The bundled-up volunteers gathered outside the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy on a bright but brisk Monday morning to brave the winter wind and unload box after box after box of Red Skelton's treasures.
But soon enough, despite the conditions, they were overcome with laughter, just as if they were watching one of Skelton's performances.
“Oh my gosh, that is hilarious,” museum executive director Anne Pratt said as an oversized, rusty metal frying pan was unloaded from the truck, followed by what appeared to be a large antique wooden mallet. “And how about that huge hammer? He did a lot of things with oversized props.”
“It looks like it's dated from 1880,” said curator and archivist Mark Kratzner, smiling as he examined the cursive writing on the mallet's tag. “I think it was a gift from some circus people.”
“There's lots of fun stuff coming off this truck,” Pratt said with a laugh. “We're just so excited.”
Skelton as born in Vincennes on July 18, 1913, in a house just north of the museum that still stands. He died on Sept. 17, 1997 after more than 70 years as an entertainer, from medicine shows to circuses, from vaudeville to Broadway, on radio, in movies and most-importantly on television, where for 20 years his weekly show ranked among the highest rated.
THE END OF A LONG JOURNEY
The moving truck arrived on Monday after a long trip from California, where it had been loaded up with all sorts of Skelton memorabilia and belongings, donated to the museum by the late comedian's wife, Lothian.
She often gives items and mementos from the Vincennes native's life and career to the museum, Kratzner said, but this shipment was a once-in-a-lifetime donation.
“We get things from Lothian a few times a year — nothing as huge as this, though,” he said. “Sometimes just an envelope or two, and when she comes here, she brings in something interesting.
“Last time, she brought a cross that was blessed by the pope,” Kratzner said with a chuckle. “You never know what's going to come through the doors.”
As the morning went on, museum staff got a glimpse of just how many artifacts were in the shipment.
There were boxes upon boxes of material for each season of “The Red Skelton Show,” including guest star photos, receipts and scripts, personal books, short stories, audio recordings, press photos, reel tapes, an artist's easel, and VHS tapes.
There were also a couple of trunks just might date back to Skelton's vaudeville days in the 1930s, Kratzner said,
“(Lothian) had this huge storage facility in Palm Springs, so she wasn't even sure what was in every box,” Pratt said. “A lot of it is scripts, and we think there are some costumes and props from his early TV shows, but I think she just wasn't sure what all she had.”
“Red was quite a pack rat,” Kratzner said with a grin.
Volunteers even unwrapped a motorized scooter nicknamed “Big Red” that Lothian Skelton herself bought for her husband.
“There are lots of figurines, too,” Pratt said, opening up some styrofoam packing to reveal a miniature Red Skelton decked out in his famous Freddie the Freeloader getup. “Red mass-produced figurines of his characters and there were a ton of those still in storage.
“We'll be selling those at the store now, which is exciting because it's something we've never had before.”
Once everything was unloaded from the truck, Kratzner said, the trick would be figuring out how to organize it all.
There's already a large archive room, Pratt added, so they'll also have to figure out how the new donations fit into the existing archive in their proper order.
As Kratzner goes through each box to reveal its contents, he plans to upload videos of the “unboxing” to YouTube. They'll also be posted on the Red Skelton Museum Group and Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy Facebook pages.
While many items will be stored in the museum's archive, some will eventually end up in exhibit cases on the museum's floor, Pratt noted.
Photographs of Skelton with African American performers will hopefully be added to next year's Black History Month display, Kratzner said, and several of his trunks might be included in an upcoming May exhibit about Skelton's travels.
“We're just so excited to be able to get more items to add into our collection, especially things that we don't have much of, like the TV seasons,” Pratt said as volunteers with the museum, museum board and Vincennes University brought another pallet full of Red's treasures into the museum's back room. “We don't have any TV show props in the collection.
“This is going to be a great addition.”