Television

How sweet it is!

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Comedian Jackie Gleason’s television legacy is unquestionably that of “The Honeymooners,” which began as a segment on Cavalcade of Stars, the first TV variety series that he hosted on the DuMont network from 1950 to 1952 before being lured away to CBS in the fall of 1952.  From 1952 to 1970, The Great One featured Honeymooners skits on the various variety-show incarnations he did for the Tiffany network, and most famously appeared in a half-hour sitcom version in the fall of 1955.  Despite only running a single season, The Honeymooners continues to thrive in reruns (before March 5 of this year, “The Classic 39” were being shown Sunday nights on MeTV).

If you’re going through withdrawal, you can purchase “the classic 39” on DVD and Blu-ray, and not only has MPI released sets with classic skits from 1951-1957 (The Honeymooners: Lost Episodes 1951-1957), they brought to DVD The Color Honeymooners, several now-OOP collections featuring the hour-long episodes that were spotlighted on The Jackie Gleason Show from 1966 to 1970.  The actual variety series has sort of been MIA but Time Life—dedicated to reviving the boob tube legacies of everyone from Carol Burnett to Red Skelton—rolled out a ten-disc collection of Gleason telecasts earlier this year; twenty-seven telecasts that had been squirreled away in Gleason’s South Florida vault before being paroled.  (Time Life also offers a deluxe edition of this set…with fifteen additional discs of bonus material including curtain calls, cast commercials, and color home movies taken on the set.)

gleason4I’m just a simple country blogger, so my purchase of this bodacious collection will have to wait until some anonymous (and generous to a fault) patron drops a bag of money on the carport here at Rancho Yesteryear.  But thanks to Michael Krause, my pal at Foundry Communications, I was able to check out the single-disc release (priced at $9.95 SRP) that was released in early February…and which is a little gentler to the wallet.  The Jackie Gleason Show: In Color highlights four telecasts from 1968-69, and I’m going to issue this caveat right off the bat: the running time for this disc is 165 minutes, which means there has been a little editing.  I can’t say this with absolute certainty, but I suspect a lot of the June Taylor Dancers’ footage was sacrificed…whether it was due to music clearance issues or someone saying “Folks are gonna get bored with this quickly” I don’t know.

gleasonshowlogoI know I used to squirm with boredom during the dancing sequences on the show when I watched The Jackie Gleason Show as a little shaver.  Some of my fondest TV memories was gathering with my parents on Saturday nights, as the memorable opening to The Great One’s show would start; that camera on the speedboat racing through the water and the voice of future The Price is Right announcer Johnny Olson proclaiming “From the sun and fun capital of the world, Miami Beach…we bring you The Jackie Gleason Show!”  Gleason had moved the taping of his weekly show to Miami Beach in 1964 to accommodate his love of golf…but since announcer Olson had other duties outside of working for The Great One, he had to rack up a lot of frequent flier miles commuting back-and-forth from New York City to continue with Gleason.

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The Bilko buss.

The first installment included on The Jackie Gleason Show: In Color was originally telecast November 23, 1968 and features longtime Gleason chum Red Buttons as one of the guests (Red must have really needed the work at that time…because he’s also in the two episodes that follow on the disc.)  Buttons and Gleason have a wonderful rapport, with Jackie playing straight man as Red does his classic “never got a dinner” routine (“dinner” is changed to “plaque” in this instance), and Frankie Avalon is also on hand, performing a medley that includes Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.  (The vocalist must have forgotten he was Frankie Avalon…not Valli.)  I enjoyed this telecast immensely, because Phil Silvers appears on the show—Silvers and Gleason are two of my favorite classic comedians—and not only does Phil do a funny impression of Ezio Pinza performing Some Enchanted Evening he plants a kiss right on The Great One’s lips.  (“Gladaseeya!”)

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Art Carney, Sheila MacRae, and Jackie on a Janaury 4, 1969 telecast and in a Honeymooners sketch where Ralph plans to sue his place of business for his broken leg. Still scheming, Ralphie boy!

