Edna Stillwell and the “Real Making of Red”

Edna Stillwell working with comedian husband Red Skelton
Edna Stillwell working with comedian husband Red Skelton, The Times (Shreveport, LA), December 16, 1941, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

Guzzler’s Gin, Dunking Donuts, “I dood it!:” Red Skelton’s iconic characters and quips would not exist without the influence of his first wife Edna Stillwell. In fact, a Rochester, NY newspaper reported that Skelton insisted “he’d be a bum” without her  Through Stillwell’s comedic and management muscle, Skelton went from an unknown circus performer to one of the most lauded comedians in television and film history.

Stillwell was born in Missouri on May 25, 1915. As a teenager she was attracted to show business and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported that she was head usherette at Pantages Theatre in Kansas City, where seventeen-year-old Skelton performed. Skelton recalled that she took an immediate disliking to him. At his next job, he served as master of ceremonies at a walkathon, where Stillwell happened to be working as cashier. He eventually convinced her to go on a date with him. Skelton cemented her affections when he chose her to kiss in a photoshoot. He recalled “‘I grabbed her and kissed her and it made me dizzy. This was it. This was love. I guess we both were dizzy. We got married.'”

Stillwell’s and Skelton’s marriage license, 1932, accessed Ancestry Library.

The entertainer, at the time, was so poor that Stillwell had to pay for their marriage license. After the wedding she assumed the role of business manager, a duty she would continue to fill even after their 1944 divorce. According to the Democrat and Chronicle, the manager of a walkathon in St. Louis wanted to cut Skelton’s salary, prompting Stillwell to approach him and successfully demand more money. Skelton noted, “‘I told her I’d handle my own affairs. Only she shut me up with the news that I’d get $100 a week. She also tossed the boss into doing my dry cleaning.'” She eventually negotiated his walkathon pay up to $500 per week and invested his money in real estate. She also forced Skelton, a high school drop-out, to study and earn his high school degree. He admitted “‘pretty soon I didn’t feel like such a fool when I was in a room full of people talking about something besides burlesque.'”

Stillwell was just as formidable when it came to comedy writing. According to the Indianapolis Star, Skelton’s vaudeville run in Montreal was nearly cancelled after his first performance, so:

Red went back to his own individual style, which had put him over in vaudeville. And his wife in a moment of contempt for the old routines they were doing, said, ‘I could write better stuff than that,’ Red’s answer was “Why don’t you?’ also in sarcasm. But she did, and she has written his material ever since.

In a 1941 article, The Tennessean observed that “from several years of watching what tripe came down the pike on the old Pan circuit, Edna got some pretty definite ideas about what to avoid in a vaudeville skit.”

Edna and Red at their California home, accessed Wikipedia.

A newspaper piece by Ted Gill noted that soon after marrying, Stillwell dreamed up Skelton’s famous “Junior” character. When the couple strolled past stores Red could never “resist the urge to buy things” and if “Edna attempted to talk him out of it, he’d lie down on the sidewalk, kick his heels and make such a scene that he soon had scores of passersby in near-convulsions.” From then on Stillwell considered herself “Mommie” to his “Junior.” According to a 1942 Indianapolis Star article, Stillwell’s “Junior” sketch catapulted Skelton’s career forward and as she “schemed out that screamingly funny little boy burlesque-topped off by those three precious words, ‘I dood it!’-the name of Skelton fairly leaped from the bottom to the top of various radio comedian polls.” The article also mentioned that she helped mastermind Skelton’s “$50,000 doughnut dunking act,” after the couple dined at a Montreal cafe. The article stated that Stillwell and Skelton,

then playing together in small-time vaudeville, watched a diner as he slyly held his hat over his hand while he dunked, furtively looked around and then popped the soaked sinker into his mouth. The Skeltons doped out the outline of the act before they left the restaurant, polished it  up in their hotel room that afternoon and presented it the same evening at the theater. It was an instantaneous hit and established Skelton as a top-line variety performer.

Accessed gettyimages.co.uk.

Writing material and coaching her husband from theater wings proved to be the steady hand Skelton needed to succeed in his career. Skelton’s biographer Wes Gehring contended that “Stillwell’s mid-1930s donut routine and other reality-based writing helped Skelton segue his skills into vaudeville, the next rung on the entertainment ladder.” He noted that “Working, performing, and traveling together as nomadic vaudevillians in the 1930s, the Skeltons were a team to reckon with.” By the late 1930s, the couple moved to Hollywood, where Skelton earned a notable $2,000 for appearing in the film Having Wonderful Time, alongside Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Script, courtesy of the Edna and Red Skelton Collection, M1000, Box 2, Folder 16, Indiana Historical Society.

