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.)
I’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.
I 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.
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!”)
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…
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!”
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!
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).
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!