Florence Henderson and Morey Amsterdam are the guests (along with Buttons) on the second show on the disc (from December 7, 1968); Florence sings My Love (a Petula Clark song I remember that was also recorded—though in a much speeded-up fashion—by “The Southern Gentleman,” Sonny James) and Morey tries to teach Jackie how to play the cello.  There’s a Honeymooners sketch with Gleason, Art Carney, Sheila MacRae, and Jane Kean (“Alice’s Birthday”) as well; the first three shows feature skits but the funniest one is in the aforementioned November 23rd show with a classic Honeymooners premise: Alice has taken her mother’s dog to the veterinarian but doesn’t want Ralph to know (he’s not fond of the mutt) so she’s asked the doctor not to call her about the dog’s condition.  Instead, the report comes by telegram…and since Ralph had a checkup only days earlier, he’s convinced that the report is referring to him.  The news is not good:

RALPH: Well, I guess that’s it, Norton…the doc gives me six months to live…I’ll be dead by the Fourth of July…
ED: Don’t pay any attention to that, Ralph—I used to work with a guy…the doctor gave him only six months to live, too…
RALPH: What happened?
ED: He lived for almost eight months!
(Ralph slaps the table at Norton’s remark, then collects himself)
RALPH: Norton…you gotta promise me somethin’…never mention a word of this to Alice…I don’t want her to find out!
ED: Yeah, what’s gonna happen after six months?  She’s gonna notice you not comin’ home nights…

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Nipsey Russell with The Great One

One of the things I’ve noticed about Jackie Gleason in these variety hours is that the man was so filled with confidence, so self-assured of his comedic talent that he never felt the need to dominate the proceedings.  There’s evidence of this in the third show on the disc (January 4, 1969), in which he’s more than willing to play straight man to guests Nipsey Russell (who does his poetry specialty…but also demonstrates some impressive dance moves) and Jan Murray, who jokes that Gleason is a terrible golfer and tries to give him lessons (“Make believe it’s a martini and Dean Martin is trying to take it away from you,” Jan advises Jackie on holding the club.  “I can’t hold it that tight!” cracks Gleason.).  There’s also a great ad-lib by Murray during this bit (“Did you ever know you could play The Odd Couple by yourself?”), and Jackie uproariously responds: “That wasn’t in it when we rehearsed!”

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George Carlin on The Jackie Gleason Show

The final show on The Jackie Gleason Show: In Color is the cherry on top of the hot fudge sundae.  The Great One welcomes Edie Adams (who sings Cabaret and does impressions of Zsa Zsa Gabor and Lady Bird Johnson) and a pre-counterculture, clean-cut George Carlin (though Jackie refers to him as “an oddball” during his introduction).  (Carlin does a funny bit about a TV variety show about the FBI, hosted by “J. Edgar Moover”—“You’re all under arrest!”)  But Gleason’s special guest is “Uncle Miltie” himself; I know Milton Berle is an acquired taste for many (I never really appreciated Berle until I started listening to his radio show, which I find uproariously funny) but he’s able to use his trademark abrasiveness to good use in a lengthy sequence where he attempts to persuade his host to tailor his variety hour to a younger audience:

BERLE: Now, Jackie…to prove that I’m not trying to take over…what can you suggest that would educate the children?
GLEASON: Well…how about running one of your old TV shows?  It sure taught the network a lesson, I’ll tell you that…
BERLE (after the laughter and applause subside): Very funny…funny line…funny line—I wish I had said that…
GLEASON: You ever get another series and you will!

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Gleason, unafraid to play the clown.

Because Gleason is just insecure enough to know that unless he submits to two indignities—first dressing as a clown and then a baby—Berle is going to hog all the laughs, he goes along with the masquerades…and is still hysterical when doing so.  (Dressed in a baby’s bonnet and seated in a high chair, Gleason is asked by Berle what he wants in a coffee cup he’s holding…and Jackie shoots the audience a look before cracking: “He’s gotta be kidding!”)

Milton and Jackie also do an amusing routine at the beginning of the show where Berle brings out an “expert” to help Gleason with his grammar; the grammarian is played by Morton Storm…whom I have honestly never heard of and apparently neither has the (always reliable) IMDb.  It would have been funnier if Al Kelly, the double-talk comic from Berle’s radio show, had been around to play the expert, but he passed away in 1966 (the IMDb does credit him with a pair of earlier appearances on Gleason’s American Scene Magazine show).

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I woke my mother up laughing at this, by the way.

The Jackie Gleason Show: In Color is a must-have DVD for Gleason fans; I always get a little misty-eyed whenever I watch Jackie work because for some odd reason—my grandfather didn’t even look anything like Gleason—I always think of my late Papa Jack.  (Papa Jack did have a Gleason-like attitude to life, plus he was Irish and never said no to a drink.)  Run out and get a copy of this most entertaining disc and remember…Miami Beach audiences are the greatest audiences in the world!