In order to make money between films Skelton returned to the stage. Stillwell demanded he refuse any offer under $1,000, causing them to go without food for days. But staying the course paid off, as the Democrat and Chronicle reported, because Skelton “got a coast-to-coast radio program and soon he was clicking in vaudeville-and at Edna’s price.” Stillwell wrote for and appeared on Skelton’s popular radio show and had performed with him on Rudy Vallee‘s program. His national NBC show (featuring renowned radio and television pair Ozzie and Harriet Nelson), in tandem with his film Whistling in the Dark, catapulted Skelton to national fame in 1941. Gehring concluded that Stillwell also had a hand in his film success, stating that “True to Stillwell’s good instincts for her husband, she was the first to recognize just how effective he would be” in Whistling. The Indianapolis Star informed readers that year that “At his disposal at present are some 500 comedy routines all written by himself or his wife, with which he has been throwing Hollywood audiences, both on and off the screen, into hysterics.”

Edna Stillwell, 1943 press photo, accessed outlet.historicimages.com.

At the end of 1942, newspapers across the country announced that Stillwell had filed for divorce from her partner in comedy. The Dixon [Illinois] Evening Telegraph noted that she filed suit, “charging cruelty, but plans to continue to write the wit that has made his radio act famous,” which she did after the court finalized the divorce. The former couple even performed their original vaudeville routines at army camp shows in WWII to popular reception. Their professional relationship continued until 1952, one year after Skelton was given his own, groundbreaking television show. Gehring contended that their post-divorce work was “a mixed bag-a rousing success professionally, but a stressful distraction for each of their subsequent marriages.” Skelton married actress Georgia Maureen Davis and Stillwell married Hollywood film director Frank Borzage, who had directed Skelton in films like Flight Command.

Stillwell died in Los Angeles on November 15, 1982. Without “Mommie’s” aptitude and intuition, Skelton likely would never have “dood it!” Learn more about the funny man with our newest historical marker, located in Vincennes.

Beulah Bondi: Jimmy Stewart’s “Mom”

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Jimmy Stewart and Beulah Bondi, courtesy of the Porter County Museum.

Beulah Bondi’s is not a recognizable name today, but her face certainly is. You’ve likely seen it in classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The Valparaiso, Indiana native portrayed Jimmy Stewart’s mother four times on film, including Vivacious Lady and Of Human Hearts, in addition to Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith. According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, Stewart affectionately called Bondi “Mom.” By the ripe old age of 39, Bondi was cast to play characters well beyond her age and she became the equivalent of “Hollywood’s mother,” despite herself never marrying or having children.

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Depiction of Bondi’s character in “Track of the Cat” (1954), courtesy of Oscars.org.

“America’s greatest character actress,” according to United Artists, MGM, and Paramount, was born Beulah Bondy in 1888. She got her start at the age of seven as “Little Lord Fauntleroy” at Valparaiso’s Memorial Opera House. After the lead actress fell ill, she had one week to memorize 47 pages worth of lines and became hooked on acting after delivering them on the stage. The young actress was drawn to “dramatics” and the stage throughout her public education, including her time at the Convent of the Holy Name and Valparaiso University.

After graduation from university, she traveled the Midwest with a theatrical touring company. The Valparaiso Vidette Messenger reported that she changed her last name to “Bondi” at the suggestion of an Indianapolis journalist. Bondi noted, laughing, that “‘He said all of the letters in my name should be above the [credit] line.”

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“The Shepherd of the Hills” promotional material, 1941, accessed IMDb.com.

Following her work with an Indianapolis stock theater company, Bondi began her professional acting career in 1919. She was promptly informed by her first director that she “‘had no more talent than on the head of a pin.'” This criticism equipped her to endure even the most difficult directors of stage and film. In 1925, Bondi made her Broadway debut, beginning a prolific Broadway career that would eventually deliver her to Hollywood acclaim. According to the Valparaiso Vidette Messenger, film producer Samuel Goldwyn viewed her Broadway performance as a bigoted neighbor in the three-year run of Elmer Rice’s “Street Scene” and brought her to Hollywood.

From “dowagers to harridans,” Bondi deliberately chose character work, embodying each of the characters she played. In 1929, the Valparaiso Vidette Messenger printed excerpts of colorful New York reviews of Bondi’s portrayals:

“As a catty and scandal mongering neighbor Miss Beulah Bondi never overplays a role that would tease a lesser actress to do so.”

“Beulah Bondi who was so good in ‘Saturday’s Children’ and so amusing in ‘Cock Robin,’ turns out a gossipy busy body with remarkable detail and rare effect.”

In “Street Scene:” “the comedy relief is intrusted [sic] to the greatest character actress in America, Beulah Bondi. Hers was a magnificent performance.”

Bondi reflected in 1976 that “With each part, I ‘meet the woman’ for the first time when I read the script . . . And then I imagine her past life-what made her into the character she is.” She appeared in over 50 major films, appearing with Hollywood greats such as Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyk, and of course her “son” Jimmy.

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Beulah Bondi, James Stewart, Guy Kibbee, and Ruth Donnelly in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” courtesy of Getty Images, accessed IMDb.com.

