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Hoosiers in Hollywood- Area historian: Indiana natives no stranger to silver screen

Written by Contributor. Posted in Entertainment, Featured

Published on September 28, 2016 with No Comments

By Steve Euvino

What do Clem Kadiddlehopper, Ma Kettle, and a menacing robot named Gort have in common? They all have their roots in Indiana.

The Hoosier State may be a long way from California, but some Indiana natives have left their mark in Hollywood and the movies.

As part of Indiana’s bicentennial celebration, the Hobart branch of the Lake County Public Library hosted area historian Bruce Johnson to speak on Hoosiers in Hollywood on Sept. 17. A retired teacher, Johnson is president of the LaPorte County Historical Society.

We have a lot to be proud of,” Johnson said of Indiana’s influence on the movie industry. This influence, he said, ranges from funny men and beauty queens in front of the camera and directors behind the camera.

Of the 18 people whose lives Johnson highlighted, the personality who stood out was Red Skelton. Born Richard Skelton in downstate Vincennes in 1913, he had an entertainment career that spanned seven decades. From 1923 to 1993, Skelton appeared in medicine shows, vaudeville, burlesque, showboats, minstrel shows, and circuses, eventually moving to radio, movies, and a 20-year run on television.

As Johnson pointed out, for someone who made so many people laugh, Skelton’s early life was anything but a joke. His father, a circus clown, died a few months before Red was born. To help support the family, Skelton peddled newspapers outside theaters, eventually working his way inside the theater and never leaving.

Moving from stage to radio and TV, Skelton created an assortment of characters, including Clem Kadiddlehopper, San Fernando Red and his two seagulls, Gertrude and Healthcliffe, and Freddie the Freeloader.

Skelton never forgot his Hoosier roots, and today the Red Skelton Bridge spans the Wabash River near his hometown of Vincennes. The Red Skelton Performing Arts Center was dedicated at Vincennes University in 2006.

He had a tragic life,” Johnson said of Skelton. “His dad died two months before he was born. He started working at age 7 and then dropped out of high school. He showed that if he could succeed, anyone can. He was an extremely talented person.”

Among the actresses to call Indiana home is Marjorie Main. Born in 1890 in Acton in Franklin Township, she attended Franklin College, got into vaudeville, and made her first movie in 1931. Originally playing upper-class, society roles, she became a contract player for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and first starred as Ma Kettle in The Egg and I in 1947. Along with actor Percy Kilbride, she starred in a string of successful Ma and Pa Kettle movies.

Main’s final film was Friendly Persuasion with Gary Cooper in 1956. She died in 1975 at age 85.

Other actresses with Hoosier ties highlighted by Johnson included Beulah Bondi, Carole Lombard, Irene Dunn, Shelley Long, and Jean Hagen. Closer to home, Anne Baxter, born in Michigan City, co-starred with Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.

Actors included Dean Jagger, Clifton Webb, James Dean, Strother Martin, and Steve McQueen. Karl Malden was born Mladen Sekulovich in Chicago, but his family moved to Gary. The Oscar-winning actor enjoyed a successful career on both the large and small screens, starring with Michael Douglas in the television series Streets of San Francisco.

Among the celebrities listed by Johnson included David Anspaugh, Sydney Pollack, Howard Hawks, and Robert Wise, who directed some of the more memorable films to come out of Hollywood.

Anspaugh’s credits include Hoosiers and Rudy, considered among the top sports films. Hawks received an Academy Award for directing Gary Cooper in Sergeant York. Pollack’s Oscar came for directing Out of Africa with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Wise won Academy Awards for best picture and best director for both West Side Story and The Sound of music.

Born in Winchester, Ind., Wise also did a number of films for Twentieth Century Fox, including The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951. In what has become a science fiction cult classic, an alien visitor named Klaatu and his robotic guardian Gort travel to this planet to warn earthlings of their self-destructive ways.     

 

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