Gleason Under Glass: The Great One in TV Variety

This is my ninth post about comedian Jackie Gleason (1916-87), including an overview of his entire career, a piece on The Honeymooners, a look at his movies of the ’60s, ones dedicated to the films Gigot and Skidoo, and ones on his variety show cast members June Taylor, Frankie Fontaine, and Stan Ross. The present one arises from the fact that I am working on a new book about television variety, and we haven’t yet covered that topic here in anything like the depth it deserves.

Until well into my adulthood, I knew about Gleason’s variety shows only by legend. As we’ve written about many times, his last weekly prime time variety was cancelled in 1970 during an event that pop culture historians call the “Rural Purge”, when a lot of traditional programming was summarily axed in order to accommodate younger, hipper audiences. I was about four years old at this time, so my idea of good variety at the time was Captain Kangaroo. So, growing up, one saw Honeymooners reruns, and many of Gleason’s movies, including lots of contemporary ones from the mid ’70s through his death. But I knew about his variety show — ironically, what he was best known and loved for — almost entirely by reputation.

To this day, those of us who are interested in the history of popular entertainment struggle against a skewed and distorted narrative, one which it should be our task (a large one) to supplant in the coming years. The unfortunate reality is that in assessing the careers of directors, actors, comedians, and those in many other creative fields, the television work is either omitted or downplayed in the overall critical assessment, despite the fact that many of these artists did their best work in that medium. I think there are many reasons for this. For years, the tv work was inaccessible, for example, and some of it remains so. But I also think that many critics and writers bring with them a certain bias. Television is ephemeral, seemingly disposable. It has traditionally been produced quickly and cheaply relative to films that are created expressly for theatrical release. But there are certain genres, such as live television drama and TV variety, where the work was considered world-shaking when it aired. Then, much like theatre, it evaporated. Unlike theatre, though, TV left a record (not always, but a good deal of the time). Which means that it can and should be evaluated, and properly integrated into reassessments of hundreds of important performing artists. In some cases this has been done, or is being done. But for the most part, I would contend that, in older biographies anyway, it’s normally the case that though the TV work may get mentioned, it is usually given short shrift. And obviously I believe that to be the case with Gleason.

Now, an ocean of ink and a skyful of electrons have been expended in the service of The Honeymooners. What I believe has been shortchanged is Gleason’s two decades as the host and star of weekly variety shows. In fact, those shows are the literal basis, the hub, of the rest of his career. The Honeymooners came out of a regular sketch on his variety show; Ralph Kramden was just one of a dozen brilliant characters he regularly played. The silent character he plays in Gigot seems a variation on one called The Poor Soul he portrayed on his show. So the variety show was like his laboratory.

Gleason had originally been a nightclub comic. In the ’40s he was in the tour of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin, performed on Broadway a little, and became a minor Hollywood actor. His first regular tv series was the small screen adaptation of The Life of Riley in 1949, but audiences preferred the guy who created the part on radio, William Bendix. As the new decade dawned, Gleason was performing regularly at Slapsie Maxie’s nightclub in Hollywood. Harry Crane (Melissa and Sara Gilbert’s grandfather) brought him on as one of the hosts of Cavalcade of Stars on the Dumont Network in 1950, and…away we go. Two years later CBS snatched him up, and he hosted various versions of The Jackie Gleason Show from 1952 to 1970, with some outlying stand-alone specials in 1970, 1973 and 1975. For a time in the early ’60s, his conceit for the show was “The American Scene Magazine”, a kind of show within a show. In 1964, Gleason moved production of his program down to his beloved Miami, a fact which I have always loved. Spread the wealth! I predict that there will be much more of this sort of regional show biz decentralization, at least geographically, as the 21st century progresses

