G is for “The Great One,” Jackie Gleason

I recently noticed that actor/comedian Jackie Gleason would have turned 100 on February 26, 2016, and will have been dead 30 years come June 24, 2017.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, I used to watch his Saturday night variety show on CBS fairly regularly. Gleason played a variety of characters, including the snobbish millionaire Reginald Van Gleason III, the put-upon character known as the Poor Soul, and Joe the Bartender, who always greeted the bug-eyed “Crazy” Guggenheim (Frank Fontaine) before the latter would break into mellifluous song.

The show featured Sammy Spear and his orchestra, and the June Taylor Dancers, who were often shown in aerial pattern kaleidoscope formations, probably my favorite part of the show.

Before that show aired, there was The Honeymooners. Gleason was Ralph Kramden, on a series also starring Audrey Meadows (pictured with Gleason) as his wife, and Art Carney and Joyce Randolph as the apartment building neighbors. It is a classic 1950s TV program, though I didn’t much like it when I saw it in reruns as a child. The bus driver really bugged me with his rants such as “to the moon, Alice,” as though he were going to punch out his spouse. The Honeymooners was reprised in the 1960s with Carney, but with different actresses.

My mother had several albums of music with Gleason’s name attached. He lent his imprimatur to “a series of best-selling ‘mood music’ albums with jazz overtones for Capitol Records… Gleason’s first album, Music for Lovers Only, still holds the record for the album longest in the Billboard Top Ten Charts (153 weeks), and his first 10 albums sold over a million copies each.

“Gleason could not read or write music; he was said to have conceived melodies in his head and described them vocally to assistants who transcribed them into musical notes. These included the well-remembered themes of both The Jackie Gleason Show (‘Melancholy Serenade‘) and The Honeymooners (‘You’re My Greatest Love‘).”

Jackie Gleason had a decent movie career. I watched him, much after the fact, in The Hustler (1961) as pool shark Minnesota Fats. I saw him in the first two Smokey and the Bandit films, but not the third one. I recall enjoying his last film, Nothing in Common (1986), with an upcoming actor named Tom Hanks.

But perhaps the strangest thing in his career took place January 20, 1961: “‘You’re in the Picture‘ was a… replacement game show. Contestants would stick their heads through a cut-out board and guess what character they were. The first installment was so much of a failure that on the second week of the time slot Jackie Gleason came out, sat in a chair, and talked about how horrible the first show had been. He was hilarious.”

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