Richard “Red” Skelton
July 18, 2013
100 years ago today (July 18th), Richard “Red” Skelton was born in Vincennes, Indiana. For many he occupies a niche of fond memories and sweet smiles. His television variety program in the 1960s was a must-see, weekly event in many households. How many remember, with glassy eyes, his closing comment of “God Bless” before the familiar strains of his theme song, “Holiday for Strings?”
Still, few might know that Skelton first gained national attention in Cincinnati while performing on WLW. Here's how it happened: In 1938, Williamson Tobacco sponsored a show highlighting its “Avalon” brand of cigarettes. Avalon Time was a country-music, variety program hosted by Red Foley. The show was produced at WLW's Arlington Street studios because Foley and his friend, John Lair, had moved their country programs to WLW from Chicago's WLS the year before. In those days, it was customary to have a comedian on such a program, so Williamson hired a little known 25-year old, former circus clown named Red Skelton to augment Foley's show. It didn't take long before the newer “Red” upstaged the older “Red” and soon-after producers of the program gave more and more material to Skelton until Foley was basically forced off the show by December 1938. The “new” Avalon Time lost its country “twang” and featured Red's wife, Edna Stillwell; comedian Del King; vocalist Janette Davis; WLW staff announcer Peter Grant doing commercials; Mary Lou Lantz as the “Avalon Girl;” and music by Phil Davis. The program originated out of WLW's ornate Studio A over the NBC network with, as custom for the times, a “late owl” broadcast specifically for the West Coast. Avalon Time continued to broadcast from WLW until mid-April 1939, when production was moved to NBC's Merchandise Mart in Chicago. The reasons for moving the show are unclear—some say Skelton preferred Chicago while others say it was to appease AFRA. Whatever the reason, Skelton left and took with him: King, Janette Davis, Phil Davis and Stillwell. Grant remained in Cincinnati, as did Lantz, who was a local actress. When Avalon Time ended production in May 1940, Phil Davis returned to WLW while Janette later ended up with Arthur Godfrey. Red Skelton returned to Cincinnati in 1992 for a sold-out show at Riverbend and had nothing but fond memories of Cincinnati. He passed away five years later in 1997. Media Heritage has copies of most of the Cincinnati-based Avalon Time shows.