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6 thoughts on “How sweet it is!

    1. The unavailability of Audrey and Joyce had a lot to do with Gleason’s move to Miami Beach — neither actress wanted to relocate. (But Jackie was insistent on keeping Art Carney, arguing that he was irreplacable.) Meadows did play Alice in an hour-long HONEYMOONERS special in January of 1966, and did reprise the role when the skits were revived in a series of specials in the 1970s (cashing in on the success of Gleason’s movie fame and Carney’s Oscar win) but I think Randolph had stopped playing Trixie in the 1950s.

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  1. The link you included sent me to Amazon, where the $100 package was available.
    I scrolled down to see what was included …
    … and ran smack into the user reviews, where I learned that not only are the June Taylor Dancers excluded, but many other parts as well.

    In particular:
    The show that aired on December 30, 1967 was one I really wanted to see again, because it concluded with the only appearance on American TV of Bert Kaempfert and his Orchestra.
    Kaempfert had a number of hits in the USA, including “Afrikaan Beat”, “A Swingin’ Safari”, “Red Roses For A Blue Lady”, “Spanish Eyes”, and “Strangers In The Night”, among many others.
    Gleason was a fan of Kaempfert’s Big Band style; he arranged to bring Kaempfert’s entire orchestra over from their recording base in Hamburg, Germany.
    As I mentioned, the Kaempfert Orchestra closed the show that night: they were massed center stage, and while they played their hits, the Taylor Dancers provided visual accompaniment.
    I’ve waited all these years to see this again – and now I learn that while the episode is included, the Kaempfert Orchestra isn’t (along with a few other things).
    Long story short – NO SALE.
    (And it’s their own damn fault!)

    You know, I always thought that the whole idea behind these DVD collections was to try to recreate the experience of the original broadcasts as much as possible, for those of us who were old enough to remember, and for those younger folks who were curious about the old shows.
    Shoulda known better, right?

    Ah well/Oh hell …

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    1. Thanks for the additional info, Your Televisionship. Doggone shame about the editing of the Kaempfert material; my mother was a HUGE fan and even had an album of his greatest hits (which I spun multiple times in my youth).

      I’m more than a little curious as to whether some of the edits on the shows in these collections — not just the Gleason set, but similar ones — are due to plans to syndicate them for TV. I watched quite a few of the Sonny & Cher episodes that getTV ran over the holidays and they all run 42-44 minutes, meaning something got left on the cutting room floor.

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      1. Thinking about it, I’ve read that one of the things that leads to edits in old variety show is the matter of music rights and royalties.
        How this applies to the Kaempfert stuff, I don’t know, but it might play a role …

        There’s an outfit called Taragon that’s been issuing CDs of Bert Kaempfert’s Decca-MCA catalog for some years now; I include this info for you and your mom (if you didn’t know that already); I’ve got a stack of these here at home (as I had the vinyl LPs Back In The Day).

        Ever hear the real story of “Strangers In The Night”?
        It was part of a score that Bert Kaempfert composed for a movie called A Man Could Get Killed; it didn’t have a lyric at that time.
        A guy from MCA brought the score around to play for Jimmy Bowen, who was the A&R guy at Reprise Records, Frank Sinatra’s label.
        Sinatra had entered the phone-in phase of his career: basically, he would come in a few times a year and record any songs that Bowen picked out for him, no questions asked (most of the time, anyway).
        When Bowen heard the melody of what eventually became “Strangers”, he told the MCA guy “Put a lyric on this, and Sinatra will record it.”
        The MCA guy went back and got the guys who put English lyrics to Kaempfert’s melodies to write words for “Strangers”, with a definite deal on the table; if they’d come up with “I burned down my house/ For the insurance …”, Sinatra would have had to record that.
        Anyway, when Big Frank checked in for his session, Bowen handed him “Strangers In The Night” …
        … and Sinatra hated it.
        There were arguments, but a deal is a deal, and eventually Sinatra had to make the record.
        So Frank decided to tank it.
        Listen to the record some time: it’s supposed to be a romantic ballad, but Frank snarls out the words, like they’re a threat.
        At the finish, Frank tags this love song with scat: “Doobie-doobie-doo …” -?
        Plainly, he felt that nobody would take “Strangers” seriously –
        – and it only turned out to be the biggest hit he’d have during that period.
        As somebody once said (or sang), “That’s Life!”

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