It was Old Home Week in the Global Village as Red Skelton came back to the people who invented him.
Hours before his Sunday night show, they poured into Towson State University, their cars lined up literally for miles in the bleak countryside.
In the Towson Center lobby they chattered over his exhibited paintings, which they seemed to know all about (he's done hundreds, mostly of clowns, gets up to $20,000 apiece), and when he came on they gave him not one but two standing ovations, cheered, clapped, roared out the names of their favorite routines - which he obligingly did for them - and laughed themselves cross-eyed.
It is seven years since Red Skelton wound up his TV show of 20 years' standing, and as he said, "I do miss you every Tuesday night . . . but as long as they're not going to show respect in the home with television, and going to have wild sex and that kind of entertainment. I prefer to go around the country and meet you all in person."
He was supposed to spend a week at Towson, visiting drama classes, mime classes, art and music classes. But he caught cold, according to university officials, had to cancel his visit to Reading, Pa., just before this one, and would up spending only the long weekend at Towson. mainly in his room resting. Incidentally, he reported to Baltimore County police that his $200,000 diamond ring either was stolen or lost.
This summer Skelton will be 65.
They forgave him. The show was short (it sold out weeks ago: 6,400 seats at up to $12), and some of the jokes were bearded, and the panto-mime part was something you had to sit through patiently, like Harpo's harp performance.
But oh my, there is something about the work of an authentic clown, a pro, the kind of guy who got his first laugh at age 10 when he fell off the stage of his father's medicine show. The timing is beautiful all by itself: "Why pick on the politicians?" (Count: one, two, three, four) . . . "They ain't done nothin' ."
And the props: the hat, the jacket that he can never get into (and has to yell into wings, "Ma!"), and especially the hair, which in an instant can turn him into his Mr. Hyde self.
In one bit he combs and combs it, teases it, waves it, sculpts it, all the while keeping th audience on Hold with some relatively quiet uts away the comb. Satisfied at last. And - Ka-PFFFFFLLLLGGGHHH! - the most god-awful sneeze you ever heard blows him away and sends his hair flying in all directions.
T he special thing about Red Skelton is that you sense a manic wildness just under the surface. All the time. He cracks up at his own jokes. Sneezes and his shoes fly off. Goes cross-eyed, his mouth stretched like a rubber band, his gray hair sticking out like an electrified Einstein. That's normal.
But every now and then he seems to lose control, escalating, extending a routine until you can't stand it anymore. This is what the people come for: the breakout, the destruction of an orderly act, the subversion of the script.
The celebrated Guzzler's Gin number, where a TV announcer gets smashed demonstrating the product, had him going Sunday night: He took off from the routine - choked, gagged, wobbled, careened, flailed and finally collapsed. It went on for minutes. It wasn't brilliant; it was cataclysmic.
"Don't get me laughing, dear heart," he called to a lady in the audience, "or you'll never get outta here."
It's in his blood. As a kid he worked minstrel shows, burlesque, circuses, show boats and Walkathon contests. He made his Broadway debut in vaudeville in 1937 - prophetically the same year he started on radio. He lists his doughnut-dunking routine in Who's Who.
From there on it was movies, 36 of them, until he shifted - again, sensitive to trends - into TV. During the movie years he employed the great Buster Keaton as a consultant, and you can see Leaton's influence in some of the sustained gag sequences. In "The Fuller Brush Man" a stack of prefab house fronts falls on Red, but he is unhurt because he is standing in the doorway. That's pure Keaton.
He told the audience how he spends his time now: writing short stories (one a week, dictated in his car on the way to the office and illustrated by himself), writing songs (8,000 copyrighted), composing marches, conducting. Somewhere it says he has written 64 symphonies, four of them recorded.
Then there are the bonsai gardening, the Shrine activites, hospital visits, honorary degrees and other worthy thoughts. he is not a lazy man, his wife said once.
What is the appeal of a man who gets his laughs by making faces, mussing his hair and sneezing? Maybe it's because he laughs at his own jokes like any amateur: the cutup at the party who has everyone rolling on the floor. Somehow he makes you feel it's all improvised, though you've heard the jokes before (in grade school, to be exact) and the whole act is much too smooth to be the accident it appears to be.
Maybe, when you come down to it, it's the way he rushes up to the mike, face ecstatic, to shout, 'I got one for ya! I got one for ya! There's these two guys, see . . . "