WHEN RED SKELTON died the other day at age 84, baby boomers did something they loathe: They felt their age.
Skelton's act, of course, traced back much farther than the boomers, the oldest of whom turned 50 last year. The slapstick comedian and pantomimist played burlesque houses in the 1920s, vaudeville and radio in the '30s and starred in a couple dozen films, mostly after World War II, just as the boomers were being born. But he was best known for his long-running variety show on network television. It began on NBC in 1951 and ended there in 1971, but most years in between, from 1953 to 1970, it appeared on CBS.
Most American homes had discovered TV by then, and many were branching into the world of ''living color.'' But the early medium's true vibrancy came from shows like Skelton's. He was a star to that first generation raised on the tube.
Characters carried over from his stage days and others he shaped anew -- Klem Kadiddlehopper, Freddie the Freeloader, and Gertrude and Heathcliffe the talking seagulls -- delighted adults and children both. A generation before anyone mentioned a ''V-chip,'' Skelton represented true family entertainment.
He abhorred the raunchiness and devilishness creeping into the culture. He called Joan Rivers a ''ray of off-colors.'' His customary sign-off at the end of each show was akin to bedtime prayer for a nation: ''Good night, and may God bless.'' Even if he had just finished one of his riotous skits, he always rushed back on the air as himself to bid farewell, sometimes with a towel in hand to swab the perspiration and pancake make-up off his flushed, ruddy face.
CBS unceremoniously dropped his show not long after the first Earth Day and the first moon landing, in spite of its top-10 ratings. The station probably surmised that his innocent act wouldn't excite young people -- those boomers -- who were entering college and adulthood, ''turning on and dropping out,'' as the term went.
Certainly it was true that the roles into which the Midwestern-born Skelton breathed life -- the railyard bum, the town sheriff, the carny clown, the drunk in the park -- were disappearing, along with small-town America. There were still bums and drunks, of course, but they were not as evident or as familiar to families who were moving out to suburbia. As the corner lunch counter and drug store vanished, so did the local characters.
The TV executives may also have figured that Mr. Skelton, then nearing 60, couldn't sustain his brand of physical comedy much longer (although his one-man stage show sold out in small markets until health forced him to retire for good a few years ago).
But the TV honchos were dead-wrong in another vein. Skelton succeeded then in the same way Walt Disney Co. succeeds still: He created humor that could delight and entertain young and old simultaneously. Boomers would be hard-pressed to put a finger on a comparable act today.
Jim Carrey? He is blessed with a rubber face like Skelton's -- and has a $20 million contract -- but his ''Ace Ventura'' and other movie roles often revolve around body odors and various things one can do with one's backside. Skelton didn't resort to vulgar stunts.
Kramer on TV's ''Seinfeld''? Like Skelton, Kramer's very appearance can incite an audience to laugh. But Michael Richards, the Emmy-winning actor who portrays Kramer, has not succeeded with an array of characters, as Skelton did.
Warm, clean, universal
Robin Williams? Not as warm as Skelton. Eddie Murphy? Not as clean. Dana Carvey? Not as universal in his appeal.
The baby boomers, now in charge in Hollywood, have done all they can to keep their cherished childhood icons culturally relevant. There is hardly a hit show from the boomers' ''wonder years'' that hasn't been made into a movie of late: Batman, the Flintstones, the Brady Bunch, Flipper, Dennis the Menace, Leave it to Beaver, the upcoming ''Flubber.'' What hasn't been remade for the multiplexes gets rerun on cable nightly. Even the rock-and-roll acts from that era -- the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Chicago, Elton John -- refuse to fade away.
But, apparently, there was no way to sustain, or to resurrect, what Red Skelton represented to TV audiences for a long, long time. The baby boomers, young enough to be Skelton's grandchildren, are becoming old enough to have grandchildren of their own. Many of them may not have known that Red Skelton was still alive, or thought of his show in years.
It wouldn't be easy for them to describe to the younger generation ''The Red Skelton Hour,'' which was of another time and another place. As the gentle comedian is laid to rest in California Tuesday, he takes with him an entertainment style that's not likely coming back.
Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 9/21/97