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Jackie Gleason Show


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John Herbert Gleason (February 26, 1916;– June 24, 1987) was an American comedian, actor and musician. He was known for his brash visual and verbal comedy style, exemplified by his character Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners. Among his notable film roles were Minnesota Fats in the 1961 drama The Hustler(starring Paul Newman) and Buford T. Justice in the Smokey and the Bandit series.

Early television

Gleason and a June Taylor dancer get ready for St. Patrick’s Day 1955

Gleason’s big break occurred in 1949, when he landed the role of blunt (but softhearted) aircraft worker Chester A. Riley for the first television version of the radio comedy The Life of Riley (William Bendix originated the role on radio, but was unable to accept the television role at first because of film commitments). The show received modest ratings (despite positive reviews) but was cancelled after one year, with Bendix reprising the role in 1953 for a five year series.   The Life of Riley became a television hit for Bendix during the mid to late 1950s.   But long before this, Gleason’s nightclub act had received attention from New York City’s inner circle and the fledgling DuMont Television Network. He was working at Slapsy Maxie’s when he was hired to host DuMont’s Cavalcade of Stars variety hour in 1950. The program initially had rotating hosts; the offer first made to Gleason was for two weeks at $750 per week. When he said he did not consider that worth the train trip to New York, the offer was extended to four weeks. Gleason then returned to New York.  He framed the show with splashy dance numbers, developed sketch characters he would refine over the next decade, and became enough of a presence that CBS wooed (and won) him over to its network in 1952.

Renamed The Jackie Gleason Show, it became the country’s second-highest-rated television show during the 1954–1955 season.   Gleason amplified the show with even splashier opening dance numbers, inspired by Busby Berkeley screen dance routines and featuring the precision-choreographed June Taylor Dancers. Following the dance performance, he would do an opening monologue. Then, accompanied by “a little travelin’ music” (“That’s a Plenty“, a Dixieland classic from 1914), he would shuffle toward the wings, clapping his hands inversely and shouting, “And awaaay we go!” The phrase became one of his trademarks, along with “How sweet it is!” (which was used in reaction to almost anything).   Theona Bryant, a former Powers Girl, became Gleason’s “And awaaay we go,” girl. Ray Bloch was Gleason’s first music director, followed by Sammy Spear (who stayed with Gleason through the 1960s); Gleason often kidded both men during his opening monologues. He continued developing comic characters, including:

Gleason as the Poor Soul on Toast of the Town in 1954

  • Reginald Van Gleason III, a top-hatted millionaire with a taste for both the good life and fantasy
  • Boisterous, boorish Rudy the Repairman
  • Gregarious Joe the Bartender, with friendly words for the never-seen Mr. Dennehy (always first at the bar)
  • The Poor Soul, a silent character who could (and often did) come to grief in the least-expected places (or demonstrate sweet gratitude at things no more complicated than being allowed to share a newspaper on a subway)
  • Rum Dum, a character with a brush-like mustache who often stumbled around (as though drunk and confused)
  • Fenwick Babbitt, a friendly, addle-headed young man usually depicted working (and invariably failing) at various jobs
  • Charlie Bratton, a loudmouth who frequently picked on the mild-mannered Clem Finch (portrayed by future Honeymooners co-star Art Carney)
  • The Bachelor, a silent character (accompanied by the song “Somebody Loves Me”) doing everyday things in an unusually lazy (or makeshift) way

In a 1985 interview, Gleason related the connection of some of his characters to his youth in Brooklyn. The Mr. Dennehy whom Joe the Bartender greets is a tribute to Gleason’s first love, Julie Dennehy. The character of The Poor Soul was drawn from an assistant manager of an outdoor theater he frequented.

The Honeymooners – Main article: The Honeymooners

Gleason as Ralph Kramden with Audrey Meadows as Alice, circa 1955

By far, Gleason’s most popular character was blustery bus driver Ralph Kramden. Largely drawn from Gleason’s harsh Brooklyn childhood, these sketches became known as The Honeymooners and customarily centered on Ralph’s many get-rich-quick schemes, his ambition, his scatterbrained sewer-worker neighbor and friend Ed Norton and the clashes when sensible wife Alice tried pulling her husband’s head down from the clouds. The show also became the birthplace of catchphrases invented by Gleason like his toothless threat, “one of these days Alice, pow! Right in the kisser”. The Honeymooners originated when Gleason was collaborating on a sketch with his show’s writers. He told them he had an idea he had always wanted to work out: a skit with a smart, quiet wife and her very vocal husband. He went on to describe that while the couple had their fights, underneath it all they loved each other. Titles for the sketch were tossed around until someone came up with The Honeymooners.

The Honeymooners first appeared on Cavalcade of Stars on October 5, 1951, with Carney as Norton and character actress Pert Kelton as Alice. Darker and fiercer than they later were with Audrey Meadows as Alice, the sketches proved popular with critics and viewers. As Kramden, Gleason played a frustrated bus driver with a battleaxe of a wife in harrowingly realistic arguments; when Meadows (who was 15 years younger than Kelton) took over the role after Kelton was blacklisted, the tone softened considerably. Early sketches come as something of a shock to modern critics accustomed to Meadows’ Alice.

When Gleason moved to CBS Kelton was left behind; her name had turned up in Red Channels, a book which listed and described reputed Communists (and Communist sympathizers) in television and radio. Gleason reluctantly let her leave the cast, with a cover story for the media that she had “heart trouble”. He also turned down Meadows as Kelton’s replacement at first. Meadows wrote in her memoir that she slipped back to audition again and frumped herself up to convince Gleason that she could handle the role of a frustrated (but loving) working-class wife. Rounding out the cast, Joyce Randolph played Ed Norton’s wife Trixie. Elaine Stritch had played the role as a tall and attractive blonde in the first sketch, but was quickly replaced by Randolph.

The Honeymooners sketches proved popular enough that Gleason gambled on making it a separate series entirely in 1955. These are the “Classic 39” episodes, which finished 19th in the ratings for their only season.   They were filmed with a new DuMont process, Electronicam; like kinescopes, it preserved a live performance on film but with higher quality (comparable to a motion picture).   That turned out to be the most prescient move Gleason made, because, a decade afterwards, they aired the half-hour Honeymooners in syndicated reruns which began to build a loyal and growing audience that made the show a television icon. Its popularity was such that a life-size statue of Jackie Gleason, in uniform as bus driver Ralph Kramden, stands outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City.

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