Jackie Gleason was born on February 26, 1916, in Brooklyn, Ny. He was the host of television’s “Cavalcade of Stars,” where he presented Ralph Kramden, before getting his own showcase with “The Jackie Gleason Show.” In 1955, “The Honeymooners” was spun off into standalone show. After Gleason had a number of memorable movie characters, including in “The Hustler” with Paul Newman. He expired in 1987.
Comic, celebrity. Produced Herbert John Gleason, on February 26, 1916, in Nyc, into a poor Irish-Catholic immigrant family dwelling in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. His dad, John Herbert Gleason, an insurance clerk, left the family when Jackie was eight. Later, his mom, Mae Kelly Gleason, worked as a subway token booth representative; she perished when Jackie was 16. He was a recognizable figure in the area, well known to get a sharp tongue, “dandy” dressing, and virtuoso pool playing, qualities that will be attributes of his professional character. Though a voracious eater as a teen, he excelled at football and boxing and didn’t then sport the heavyweight “spare tire” that would eventually become his hallmark. Early in life, Gleason shown a genius for the harsh verbal play of the Brooklyn roads, and he appears to get set his sights on a career developed around that ability.
In 1935, now called “Jumpin’ Jack” Gleason for the frenetic type of his demonstration, he was hired to work as both an emcee as well as a bouncer at the Miami Club, a rough and tumble Newark saloon. There he acquired notoriety for handling hecklers, both verbally and physically. He also got his first job in broadcasting, employed as a part time disc jockey in the Newark radio station WAAT. The union proved to be a difficult one, leading to several legal separations and reconciliations. A long-term separation arrangement was produced in 1954; a closing divorce wouldn’t occur until 1971.
The rate of the young comic’s career hastened in 1938, when he won several bookings at Manhattan nightspots. This exposure brought a part in the 1940 Broadway musical Keep Off the Grass. In 1941, the movie mogul Jack Warner got Gleason’s action in the Nightclub 18. Reacting to the comic’s loudmouthed, offcolor performance, Warner signed him to a contract immediately.
This early meeting with all the pictures proved unsatisfactory. Warner could not recall who the 250-pound comedian was, crediting his signature on Gleason’s contract to drunkenness. His choice wasn’t revived. This bitter encounter in Los Angeles was never quite forgotten. Gleason would prefer to dwell and work to the East Coast, first in Nyc and later in Florida, for the balance of his profession.
Broadway appearances contained Artists and Models (1943) and Follow the Girls (1944). In the latter he won some notice because of his drag impersonation of a Navy Wave. He still found himself unable to obtain a starring role on Broadway, and though he worked frequently at Manhattan cabarets, his career had reached some sort of plateau. As the New York Mirror columnist Jim Bishop wrote, “He had not been large enough for the $5,000-a-week areas.”
In 1948, George (“Bullets”) Durgom took over direction of Gleason’s career, so starting a mutually rewarding long term organization. Inside a year he’d put Gleason in a featured character with Nancy Walker in the musical Along Fifth Avenue (1949). But Durgom was looking beyond Broadway. In a period when many show business pundits had doubts about television, he saw the medium, using its overabundance of closeups, as an all-natural showcase for the comedian’s excessive mugging and gesturing.
Gleason’s first encounter with television, nevertheless, was less than auspicious. In 1949, he was cast in the title role of the TV version of a well-known radio situation comedy, The Life of Riley. The Riley character was something of a kindhearted blockhead, a part quite definitely out of character for the quick witted smooth talker. The show received inferior notices as well as the series was immediately canceled, marking another West Coast failure. (It was later resurrected successfully with its radio star, William Bendix, in the title role.)
An even more advantageous genre for the show of Gleason’s gifts was the comedy-variety format. Vaudevillians and club standups, like Milton Berle, Jack Carter, and Eddie Cantor, were reaching dramatic TV successes with such a programming. Here he started to discover a path to the stardom that had thus far eluded him. Making grandiose gestures in the camera, gawking in a constant parade of long legged showgirls, he went seamlessly between standup sets and comedy blackout sketches, demonstrating exactly what the critic Gilbert Seldes saw in him as “the conventional belief of hefty guys within their particular lightness and elegance.” It was during his two years on Cavalcade that Gleason created and developed the repertoire of well-known and beloved characters he would reprise throughout the majority of his career. Lesser Cavalcade creations contained Joe the Bartender, the fussbudget Fenwick Babbitt, and Loudmouth Charlie Bratton.
Dumont shortly found itself hard pressed to compete for the professional services of its largest star. Gleason started to moonlight as an occasional host for some other shows, including NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour. The network agreed to cover production costs to get a new Saturday night comedy-variety hour, The Jackie Gleason Show, also to pay the star a wages of $10,000 per week, which set Gleason among the top-notch performers in the new medium. CBS also built him a ring-shaped mansion in Peekskill, Ny, costing thousands of dollars; this was only one of several lavish homes Gleason possessed during his life, brooding of his typically lavish preferences. He’d have an exclusive relationship with CBS for the next 18 years.
Each week the star’s royal entry was preceded by means of a chorus line amount performed by the June Taylor Dancers, with a touch overhead kaleidoscope picture. His opening monologue included a visit from among the “Glea Girls,” who delivered his cup of “java,” one nip of which might lead him to exclaim, “How sweeeeeeet it’s….” Requesting the bandleader for “a little travelin’ music,” he danced extremely through the display, freezing stage right to declare, “And awa-a-ay we go,” leading the audience off into one hour of sketch comedy and guest appearances by top musical performances.
“The Honeymooners” was the show’s hottest sketch. Ralph’s shut-fisted risk to send wife Alice (Audrey Meadows) “to the moon” through the couple’s ritualistic arguments became a household phrase. The pairing of the nervous, quick tempered Ralph with his dimwitted upstairs neighbor Ed Norton (Art Carney) given one of television’s first amazing initial humor teams. The revolutionary contrasts between Gleason’s ostentatious, explosive gyrations and Carney’s methodical, purposeful stylings imply comparison with Laurel and Hardy.
During the 1955-56 season, Gleason repackaged the sketch right into a filmed half hour situation comedy structure so he could reduce his feverish production schedule and pursue other endeavors. The 39 episodes made for that season became among the very successful commercial properties in show business history, continuing to air extensively in reruns a half century after. In 1985, tons of the old “Honeymooners” skits in the Gleason comedy-variety shows were re-edited and released as The Honeymooners: The Lost Episodes.
In 1962, following a brief hiatus, he came back to television with Jackie Gleason’s American Scene Magazine, which was designed to break new ground in topical satire. This initiation, however, never materialized. Instead, Gleason returned to his comedy-variety formula, complete using the opening dance routine and his old repertoire of sketch characters. The name shortly reverted to The Jackie Gleason Show. In 1966, he was rejoined by Art Carney and Audrey Meadows for brand new hourlong episodes of The Honeymooners. Another union, to Beverly McKittrick, in July 1971, ended in divorce in 1974. Another year Gleason, wed choreographer Marilyn Taylor, the sister of June Taylor. If Ralph Kramden were culled from Gleason’s Brooklyn youth, Sheriff Justice proved to be a similar merchandise of his later years in Florida.