For many years it was a tradition in the Freudenberg household to watch WDEF Ch. 12 and CBS on Tuesday nights. My father wouldn’t miss the Red Skelton hour followed by Jack Benny. I can hear dad now, laughing at the jokes of America’s favorite clown. He would scoop out some Mayfield Ice Cream for all of us and then we’d sit and laugh for the entire 90 minutes. It was the only night our bedtime was extended past 9 p.m.
Many years later I had the privilege of sitting next to the king of comedy when he came to Chattanooga in 1979. The late Clyde Hawkins was the Memorial Auditorium - Tivoli Theater manager and a good friend of WDOD where I worked. Mr. Hawkins called one day and informed me of a news conference at the Chattanooga Choo Choo in the board of director’s room; I took advantage of the special invitation.
Upon my arrival Mr. Hawkins was waiting at the door. He didn’t say a word but pointed to what would be my seat at the end of the large conference table. I took my place and a few minutes later, our comedy hero entered and sat down next to me at the head of the table.
There were a few minutes before the event started and so I took advantage of the opportunity to talk with one of my television favorites. We shook hands and he asked my name to which I said, “Earl Freudenberg, sir.” Our country’s number one clown then said, “A German name, (short pause) I have many friends who are from Germany, and I’ve visited there many times.”
Mr. Skelton said he was very interested in the Choo Choo station and all its trains. “I’m looking forward to a short tour of this historic facility.”
We continued to talk mostly about our beautiful city, and I remember he wanted to know about Luther who made his “The Pledge of Allegiance” famous on the radio. I told him Luther was number one among radio listeners to which Skelton responded, “I understand he finds lost dogs, I’ll call him next time mine runs off.”
Mr. Skelton asked for my address and I wrote it down on a piece of paper from my reporter’s pad. A few weeks later he sent me a plaque of the pledge which hangs on the wall today in the barn at the Hullander Farm in Apison.
Promoter Lon Varnell called the conference to order and welcomed everyone introducing Chattanooga Mayor Pat Rose. The mayor gave the distinguished visitor a key to our city and asked the comedian to promote the scenic city every chance he got.
Mr. Skelton answered questions from those around the table for over 30 minutes talking about painting for his wife every day and his love for writing music.
According to “Hello Chattanooga” by David Carroll, Skelton came to Chattanooga for the evening of comedy at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial on April 7, 1979. Carroll’s book said the performance was sold out.
Carroll’s book said the 77 year old Skelton returned to the city again in 1991 after an extensive remodeling of the Memorial Auditorium. Those attending the show said nearly every seat was filled.
Chattanooga’s First Presbyterian Church Pastor Ben Haden said he and his wife Charlene attended the show with his good friends News Free Press Editor Lee Anderson and his wife, Betsy. Rev. Haden said of the evening, “Red has a God given talent to make us laugh; it was good clean comedy and an evening I’ll never forget.” Rev. Haden said he and Mr. Anderson met Skelton briefly back stage after the performance.
Thanks to the late Mr. Hawkins I was the only reporter who got a one on one conversation with the man who entertained generations with his comedy on radio, television and the stage. The popular entertainer died 24 years ago but my memory of that spring event will always be special and the few minutes I was able to chat with one of America’s most popular comedians at the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo. I only wish we’d had telephone cameras.
I happened to save a recording of the question and answer session between the Chattanooga media and the CBS television comedian. Thanks to Ben Cagle, the historical meeting at the Chattanooga Choo Choo has been preserved. Click here to enjoy a few minutes with one of the best comedians of all time.