseries, whose seats (among Mrs. Skelton’s many donations) were used in the filming of 1979’s The Muppet Movie. They were immediately our favorite exhibit, where we sat giddily and watched a short film about Skelton’s life for clips and historical context. Then we were permitted to get up and go learn more about him, as the only customers in sight for all but the last thirty seconds of our visit, when some older women showed up to follow in our footsteps.
Among the mementos on display are numerous costumes Skelton wore in his variety-show sketches. Much like the casts of SNL, In Loving Color, Mad TV, and other spiritual descendants, Skelton created numerous personas with their own distinctly absurd peculiarities. He’d already been doing as much on radio for years before TV became a thing (when costuming them became a necessity), but he apparently hit a gold mine with our ancestral audiences when he conceived a running gag in which a man-child prankster contemplates something naughty; tells the audience, “If I do it, I get a whippin'”; then does the thing and says, “I dood it!” This joke, concocted in an era when “whippin'” as a colloquial reference to corporal punishment was cool, became all the rage for a while and inspired pop culture references in subsequent works from Bugs Bunny cartoons onward.
Discerning old fans of The Simpsons may notice a resemblance to the season-12 episode “Bart Gets Famous”, which chronicles Bart’s fifteen minutes of capturing America’s heart as the “I Didn’t Do It” Kid, whose single catchphrase is a big hit until everyone gets sick of it and moves on. Such is the capricious nature of catchphrase fandom. Fortunately Skelton’s talents and imagination went far beyond the one sketch. Today’s younger internet gadflies who make a hobby of judging old comedy harshly and ahistorically sans context will note some bits have aged better than others.
To be continued!
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