Like many of the top variety shows of the day, The Jackie Gleason Show was patterned after Broadway revues. Numbers by the June Taylor Dancers gave a framing shape to the overall production. The meat of the show consisted of monologues by Jackie, banter with guests and most especially, sketches starring Gleason’s wide repertoire of beloved characters, the bedrock on which his reputation for brilliance rests. Those of us too young to have seen that stuff, when informed that the likes of Orson Welles considered him a a genius, were apt to scratch our heads. Yes, he’s terrific on The Honeymooners, and okay in movies…but where’s the genius come in? It’s in his performances as these characters. Gleason’s gifts were prodigious, his comic timing, his give-and-take with the other performers, the three dimensional shadings of his characters, and his abilities as a dramatic actor. As a performer he was unrestrained. In both comedy and pathos he wore his heart on his sleeve. Many of these creations demonstrate nostalgia on Gleason’s part for the era of his childhood, closer in spirit to the teens and twenties than the period when he was enacting them. Joe the Bartender, with his hair parted down the middle, bow tie, and black armbands is straight out of The Iceman Cometh, as are the swinging doors on his saloon. The set and the characters are nearly interchangeable with those in Chaplin’s The Face on the Bar-Room Floor. Charlie Bratton the Loud Mouth wears a straw boater, an accoutrement for salesmen that went out with the twenties. Gleason’s favorite character, Reginald Van Gleason III, a rich playboy, wears a preposterously tall top hat, opera cape, and a mustache that looks like it has escaped from the face of Mack Swain.

Because of his robust size, Gleason is often placed on the short list of plus-sized comedians which also includes Fatty Arbuckle. The two comedians are often compared. Both were amazingly graceful, light on their feet, fond of dancing, and able to take breathtaking pratfalls. On those occasions when Gleason takes those awe-inspiring cartwheels through the air and lands on the floor flat on his back with a “waaugghh!”, one can’t help but think of Arbuckle. Yet, Gleason’s recurring silent character, “the Poor Soul” seems much more influenced by Lloyd Hamilton. According to broadcast host Joe Franklin, Gleason told him that he had indeed been influenced by Ham. For those who mostly know Gleason from his more obnoxious, overbearing characters The Poor Soul is a bit of a revelation. Shy, sensitive, seemingly mentally impaired, the child-like Poor Soul is forever offering to lend a helping hand, fouling things up as he does so. When he plays this role, Gleason’s enormous eyes, instead of bugging out with hypertension as they do for so many of his other roles, seem soulful and sad like a bloodhound’s. But that didn’t interfere with the slapstick, at least on the television show. For example, in one memorable segment The Poor Soul forgets to let go of a bowling ball and slides down the alley towards the pins still clinging to it.  Like his silent comedy forebears, Gleason was literally willing to risk life and limb for a laugh.

Given the fact that he had had his own platform for two decades, one is surprised to learn how often he appeared on other variety shows and specials. These included The Frank Sinatra Show, Texaco Star Theatre, The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Kate Smith Show, The Arthur Murray Party, The Ken Murray Show, Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, The Red Skelton Show, The Herb Shriner Show, specials by Bob Hope, Dean Martin, et al.

This is probably a good place to mention Gleason the composer. Not only did Gleason write the theme music to his variety shows and The Honeymooners, but he released no fewer than ten million-selling party platters, the first of which Music for Lovers Only (1952) still holds the record for longest time spent on the top ten charts (153 weeks, or almost 3 years). There is a copy of it in my wife’s parents record collection! Much like Chaplin, Gleason couldn’t notate music, he simply hummed his tunes for others to transcribe and arrange, and some have charged that he didn’t even do that. I have no dog in that fight, and have bigger fish to fry than blowing the lid off the whole “Gleason didn’t even write his own records” story. Anyway, any gossiping about Jackie Gleason I intend to do involves the bodies of aliens.

By the way: Gleason’s tv variety work is amply represented on Youtube nowadays — for a good time, I highly recommend taking yourself over there to check it out.

For more on variety entertainment, including tv variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.  And please keep an eye out for Vaudeville in Your Living Room: A Century of Radio and TV Variety, coming out from Bear Manor Media this November!