ELKHART — Premier Arts is honoring a legendary Indiana-born comedian this weekend.
The premiere of its newest show “Goodnight and God Bless: The Red Skelton Story” will take viewers on a musical journey through the life of one of Indiana’s most noted residents.
Red Skelton, best known for his radio programming, series of MGM movies (nearly 40) and his variety show which aired from 1951 through 1971, left behind a legacy when he passed in 1997.
His personal effects and even his coveted artwork were enshrined in the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy in Vincennes, across the street from where he was born.
“We’re trying to continue Red’s legacy of laughter so that people who didn’t get to know Red when he was living can see it here and it can live on,” museum curator Anne Pratt said.
The museum continues to sell reprints of Skelton’s clown paintings for all to discover.
The Premier Arts’ creative team visited the museum to learn more about the life and mind of Skelton.
“He didn’t finish school, but I think he was really bright,” director Craig Gibson said. “I think he was kind of genius.”
His widow Lothian Toland-Skelton said of her late husband that he was dedicated to lifting people’s spirits and hearts and that she feels it’s her mission since his passing to help spread his message, since he’s not around to do it anymore.
“It was life changing for me,” she said. “Red was extraordinarily special. When you’re special and you give something back in life and you’re remembered for it, there’s meaning to it and it makes me feel great. He was creative all his life. He had so much talent and so much love to give. He was filled with all of this and it had to come out in a positive way.”
Toland-Skelton has offered her blessing on Premier Arts upcoming production.
“He basically left home for show business at the age of 10 and was in the limelight until his 80s,” Gibson said of the show. “It was really hard to decide what to tell and what to keep out.”
Gibson added that The movie ‘The Greatest Showman’ (a musical recounting the life of P.T. Barnum) gave me him courage to not feel like he had to tell the whole story.
“When we really sat down and went over his life, though he had huge success, some of his personal life was really tragic,” Gibson said, discussing marriages, the death of his son and even his difficult upbringing. “It was a testament to the kind of man he was, so that’s what we focused on.”
Red Skelton and Lothian Toland were wed in 1973, following Skelton’s two prior marriages. By the time they’d married, Skelton’s hit television show had been cancelled in favor of newer content, but his wife said it didn’t stop him from doing what he loved. Skelton continued to perform in stage productions and remained world renowned for his clown paintings even after his passing.
“Red was always an artist over the years,” she said. “He took great pleasure in being able to relax in painting. I’m of the art period and very proudly so because I’m also an artist. My period was the drawing, painting, the creativity in that way.”
“Goodnight and God Bless: The Red Skelton Story” tells the story of the comedian’s life in three phases. Elkhart youth Noah Kloska will display a young Skelton, Tanner Smale of South Bend will portray Skelton during his prime years and Craig Culp as Skelton’s aging self. The musical ends at the end of the television career and before his marriage to Toland-Skelton, though Skelton’s legacy and theatrical work lived on for decades after.
“My husband was so varied in his talents and his experience and personality and a sense of goodness overall,” Toland-Skelton said.
She recounted an experience following one of Skelton’s shows in Las Vegas.
“It was raining cats and dogs. The show went on and on, it was over two hours. We’ve seen the show many times, but this time it was a very long show. Red got dressed and ready to go and popped in the limousine and I thought, ‘Oh! At last. Free! At last.’ Red looked at me and he said ‘Look at these people standing in the rain. If they can stand there and wait for an autograph, I can go out there and sign them,’” Toland-Skelton said. “Red said to me, ‘I’ve lived my whole life to be recognized.’ It wasn’t a run-and-hide thing; it was a smile and appreciate it. If you love what you do – entertaining – you do stop and sign autographs for people because they pay your bills.”
Toland-Skelton and Pratt offered their full blessing on the show’s director Craig Gibson and producers Jack and Laura Smith of GaspaTape after seeing Premier Arts’ production of “Annie” last year.
“(Gibson) really pulled the talent out of the local actors and actresses,” Pratt said. “It was really exceeding and I think that’s why they had us watch it so that we would have confidence in them.”
“I know people are really excited to see it,” Gibson added. “For a man who was on television for 20 years every week, when he went off the air, it didn’t go into syndication like a lot of things do, so there’s a gap in our audiences recollection of who he was. It’s going to be super fun to watch them rediscover, or discover for the first time, this man who had such an influence on comedy and television.”
Toland-Skelton will attend the opening night showing, and the public is invited opening night as well. It takes place at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11. The program continues on both Saturday and Sunday, at 7:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. respectively. Reserve tickets ranging from $12 to $21 depending on seating.
IF YOU GO
What: Premier Arts presents “Goodnight and God Bless: The Red Skelton Story”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Lerner Theatre, 410 S. Main St., Elkhart
For more information: Call 574-293-4469 or visit thelerner.com