Avalon Time was not Red Skelton’s first crack at radio. Rudy Vallee saw Red’s Doughnut Dunkers routine, and invited Red to appear on the Royal Gelatin Hour.
The Doughnut Dunkers was one of Red’s more successful vaudeville routines. In the popular piece, Red would imitate the way different people would dip their doughnuts in their coffee. Audiences loved the routine, but performing the bit, in which Red consumed 9 doughnuts, took a toll on Red’s waistline with 5 performances a day. Maybe Red got into radio to lose weight!
Red was born to do comedy radio. His father, who passed away just two months before Red was born, had been a clown with the Hagenback-Wallace Circus. Without a father in the house, Red went to work early to help support the family. He was successful at learning the patter of the newsboy, and was able to keep it up until the potential customer would buy a paper, just to get Red to shut up. One customer outside the Vincennes Theater was impressed enough that he bought Red’s entire stock of papers. The man then asked if Red would like to see the show in which the man was performing. The man was future Fire Chief, Ed Wynn, and he lit a fire that would burn in Red for the rest of his life; the burning desire to perform.
Young Red tried a number of acting styles. He took on a dramatic role with a stock company, but no matter how serious the part, the audience would always laugh at Red’s delivery. At 15, he hit the vaudeville circuit, and took time the next year to work with the circus where his late father had been a clown (Red’s most famous character, Freddie the Freeloader, used the same makeup that his father had used.
Back in vaudeville, 18 year old Red was appearing in Kansas City. While trying to impress a pretty young usher, he asked her if she liked his material. When she said she did not, he challenged her to write better. She did, and soon Red and Edna Stilwell were married.
Edna continued to write gags for her husband, and had a prominent part when Red began hosting The Avalon Hour. Red had been a guest on the program in mid December, 1938, when singer Red Foley hosted the show. In January, the show was retooled with Red Skelton as the star and Red Foley the featured singer. The show featured terrifically silly comedy, Skelton often the butt of his own jokes, and a wide variety of music from Foley and the Avalon Orchestra. The variety of music is a pleasant surprise, considering that Red Foley would later be known as Mr. Country Music.
Edna Stilwell became a permanent part of the company after the Feb 18 program and kept her role as her husband’s gag writer. She developed a system of taking material from the show’s writers, adding her own, and saving the leftovers for later use. Red left Avalon Time at the end of 1939 to concentrated on his movie career. He came back to radio in 1941 with on the Raleigh Cigarettes Program. Edna announced that she was leaving the Skelton household in 1942, although she continued to manage his career into the 1950’s. This presented some problems for Red’s later romances. Red and Edna left divorce court arm in arm.