The Honeymoon Is Over by
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(142 Stories)

Prompted By Variety Shows

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Having one’s myths about celebrities shattered is pretty devastating, but also pretty common — indeed, a cliche.  But it applies to my favorite variety show as I was growing up: the Jackie Gleason Show. And, most particularly, to the classic “Honeymooners” episodes in it.  That said, I see no need to describe the Honeymooners beyond the featured image.  If you don’t know it inside and out, IMHO, you’re simply not a Baby Boomer.

But here’s the backstory to my story.  My parents had a good mutual friend when they were all students at the University of Wisconsin.  His first name was Howard.  (Google-able last name not necessary here.)  Howard had a terrific sense of humor but, unlike a lot of funny guys, he was generally very quiet and introverted.  As my father once described him: “The essence of Howard was that everybody assumed that, funny guy that he was, he would want to be called Howie.  And yet, as he would patiently explain, he much preferred being called Howard.”

After college, Howard headed to New York and became a television comedy writer —  a very successful one.  Two of his biggest jobs were writing for “You Bet Your Life,” the Groucho Marx vehicle disguised as a quiz show, and, yes, the Jackie Gleason Show.  So I was thrilled when I was in high school and my parents told me that Howard was in Connecticut and would be having dinner with us.

As advertised by my parents, Howard was a polite, almost painfully shy, gentleman, though it was easy to see the wicked sense of humor that lay beneath that quiet exterior. And then he began busting my celebrity myths.

First, though acknowledging that Groucho was an incredibly gifted comedian, Howard said that he could be a real SOB at times.  But, even more shockingly, Howard revealed that those brilliant “ad libs” that Groucho delivered to the contestants were all scripted down to the last word and then carefully rehearsed.

Those Howard disclosures about Groucho and his show were a bit distressing, but Howard saved his heavy ammunition for Jackie Gleason.  He said that Gleason was an incredibly lazy, mean drunk who was nearly impossible to work with.  All he wanted to do was booze it up, chase women and play golf.  But Howard also acknowledged that Gleason was so brilliant that, though he never bothered to show up for rehearsals until Friday — spending the earlier part of the week drinking and golfing — he somehow came into the studio, memorized everything he had to in one day, and then performed flawlessly when the show was aired — live! — on Saturday night.

Even there, though, Gleason’s conduct was deplorable.  Not only did he yell at everyone in sight, but he also had a special fondness for the June Taylor Dancers, a Rockettes-like dancing ensemble that was featured in the opening of each show and then usually appeared later on in a production number.  I particularly remember that there always was one “aerial” view (taken by a fixed camera on the ceiling of the studio) of their opening number while they performed some kaleidoscopic moves.

The June Taylor Dancers

When Gleason was on the set, and when he was not screaming at everyone, he had a habit of wandering into the dancers’ dressing room — often with a randy guest star in tow.  Apparently, Donald Trump’s Miss Universe contest was not the first time that this sort of sleazy male behavior took place.

And Howard had even more dirt on the show.  Gleason’s co-star in the Honeymooners, Art Carney (“Norton”), was also an alcoholic, and a nasty one at that.  He and Gleason hated each other’s guts and didn’t hide that fact when they were (ostensibly) working together.  Apparently, the two actresses who played their wives, Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph, somehow held everything together.  Per Howard, but for the patience and professionalism of those two actresses, there would have been no Honeymooners episodes and probably no Jackie Gleason Show at all.

The straw that finally broke Howard’s back — he admitted the pay was great and he enjoyed his fellow writers — was when Gleason demanded that the show be moved from the CBS studios in New York to Miami Beach, where he had a home and where he could play golf year-round.  And anyone who wanted to keep working on the show had to move down there or was out of a job.  CBS ultimately caved in to this demand because the Gleason Show was such a huge money maker for it.  Since CBS had no studios in Miami Beach, on top of all the other extra costs and major headaches caused by the move, it had to rent the Miami Beach Auditorium just for this one show.

Florida Memory • Miami Beach Auditorium was once home to The Jackie Gleason Show - Miami Beach, Florida.

The Miami Beach Auditorium

That was it for Howard.  He was not moving to Miami Beach, so he quit the show and moved out to Los Angeles, where there were increasingly more opportunities for comedy writers than in New York anyhow.

As for me, once I heard all these dirty details, the Gleason myth was shattered.  I could never comfortably watch another Honeymooners’ episode.  Coincidentally, about fifteen years ago, I met Howard’s step-daughter, Ann, through mutual friends and  Ann and her husband have since become good pals. Once I felt I knew Ann well enough, I asked her about Howard’s stories about Gleason and his show and she confirmed them all — or, at least, confirmed that Howard had told her the exact same things.

However, I do admit to having kept one residual nice memory of the Gleason Show.  One of Gleason’s other regular characters on the show was called Joe the Bartender,  In monologues or dialogues, Joe spoke to bar patrons and he offered them good advice, a shoulder to lean or cry on and, of course, a drink or three.  As a kid, I found these segments so moving — though, in retrospect, they were probably just maudlin — that at one point I decided that I, too, wanted to be a bartender when I grew up.