The Vidette Messenger noted that Bondi came to be greatly respected by directors because she:

“was never given ‘The Grand Build-up’ by inspired press agents. She is just one of the ‘old timers’ on the various lots, highly capable and highly dependable. Neither temperamental nor demanding, she is an actress to delight both producers and directors. She choses [sic] her parts with great discrimination, asking always the best, and always giving her best.”

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Montage: The Journal of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Vol. 1 No. 1, (May 1939), p.22, accessed Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Bondi received recognition and accolades for her supporting roles, receiving commendation by the New York Times for her role in the 1939 film On Borrowed Time, in which she played opposite Lionel Barrymore. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1936 for The Gorgeous Hussy and 1938 for Of Human Hearts. At the sunset of her career, Bondi received an Emmy award in 1977 for Outstanding Lead Actress for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series for her portrayal as Aunt Martha on an episode of The Waltons.

The Vidette Messenger aptly concluded in 1976 that Bondi “deserves a place in the series of local celebrities-and unlike some who have gone off to conspicuous success in the entertainment world-she never belittled the town that was the scene of her childhood. She is a product of Valparaiso-and proud of it.” In her 80s, Bondi quipped to the newspaper that same year “‘I never played an actress my own age . . . I now play girls of 16.'” The acclaimed Hoosier passed away on January 12, 1981 in Hollywood, leaving behind a legacy of compelling silver screen characters.

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Jo Mannies, “Beulah’s Debut 47 Pages Long,” Valparaiso Vidette Messenger, April 13, 1976, 1.

Carole Lombard: From Fort Wayne Flood to the Silver Screen

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Jane Alice Peters became one of America’s favorite movie stars of the 1930s as Carole Lombard. She was born in Fort Wayne in 1908 and spent the first six years of her life in the shingle-style house on Rockhill Street that was built about the year 1905. Her grandfather was John Clouse Peters, one of the founders of the Horton Washing Machine Company, and her mother, “Bess” Knight, was a vivacious and strong actress descended from “Gentleman Jim” Chaney, an associate of the notorious robber baron of the 1880s, Jay Gould.

Described as a tomboy in her youth, Jane Alice fondly remembered her young days in Fort Wayne, attending the Washington Elementary School a few blocks to the south and playing rough games with her brothers, “Fritz” and “Tootie.” While the actress is remembered for her WWII work promoting war bonds, her philanthropic efforts began in Fort Wayne during the Great Flood of 1913. Under the direction of her mother, Bess, her house became a rescue center for flood victims, among other reasons, because the family had one of the only telephones in the area. Jane Alice also remembered helping her mother collect supplies, run errands, and help care for those displaced by the rising waters.

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Flooding in Fort Wayne, 1913, image courtesy of The History Center, accessed Fort Wayne News Sentinel.

Jane Alice and her mother left Fort Wayne in 1914, eventually settling in Hollywood. At age 12, she made her film debut and by 1924 was a glamorous actress for Fox Studios. She changed her name to Carole Lombard, in recollection of an old family friend, Harry Lombard, a relative from Fort Wayne living in California. A 1940 Collier‘s article wrote about the move from Indiana life to early Hollywood stardom:

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Her dynamic Hollywood career was highlighted by roles in Mack Sennett films, steamy romances, marriage to William Powell, exotic parties, outstanding comedy roles in major movies opposite the best actors in the business, and, marriage to actor Clark Gable. She starred in films such as Mr. & Mrs. Smith, My Man Godfrey, and Nothing Sacred.

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Photo of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable courtesy of theredlist.com.

On January 15, 1942, Lombard revisited to her Hoosier roots for a war bond rally in Indianapolis. Approximately 12,000 turned out for the event on Ohio and New Jersey streets; millions others viewed the rally through newsreels. While in the city, Lombard attended tea at the governor’s mansion, a flag-raising ceremony at the Statehouse, and ribbon-cutting at an army recruiting office. According to the Indianapolis Star, Lombard exclaimed to the crowd:

“As a Hoosier, I am proud that Indiana led the nation in buying Liberty Bonds in the last war. I want to believe that Indiana will lead every other state again this time — and we will! We won the last war, and with your help we will win this war!”

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Lombard with Indiana Governor Henry Schricker, courtesy of caroleandco.wordpress.com; Hammond Times, January 16, 1942, accessed NewspaperArchive.org.

Lombard sold a record $2 million in bonds to Hoosiers. Tragically, the following day, her plane crashed in Las Vegas, where she lost her life at age 33. Twenty-two people were killed in the accident, including Lombard’s mother, young servicemen en route to war duty, and agent Otto Winkler, who had begged her to return to California by train.

The Indianapolis Star reports that following her death, Lombard was honored by “President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a tribute to patriotic spirit, [who] declared Lombard the first woman killed in the line of duty during the war and posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

Learn more about Lombard’s life and the devastating way in which husband Clark Gable found out about her death via Photoplay’s 1942 article.