We continue our series of popular guest posts on eccentric dance by Betsy Baytos with a piece on the multi-talented Red Skelton. I was actually on his show (in a skit with Jackie Gleason!) a few days after my seventh birthday, and 28 years later he consented to be honorary chairperson of the first NY International Clown-Theatre Festival, but (unlike Betsy) this time around I did not get to meet him. Click here for all of Betsy's posts on eccentric dance. —jt
Red Skelton had always been a favorite of mine growing up, but I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to meet, let alone interview, the great comic. I had just made the decision to work on the documentary but I had no clue how I, with no financial backing or studio supporting me, could make these great artists sit down and talk intimately about their careers. But I had to try.
I was living in New York at the time, freelancing and touring for Disney, and somehow managed to get a contact to Red. He was to be my first interview for the film, but how? Aha! I knew of his clown paintings and I worked hard on a full color Goofy as Freddie the Freeloader, sending it off to Rancho Mirage, while hoping for a reaction. When I followed up with a call, an old German woman answered, "Mr. Skelton does not take interviews!" I asked her to verify that the illustration arrived safely, and she was gone a long while. Finally she returned, surprised as I was. "He said YES!" and I jumped, "I'm on my way!"
|Betsy & Red|
Red returned, camera in hand, chuckling heartily. Whew, I did it! I quickly made space in the living room and proceeded to dance eccentric, with Red filming away in delight! He then agreed to do an interview at a later time. With the backing of the New York Performing Arts Library and a grant from Jerome Robbins, I managed to sit him down a few months later, for one of the most extraordinary interviews in Funny Feet. For over two and a half hours, Red graciously made me feel at ease, sharing his incredible background, and regaling me with timeless stories. My focus with this film had always been on a performer's technique, the process of character development, and setting up a gag, and essentially how to make a step "funny." Red delivered over and above, with insight on how he studied babies for his drunk act and how you "have to get right up on a pratfall or the audience will think you are hurt!" Pure gold and I was so grateful for this rare opportunity.
|Betsy & Lothian|
I kept his wife, Lothian, informed, and when Red passed, she reached out, saying how Red had planned to continue touring, and how he considered me as his opening act! What a thrill that would have been! Lothian and I have since become close friends, and that experience and interview compelled me to push on, making me realize how much these great artists have yet to give!
The same in animation: it's all about the extreme pose and how you build a gag. An eccentric dancer doesn't give away what is about to happen, instead looking just as baffled as we are at the results of their antics. Surprise is the key, and as the music escalates, so does Red. It's musicality, not just in dance but in his pantomime. Choreography is not steps, but movement; no matter how small, it's all important to the development of the routine.
Click here for Betsy's web site.
Click here for all of her guest posts to this blog.
And stay tuned. More to come!