My parents were pretty amused by my temporary decision to become a bartender, and never took it seriously.  And I ultimately became a lawyer, despite having taken an excellent bartending course offered by the student catering agency my freshman year in college.  But, as I consider it, lawyers also dispense (or should dispense) good advice and a shoulder to lean or cry on to their clients — just no drinks.  So maybe not so different after all.

Joe the Bartender

 

And away we go……

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


Characterizations: funny, moving, well written

Comments

  1. You really held my interest, as I was a fan of Jackie–and so glad you mentioned the “Joe the Bartender” as I too retain fond memories of that segment. Disheartening in some ways to have the veil removed from this talented guy–but probably necessary.
    All in all, it makes me glad that the TV star my Dad brought home to the nieghborhood (because they’d known each other as undergrads at Northwestern) was not Jackie Gleason or his sidekick, Art Carney, but “Mr. Green Jeans,” the sidekick to Captain Kangaroo! His name in real life was Lumpy Brannum, at least that’s all any of us ever heard, though I see from the Internet that it was actually Hugh Brannum.

  2. Well thanx John for shattering all my illusions about those two great comedians and that wonderful show!
    But I won’t tell my husband as he’s the TV junkie in the house and watches all those Honeymooner reruns. I’ll let him keep enjoying them.

    And BTW I always wanted to take that barkeep course, goodness knows why as I don’t drink, but it’s been on my bucket list for years.
    (I have a friend who skydives, that’s on my list too!)

  3. Suzy says:

    I never realized that there was a Jackie Gleason variety show, of which The Honeymooners was just a segment. I only knew The Honeymooners as a standalone show. However, I’m not sure that I ever actually watched it, which according to you means I’m “simply not a Baby Boomer.” However, Wikipedia tells me that the final episode of The Honeymooners aired in September 1956, when I had just turned 5, and wasn’t watching much on TV besides Miss Frances and Captain Kangaroo.

    What interests me in your story is that when the Gleason show moved to Miami and Howard quit, he didn’t get another job in NY, he moved to LA instead. That confirms my comedy-writing son’s decision to settle in LA instead of NY.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    Fascinating and disturbing bit of insider info, John. Sometimes it’s better if we don’t know the truth behind the legend.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    Like Suzy, I didn’t realize there was a Jackie Gleason variety show, but I did see the Honeymooners in reruns I think. Your inside scoop on the two guys actually didn’t surprise me–they seemed pretty obnoxious to me in the show, and it was Alice who was the star. Thanks for the look behind the curtain!

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    None of this surprised me, John. I watched Jackie Gleason with my parents, who thought he was hilarious. They especially liked The Honeymooners, which even as a kid felt pretty misogynistic to me. No surprise the women held the show together.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Absolutely right, Laurie. Ralph Kramden was equal part bully, especially to his wife, and buffoon. After all, he used to always promise to (presumably punch her) “straight to the moon.” But Alice saw right through him. To stae the obvious, a sshow like that could never be made today. Thank goodness.

  7. Marian says:

    Amazing insight into what was behind the scenes on the Jackie Gleason show. I always liked that aerial shot of the June Taylor dancers and am not too surprised by Gleason’s antics, although I didn’t realize they were so extreme. Besides the drinking, the one skit that makes me cringe today is with the character “Crazy Guggenheim,” whom I believe was played by Frank Fontaine (?). Could never be done today, thank goodness.

  8. Susan Bennet says:

    Wonderful story, John, and a rare opportunity to see behind the scenes. My girl radar must have been working then: Gleason always seemed to me to be just a mean you-know-what. Same with Milton Berle. And an actor friend confirmed my suspicions about Groucho’s scripted show (liked the duck, though). I guess we have to remember that the road to the top was pretty rutty back then as vaudeville evolved into variety. My “radar” at the time told me that Benny and Burns were the nice guys. Hope so.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks much, Susan. Great insights, too. I’ve also heard the same thing about Berle’s personality (amomg other interesting, if NSFW, things about him). And have always heard that Jack Benny was a sweet guy, and not at all the tight-fisted miser he portrayed himself as.

  9. Dave Ventre says:

    Gleason had the ability to rip your heart out as an actor. Once in a while on The Honeymooners, he’d submerge the comic Ralph character and express his love and need for Alice, and his fears that she would realize that she could do MUCH better, in a way that could make a stone’s lower lip quiver. It was so different and unexpected in a sitcom that it was almost a breaking of the fourth wall. I cannot recall anyone who made any more obvious the link between comedy and inner pain.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Really good point, Dave. This was what angered Howard so much; Gleason had so much talent and yet squandered it. Not only was he an amazing actor, but also a very accomplished musician, especially as a conductor. There are a whole bunch of records that were released of him conducting his orchestra.

    • So well-expressed Dave, I agree about Gleason’s Pagliacci persona.
      I thought Gleason and Art Carney had perfect comic timing , were brilliant comedians.

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