Jackie Gleason was one of the greatest American humorists who ever lived and he brought working class Brooklyn humor to the world. Christened “The Great One” by Orson Welles after a long night of binging, Jackie Gleason became an American icon who embodied the lovable working-class Everyman.
His portrayal of Ralph Kramden in the Honeymooners is legendary. Kramden was a bus driver for the fictional Gotham Bus Company, although He was never shown driving a bus (except in publicity photos). He was, However, often shown at the bus depot. Gleason captured his character perfectly Ralph, frustrated by his lack of success, often developed get-rich-quick schemes that got him into hot water, but were amazingly funny.
Gleason had an amazing ability to infuse himself into his characters and to laugh at his foibles. Although Ralph was hot-tempered and often resorted to bellowing, insults and hollow threats; Nevertheless his character concealed a Well-hidden soft-hearted man who loved his wife and was devoted to his best pal, Ed Norton, who was acted by another genius Art Carney. Ralph’s enjoyment of bowling, playing pool and being a member in the Loyal Order of Raccoon Lodge was straight out of his Bushwick youth. Ralph Kramden was the inspiration for the animated character Fred Flintstone whose antics delighted a generation of children.
Born Herbert Walton Gleason, Jr. and baptized John Herbert Gleason, His mother, Mae, called him Jackie and raised him alone as a working mother after his father, Herbert, left the family in 1925. His older brother Clement, always frail and sickly, died when Jackie was only three. Hard drinking was in his blood. Born into the stark poverty of 1916 Brooklyn, Jackie absorbedlessons about boozing from his carousing father Herb. One of Jackie’s earliest memories was as a six year old waiting outside a speakeasy while Herb got loaded before taking him to the movies, something that would become a Saturday afternoon ritual. Jackie would peek through the saloon door and observe the boisterous camaraderie the bottle offered, and young Jackie took full note of the transformation of the man who walked in dour and unhappy and emerged carefree and cracking jokes.
Like those other Brooklyn born celluloid stars, Mae West and Mickey Rooney, Gleason’s inspiration for his dramatic career came from Vaudeville. Jackie had loved the theater since he was six, when his father brought him to a matinee of silent films and Vaudeville at the Halsey,where he learned he wanted to face an audience for the rest of his life. “A great feeling of friendship came from the audience,” he said.
Ten days before Xmas and two months before Jackie’s tenth birthday, his father vanished. He clandestinely took every picture of himself from his home, collected his last paycheck from the insurance office he worked at then walked into the shadows, never to be seen again.Gleason never revealed what psychological effect his father’s abandonment had on him. If he carried any grudges he never voiced them, refusing to criticize the man who left him and his mother high and dry. “He was,” he would ambiguously inform interviewers, “the best father I’ll ever know.”
Gleason hated school and it quickly became for him merely an obstacle to having a good time. A disruptive student, he limited his deep thinking to stickball, pool halls and pranks. Limburger cheese lavishly spread on the radiators of P.S. 73 ensured a free day while janitors frantically searched for it. Althoguh no one ever found out for sure who released the snake in the orchestra pit of the Halsey Theatre, Gleason’s fingerprints were all over the crime. When he won the role of MC in the eighth-grade presentation, the assembly cheered his original performance. The teachers cheered his departure.He began appearing at service and fraternal organizations where he met and worked with his future wife Genevieve Halford. After less than a year, he dropped out of Bushwick High School. School probably bored him because he was too smart for it. He had a photographic memory that would help him instantly learn his lines.
His mother had tried to shield Jackie from the rough Irish neighborhood in which they scraped by. But now, without Herb around to enforce his curfews, Jackie took to the streets to gather the hard lessons that would serve him well later in life. By the age of ten he was smoking regularly, by eleven he was hustling pool, by twelve he’d enjoyed his first taste of bootlegger gin. All these experiences were grist for his comic mill and like Mae West he infused the characters he portrayed with the color of the Bushiwck Streets.
He turned eighteen in 1933 the worst year of the Great Depression, but Jackie Gleason was so talented that he always had steady work. Not lucrative, but steady. His resume listed The Majestic, The Central, The Folly and The Halsey Theatres in Brooklyn, while he also played Club Miami and the famous Empire Burlesque in Newark. He often worked two or three theatres at a time, skipping from Brooklyn to Jersey and back again in a single night.
Gleason became house comic at The Empire, a promotion which terrified the teenage Gleason at first. On Sunday morning he’d receive a script and then perform that same Sunday night. He quickly learned from the circuit pros that there were no scripts set in stone, no time for rehearsals, and that “if you wanna make it, kid, you have to make it your own.”
Two months after his nineteenth birthday Mae Kelly Gleason passed away. After the traditional wake in their railroad apartment, Jackie turned out his pockets, found subway fare and moved in with two fellow thespians in Manhattan. Money was so thin that a meal often consisted of cafeteria soup: a mixture of hot water and all the free condiments that Horn and Hardhart’s offered. Jackie continued working Jersey and Brooklyn, and expanded to Philadelphia and some of the bigger clubs on Long Island. He married Genevieve in 1936 and they honeymooned at The Empire Theatre.
y now Jackie was receiving positive press and began working clubs in Manhattan which landed him a role in Along Fifth Avenue. The show opened on Broadway to fair reviews. Each night after the final curtain he worked The Torch, Leon and Eddies or Club 18 on 52nd street where all the action was. “I’d be lost if I didn’t work on the floor until two or three in the morning,” he said. Jack Warner had seen him at several spots and finally offered a contract he couldn’t refuse.
By 1941, Jackie had two daughters, Geraldine and Linda, living with his wife on Long Island while he lived alone in Hollywood. By day he sat around the set at Warner Brothers and ultimately made eight fairly forgettable films. By night he played supper clubs. He traveled back to Broadway where his reviews were brilliant for Follow The Girls, and Billy Rose hired him for his glitzy, star-studded night club, The Diamond Horseshoe. He reconciled and separated again from Gen, and played clubs from New York to L.A. until he won the television title role in The Life of Riley (1949).
The sitcom lasted a year and from that exposure he was offered a short stint on Dumont’s Cavalcade of Stars. Two years later, still in command on Dumont, CBS invited Ralph Kramden, Joe the Bartender, Reggie Van Gleason III and The Poor Soul, to take up residence on its network.
Gleason signed with CBS on November 23, 1951. The Jackie Gleason Show, which commanded more than 160 team members as production staff, actors, dancers, musicians, choreographer (June Taylor), technical crew, wardrobe and make-up, was broadcast live for the first time on September 20th of the following year. The ratings soon soared to 42%. Jackie became “Mr. Saturday Night.”
In 1955, Gleason’s format changed to accommodate the wild popularity of The Honeymooners. The idea was to split Gleason’s time slot into two half hour shows: The Honeymooners, and Stage Show, a music and variety combination hosted by the Dorsey Brothers. Both shows were owned by Gleason. The 1955-56 episodes of The Honeymooners became known as the “original thirty-nine.”
The instrumental theme song for The Honeymooners, “You’re My Greatest Love”, was composed by Gleason and performed by an orchestra led by Ray Bloch (who had previously served as orchestra leader on Gleason’s variety show, as well as The Ed Sullivan Show)
A statue of Gleason as Ralph Kramden stands at the Eighth Avenue entrance to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City. The plaque on the base of the statue reads, “Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden — Bus Driver — Raccoon Lodge Treasurer — Dreamer — Presented by the People of TV Land”