By ASHLEY M. HEHER
The Associated Press
Saturday, June 10, 2006; 4:26 PM
VINCENNES, Ind. -- Red Skelton always wanted a theater of his own. His career spanned six decades and four genres _ vaudeville, radio, movies and television _ but the rubber-faced comic never owned one of the buildings he often called "palaces."
Nine years after his death, hundreds of clowns paraded through his southwestern Indiana hometown Saturday to celebrate Skelton's legacy and the theater that finally bears his name: Vincennes University's Red Skelton Performing Arts Center.
"He loved the theater. It was his living room. He really believed the audience was family," said Skelton's widow, Lothian Skelton, 68, who flew in from Rancho Mirage, Calif. for the festival. "He said they're like palaces."
The weekend-long celebration in Vincennes, about 50 miles north of Evansville, Ind., kicked off a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign to build a Red Skelton museum that organizers hope to fill with the actor's scripts, costumes, songs, writings, paintings and props.
"His legacy is a clown of all times," said comedian Tom Smothers, who played the buffoon foil to his brother Dick as part of The Smothers Brothers, who headlined Saturday's gala honoring Skelton.
An estimated 300 clowns walked, rode scooters, bikes, fire trucks and floats along the mile-long parade route.
Craig Jarratt, a 57-year-old clown who uses the stage name "Careful the Clown," said he came to the festival from Ohio as a birthday present to himself.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime event," he said.
Skelton, born in 1913, joined a traveling medicine show when just he was 10 years old.
He became known for his signature pantomime, goofy antics, pratfalls and colorful characters such as Freddie the Freeloader, Clem Kadiddlehopper, Willie Lump Lump and Junior The Mean Widdle Kid.
Skelton's radio show debuted in 1941, and 10 years later "The Red Skelton Show" premiered on NBC. Skelton spent 20 consecutive years on NBC and CBS. Only Ed Sullivan, who spent 24 straight years on the air, had a longer stay.
Skelton starred in more than 30 movies and wrote 5,000 musical pieces. He often painted portraits of clowns, which sold for more than $80,000.
He died in September 1997 at age 84.
Lifelong Skelton fan Wendy Alvarez, 53, and her husband drove 10 hours to Saturday's parade from Broken Arrow, Okla., and reminisced about watching him on TV in their youth.
"We'd sit in front of the TV when we were little and laugh ourselves silly," she said.
The Emmy-winning actor is credited with influencing modern-day comics like "Seinfeld" actor Michael Richards, who inducted Skelton into the Comedy Hall of Fame in 1993.
"We're all proud of his good, clean humor and family entertainment," said Vincennes Mayor Terry Mooney, 63. "He never forgot where he came from."
And the town never forgot him. Red banners bearing pictures of Skelton's different characters lined Main Street, declaring him the city's "favorite son."
Community leaders hope the new theater and the museum will be a boon to the economy in the state's oldest city, known more for its military history than performing arts.
Amid the two truckloads of memorabilia donated by Lothian Skelton are her late husband's handwritten notes in scripts. She hopes her collection, along with the stage that bears his name at Vincennes University, help her husband's legacy live on.
"Red is giving to another generation," she said. "Someone might pick up something he did and it might inspire them."