Most are familiar with Fred Flintstone from Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon soap concerning the “modern stone age family”. But how many are old enough to recall the equally lovable New York bus driver Ralph Kramden from The Honeymooners, who is the original inspiration behind the Stone Age everyman? This is Jackie Gleason at his yabba-dabba-doo best.
It was from back in the stone ages of television. The trick of television was to make it to your friend, something that television producers realized very early on. That which came into your home needed to be “homely”. After various experiments, television audience finally met its best friend – the chubby persona of Jackie Gleason. He came with a handful of guises in The Jackie Gleason Show, from which the persona of the New York bus driver with his unending supply of get-rich-quick schemes proved the most popular and merited a show of its own. The Honeymooners lasted two seasons (1955-56). These priceless episodes came to be known as the “Classic 39”, and when they went into syndication from the early 60s, the popularity of the show only grew. The legendary show was placed third in TV Times 1999 list of all-time best TV shows.
The story of how Jackie Gleason came to be our best friend begs to be told. Born on February 26, 1916, he grew up poor in Brooklyn. His father was an insurance auditor, but he put his hat on and left the family when Gleason was only nine years old. Jackie struggled at school, ended up in street gangs and hustled pool. In the end he left school to take a job in a theater. Among the other things he tried were being a stunt driver and a carnival barker. He also put up an amateur act with his friend and was able to walk the boards in the Halsey and Folly theaters.
Gleason faced a crossroads in his life when his mother died. He was 19 years old, penniless, and was offered to be taken in by the family of his girlfriend. However, determined to make it as a performer, he made his way to Reading, Pennsylvania, where he secured his first professional job as a comedian. He eventually worked his way back to New York. In his routine at the Club 18 theatre he insulted the patrons for laughs. One of them was no less than Jack Warner, who was impressed enough by the insults to sign Gleason to Warner Brothers.
Aged 24, he had now made it to Hollywood, but there was still a long way to go. At Warner Brothers he made 8 fairly forgettable films. He only made a mark appearing in Olson and Johnson’s 1943 zany roadshow Hellzapoppin, where he led the cast with Lew Parker. He married dancer Genevieve Halford in 1936, but the marriage suffered during his frustrated days in Hollywood as drinking and profligacy took its toll. He reunited with Genevieve in 1948.
The new medium of television came to Gleason’s rescue. He landed the title role in one of the first family sitcoms The Life of Riley. But more importantly, he was picked up by the DuMont Television Network to host their variety show Cavalcade of Stars in 1950. This concoction of dance numbers interspersed with comedy sketches was a formula that Gleason perfected later in New York and eventually sold to CBS as The Jackie Gleason Show. Routinely featured among the sketches were Joe the Bartender, The Poor Soul, Rudy the Repairman, The Bachelor, and of course Ralph Kramden. Also starring The June Taylor Dancers performing splashy numbers in the style of Busby Berkeley, the show became a TV sensation in 1954.
But eventually it was Ralph Kramden who won the hearts of the television public, appearing in his own show, The Honeymooners, for the following two seasons. Set in a dingy New York flat, in each episode you usually find Kramden blustering his way in to announce his new get-rich-quick scheme to his long-suffering, gentle but clever wife Alice. The show relied on the noisy spats with his wife, the confrontation of brains and bluster, at the same time reflecting the struggles of ordinary New Yorkers. “One of these days, Alice, one of these days,” hollows Kramden to his wife, “pow! Right in the kisser!” He simulates a sock in the face. (With Fred Flintstone this is shortened to, “One of these days, Wilma, one of these days…”) Sometimes he intends to kick her “straight to the moon!”
The Sensible and unflappable Alice always has her way in the end, though (brilliantly played by Audrey Meadows). The cast is completed by Ed Norton, sewer worker living in the flat above (played by Joyce Randolph). The classic 39 episodes were never equaled in all the efforts of Gleason to revive the characters in his subsequent career.
With The Honeymooners, Gleason had reached his peak. His effort to enter the game show genre ended in the fiasco of him apologizing to audiences for having to cancel. During the 60s he continued with his pioneering efforts in the variety show format. The American Scene Magazine from 1962 contained more spectacular musical numbers, guest appearances, but Gleason’s stock routines were showing signs of flagging. However, it continued to be popular, and in 1964 it moved its location from New York to Miami Beach, Florida. Many cite this move of Gleason as being crucial to the rise of Florida as a popular tourist destination. In the 1966-67 season The Honeymooners appeared in color for the first time.
In between his television efforts, Gleason made a mark in Hollywood by playing the pool hustler Minnesota Fats in the 1961 film The Hustler with Paul Newman. The film earned for Gleason his only Oscar nomination. He made an even bigger mark as “composer” of mood music. Though unversed in music, Gleason had the special talent to convey compositions verbally. The theme tunes to both The Jackie Gleason Show and The Honeymooners are credited to him. The success inspired him to produce jazz inspired melodies through to the 60s. The first such album, Music For Lovers Only, stayed on the Billboard Top Ten charts for a staggering 153 weeks in the late 50s, a record that still stands today. He was also rewarded for his efforts on the stage by winning a 1960 Tony award for performance in the musical Take Me Along.
Gleason finally made it big in Hollywood late in his career when he appeared as the foulmouthed sheriff Buford T Justice in 1977 comedy Smokey and the Bandit, with Burt Reynolds and Sally Fields. With frustrated outbursts such as “I’m gonna barbecue yo’ ass in molasses!” audiences delighted to see the old Ralph Kramden coming through. He appeared again in the sequels to memorable effect.
Diagnosed with cancer, he passed away in his home in Massachusetts on June 24, 1987.
Orson Welles called him the “great one”, a tag that stuck. But most people will remember him as one of their best friends from early television. A life-size statue of Ralph Kramden at the Port authority bus terminal in New York is an apt reminder of how close Gleason was to the hearts of millions. “A great feeling of friendship came from the audience,” he is noted as saying regarding his live performances. Well, pal, the friendship was mutual.