Comedian Red Skelton told an emotional story about the Pledge of Allegiance on his show in 1969. He later said it wasn’t entirely true.
Viewers who tuned in to The Red Skelton Show on Jan. 14, 1969, heard an interesting tale. The legendary comic told a story about reciting the Pledge of Allegiance when he was in grade school.
People of a certain age connect with the story even 50+ years later. Some of us distinctly remember reciting the pledge every morning. I don’t know whether they still do that. It would not surprise me to know it was phased out.
But Skelton talked about a lesson from a beloved teacher, a Mr. Lasswell. As he told it, Lasswell told students he’d grown concerned that the students reached a point of boredom in reciting the pledge. He was concerned that they missed the meaning of the words.
So he set out to recite the pledge for them, one word at a time, defining each word’s individual meaning.
You can watch Red’s performance here:
And you can follow along here.
He seems to choke up at the end when he points out the two changes made since he was a boy. First, by 1969, two states — Alaska and Hawaii — had been added to the United States. Second, two words — “under God” — were added to the pledge. The latter change came in 1954 under president Dwight Eisenhower. The addition came in response to the threat of Communism of the 1950s.
He then says this: “Wouldn’t it be a pity if someone said, “That is a prayer” — and that be eliminated from our schools, too?”
But he acknowledged years later there was no Mr. Lasswell!
I stumbled across a news conference Skelton held in 1981 at Clemson University. Someone asked him about that very speech.
Skelton told the crowd that he got the idea for the bit when he read students at a California school had burned the flag. He wondered if they actually knew the meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance.
He wrote the speech originally for his wife in one of his daily love letters to her. Then he tried to get it on television, but found resistance. For more than two years, he battled to get the bit onto his show only to see it cut again and again. Executives told him it would sound as if he were preaching.
So he decided he’d work it into a story about a teacher.
The opportunity presented itself during the time of President Richard Nixon’s inauguration. He learned he would have only a half-hour time slot that night, which meant he’d have to do a live show. So he worked in the Mr. Lasswell story.
You can watch his comments here.
In the aftermath of the broadcast, Skelton said CBS stations across the country received some 400,000 calls about the speech. He was approached about making a record, which he refused to do, citing the two years of fighting it took to get the speech on the air to begin with.
He also said they took the audio from the broadcast master and made a record that ended up selling 2 million copies.
Who’d have thought?
But now we know the true story behind that big moment in TV history!