The Day I Met Red Skelton
©2020 by Vernon Miles Kerr, VernonMilesKerr.com, WritersClass.net
In 1969, I had been managing a small finance-company office on Indian Avenue in Palm Springs for about two years. At the time, Palm Springs was still a sleepy little community lazying in the shimmering desert heat at the very foot of a precipitous 10,000′ mountain range. So close-in to the mountains were we, that sunset was at 2:00 pm in the winter, which was high-season in the Springs. During the “season,” the demographics seemed to be about 50% celebrities and famous politicians — so much so, that we locals didn’t even give notables, like Caesar Romero, Truman Capote, Liberace, or even Mamie Eisenhower, a second look. The rich and famous seemed to like that laid-back atmosphere, and the resultant brief respite from their being pestered for autographs. I don’t know if it was ever said out loud, but we desert-rats had an understanding that asking for an autograph was plebeian, and just not done.
My little 1,000 square-foot office, with it’s large glass front was in a business triplex, owned by “Louie the Barber,” an old French Guy, in the unit next door. Those front windows provided an unobstructed view of our bank, City National, across narrow Indian Avenue, so I would often see Red Skelton pull into the City National parking lot, in one of several different-looking Rolls-Royces, get out of the car, walk around to the passenger side and politely open the door for his wife, Georgia. During that period, one of my customers, Greg, who mowed the golf course in back of Skelton’s house in Rancho Mirage, and who would always stop and chat with Red over his back fence, before mowing onward, told me Skelton had recently pulled up in a new Rolls, while Greg was walking along the sidewalk in blue-collar Cathedral City, enthusiastically waving him over. “Hey, Greg, come check out my new car.” Later I had seen Skelton driving that deep-plum-colored Rolls around town. It was quite distinctive, sporting a shiny retro radiator with the traditional “Sprit of Ecstasy” radiator cap, and large, fanciful headlamps, apparently styled after early-20th Century carbide ones.
The day I met Red, he and Georgia drove into the City National lot, he piloting one of his more “mundane” Rollses. As usual, he got out and helped Georgia out of the car, but this time she went into the bank alone and he started walking towards us, jaywalking over Indian Avenue, toward Louie’s shop.
“He’s going to get a haircut,” I told my assistant, “hold down the fort. I think I’ll go sit in the chairs while Louie’s working on him.”
As I entered, Skelton was already in the chair, draped, and in the middle of an improvised comedy routine about current teen-age modes of dress and behavior, to the appreciative chuckles of the other waiting men — who had graciously agreed to allow the comedian to go ahead of them, given that Georgia wouldn’t be in the bank very long.
Acknowledging me, as I sat down, without missing a beat, he launched into a joke:
“These two nuns from City of Angeles hospital are driving down the Hollywood Freeway and they run out of gas. ‘Oh dear what now?’ the younger says, The elder answers, ‘Take that bedpan out of the trunk, walk down the off-ramp and get some gas.’ Back from the gas station, the elder has the gas cap off and is pouring the contents into to the filler spout, when a burly truck driver stops alongside, shaking his head, and says ‘Sister, I wish I had that kind of faith.’ ”
“I bet you won’t tell that one on TV,” I commented (obliquely referring to a minor censorship issue he had recently had with CBS.) He rolled his eyes, knowingly.
“Hey, I saw you driving your new Rolls the other day,” I said. (He immediately brightened)
“Oh yeah, isn’t she a beauty? The body was custom made for me by John Thomas, Rolls Royce’s top coachmaker,” he gushed. “You know, there’s no chrome on that car?”
“What about the radiator and those big headlamps, they look like chrome.”
“No, I mean all the bright-work is sterling silver, and… the carpets are mink and the air conditioning comes out of tiny holes in the headliner,” he related, warmly.
“Wow,” I said. “Hey, I once read that you love Japanese Bonsai, that’s something we have in common.” He went on to tell me about his experience bringing back a 400 year-old tree from Japan and his nearly having a hear attack learning that the $78,000 plant would have to be fumigated to clear customs. By this time, I sensed that somehow this justifiably world-famous comedian was trying to impress the three or four of us in that waiting room. His demeanor was bright and cheerful but I marveled that he seemed, somehow, boyishly insecure and eager for our approval. (Of course, he had it before ever walking into Louie’s.)
When Louie had finished, and had given Red a dusting with a talc-laden brush, he got up and handed Louie several folded bills. “Here’s enough for all these guys, and a little for you.”
With that, he re-jaywalked back across Indian Avenue, and strolled into the bank.