Saturday, November 17, 2012

Guest Post: Betsy Baytos on Interviewing Red Skelton

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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!"

I flew out the very next day, rented a car, and spent a sleepless night at a motel near Red's house, as the interview was early in the morning. I was nervous as Red, over six feet tall,  opened the door smiling, cane in hand, and chomping on a cigar, ushered me in. His wife, Lothian, daughter of the great cinematographer Gregg Toland, walked in, curious as to my agenda.

He sat down as I babbled about eccentric dancers, and kindly listened, commenting about the dancers he knew, while signing plates depicting his clowns. I had brought footage on a small portable television but needed to somehow divert his attention. I then mentioned Charlotte Greenwood and placed my leg straight up the door frame. Red, taken aback, sat back staring, got up and left the room, leaving me alone with my leg attached to the door frame, aghast as what to do next! Minutes seemed like hours.....
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!

Here are two amazing Red Skelton clips, the classic Guzzler's Gin, followed by the lesser known dance class sequence from  Bathing Beauty (1944). Skelton's pantomime is pure "eccentric" in how he uses his character and has a specific reason for everything he does, in every gesture, every move. There is action and reaction. His body language as a ballerina, from a slumped position as he enters, to the extreme pulling up as he gets slapped around, is what makes that piece so effective.

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!

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