Twenty-three years after his passing, comedian Red Skelton is still trying to Make America Funny Again.
At least that is what the folks at the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy in Vincennes, Indiana, hope. Through May 3, the museum is exhibiting Skelton memorabilia from his relationship with presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, who was in office when Skelton, a Vincennes native, died in 1997.
Anne Pratt, the museum's executive director, said the exhibit includes programs from his White House shows, photos and letters. "The cool thing is the bipartisan nature of his relationship with different presidents," she said, adding this is the second election year the museum has shown the exhibit.
The museum also will celebrate the 75th anniversary of World War II's end with an exhibit from May to Labor Day. "We Dood It" takes its name from the popular Skelton character, the "Mean Widdle Kid," and Pratt said the phrase caught on during the war. Skelton served as a soldier for one year and then as a USO entertainer.
Regularly shown at the museum are Skelton's character costumes, props, paintings, television clips and interactive opportunities designed to attract visitors who remember Skelton and younger ones who want to learn about him. The museum will host the 15th annual Red Skelton festival July 17-18 with a Skelton impersonator, a parade, kids' games and plenty of clowns.
The museum is just one reason to head southeast 163 miles from Springfield. Vincennes, population 18,000, is home to a monument to Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark, a newly expanded Indiana Military Museum, an 1826 cathedral and the Vincennes State Historic Sites.
A thriving downtown with restaurants and shops and a new river walk also add to the town's vibe. "Vincennes is Indiana's first city," said Shyla Beam, head of the Visitors and Tourism Bureau. "It is steeped in history and is a great getaway for families, group tours and history enthusiasts."
Those enthusiasts will be drawn to the Clark monument along the Wabash River. The structure, part of a free national historical park, is the largest on any American battlefield and features a massive dome and several large murals telling his story.
Clark fought for the country's independence on the then-western frontier. That included leading a small army of frontiersmen and French volunteers on a bitter winter trek from Kaskaskia, Illinois, to capture a British fort at the monument site by surprise.
The visitor center shows a video on Clark's exploits and clarifies that it was his younger brother, William, who explored with Meriwether Lewis.
More military history abounds at the Indiana Military Museum, which displays aircraft, artillery, uniforms and vehicles from the Civil War to the present. A 22,000-square-foot addition opened last year, focusing on World War I to recent wars in life-size dioramas. A WWI section includes a Jenny biplane, a rare 1917 tank and a model of a French field hospital while a WWII scene has one of only 12 remaining Higgins landing craft.
For a more restful scene, check out the Old Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, Indiana's oldest congregation, with roots tracing back to the 1700s. The 1826 building has several murals and stained glass windows, and the Old Cathedral library houses 10,000 volumes with some dating to 1319.
At the Vincennes State Historic Sites, visitors can see buildings steeped in state history. Grouseland, home of President William Henry Harrison and a National Historic Landmark, sits on a rise above the Wabash and is open for touring.
Vincennes' history comes alive during the annual rendezvous, held May 23-24. Battlefield re-creations, games, frontier skill demonstrations, music, food and an encampment enhance the weekend. The annual event can draw up to 25,000 visitors.
More modern fun happens downtown with the First Friday Art Walk every month, along with several new restaurants and shops. "We've been working on our downtown," Beam said.
She expects 1,500 to 2,00 visitors for the new Spring on Main Festival the first Friday in June. It will have food trucks, music, art and beer and wine tastings. A similar festival happens in the fall.
A new riverwalk connects many of Vincennes sites as the town works to draw visitors, with quite a bit of success. Beam says a little more than a million people came in 2018, most hailing from Indiana and surrounding states.
If you want to join them, remember that Vincennes is in the Eastern time zone, but well worth skipping that extra hour of sleep.
For more information on Vincennes, contact the Visitors and Tourism Bureau at 800-886-6643 or www.visitvincennes.org. To learn more about the Skelton museum's exhibits and hours of operation, go to www.RedSkeltonMuseum.org.
Mary Bohlen, a freelance travel writer from Springfield, remembers laughing at Red Skelton's antics.