In 1964, “The Great One”, famed actor, comedian, song writer and musician Jackie Gleason, moved production of his wildly popular “The Jackie Gleason Show” television show from New York City to Miami Beach, Florida. His closing line at the end of each show was: "As always…the Miami Beach audience is the greatest audience in the world!" For the next 23 years, Gleason was a “larger than life” presence in South Florida. After his death in 1987, the City of Miami Beach honored Gleason’s many contributions to the city and its tourism by renaming the Miami Beach Auditorium (where he had done his television show) as the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts.
Jackie Gleason was born at 364 Chauncey Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York on February 26, 1916. Born “Herbert Walton Gleason, Jr.”, he was baptized as “John Herbert Gleason.” His parents, Herbert W. Gleason, Sr. (an insurance auditor) and Mae “Maisie” Murphy Gleason (a subway change-booth attendant) were both from Faranree, County Cork in Ireland. Gleason’s early life was marked by tragedy: Gleason’s brother died when he was young, his father abandoned the family, and “Jackie” was raised alone by his mother, who died when Gleason was 19. He attended but did not graduate from Bushwick High School.
His first recognition as an entertainer came on Broadway, when he appeared in Follow the Girls. By age 24, Gleason was in the movies, first at Warner Brothers as “Jackie C. Gleason” in such films as Navy Blues in 1941 with Ann Sheridan and Martha Raye and All Through the Night in 1941 with Humphrey Bogart, then at Columbia Pictures in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp in 1942 and at Twentieth Century-Fox, where he played the Glenn Miller band’s bassist in Orchestra Wives in 1942. Gleason also had a small part as the soda shop clerk in Larceny, Inc. in 1942 with Edward G. Robinson. Gleason, however, did not make a strong impression in Hollywood at first.
At the same time, he developed a nightclub act that included both comedy and music. Gleason’s first big break arrived in 1949, when he landed the role of the blunt, but softhearted, aircraft worker Chester A. Riley for the first television version of the radio hit The Life of Riley. Gleason was then hired to host DuMont’s Cavalcade of Stars variety hour in 1950. He framed the show with splashy dance numbers, developed sketch characters that he would refine over the next decade, and became enough of a success that CBS wooed and won him over to its network in 1952. At CBS, The Jackie Gleason Show became the country’s second-highest-rated television show during the 1954–1955 season. Gleason amplified the show with even splashier opening dance numbers, inspired by Busby Berkeley routines and featuring the precision-choreographed June Taylor Dancers. Following the dance performance, he would do an opening monologue; then, accompanied by "a little travelin’ music", he would shuffle toward the wing, clapping his hands inversely and hollering, "And awaaay we go!" The shows comedy skits and characters became legend. By far, Gleason’s most popular character was the blustery bus driver Ralph Kramden. Largely drawn from Gleason’s own harsh Brooklyn childhood, these sketches became known as “The Honeymooners”, centered on Ralph’s incessant get-rich-quick schemes, the tensions between him and his friend and neighbor Ed Norton, and the inevitable “too the moon, Alice” clashes with sensible wife Alice. The Honeymooners sketches proved so popular that Gleason gambled on making it a separate series entirely in 1955. These are the so-called “Classic 39” Honeymooners episodes, which surprisingly finished only 19th in the ratings during their only season.
In 1962, he resurrected his variety show with more splash and a new hook, a fictitious general-interest magazine called “The American Scene Magazine”, through which format Gleason brought back his favorite characters in new scenarios. He also added another catchphrase to the American vernacular, first uttered in his 1963 film Papa’s Delicate Condition: "How sweet it is!" The Jackie Gleason Show: The American Scene Magazine was a hit and continued in this format for four seasons. Gleason also revived The Honeymooners, first with Sue Ane Langdon and then with Sheila MacRae as Alice and with Jane Kean as Trixie.
In 1964, Gleason moved the production of his television show from New York City to Miami Beach, Florida, reportedly because he liked the year-round access to the golf course at the nearby Inverrary Country Club in Lauderhill, Florida, where he built his home. In 1966, he abandoned the American Scene Magazine format and converted the show into a standard variety hour with guest performers. Gleason kicked off the 1966–67 season with new, color episodes of The Honeymooners. Art Carney returned as Ed Norton, with Sheila MacRae as Alice and Jane Kean as Trixie. Occasionally, the Gleason hour would be devoted to musicals with the stars abandoning their Honeymooners roles for different character roles.
During the 1960’s, Gleason also appeared in a number of memorable movies, including: The Hustler (1961), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of "Minnesota Fats"; Gigot (1962); Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962); Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963); Soldier in the Rain (1963); Skidoo (1968); How to Commit Marriage (1969); and Don’t Drink the Water (1969).
By 1970, Gleason, who had signed a deal with CBS in the 1950s that included a guaranteed $100,000 annual payment for 20 years even if he never went on the air, wanted The Honeymooners to be just a portion of his format, but CBS wanted another season of nothing but The Honeymooners. Gleason simply stopped doing the show by 1970, and finally left CBS when his contract expired. Gleason did do two Jackie Gleason Show specials for CBS after giving up his regular show, including Honeymooners segments, but ideas reportedly came and went nowhere. He ended up doing a series of Honeymooners specials for ABC during the mid-1970s. In April 1974, Gleason revived several classic characters, including Ralph Kramden, Joe the Bartender, and Reginald Van Gleason III, in a television special with Julie Andrews. In one song-and-dance routine, the two performed "Take Me Along" from Gleason’s Broadway musical.
He also gave a notable performance as wealthy businessman U.S. Bates in the comedy The Toy in 1982, opposite Richard Pryor. In 1983, Gleason earned positive reviews playing opposite Laurence Olivier in the HBO dramatic special, Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson. Gleason and old pal Art Carney also made a television movie, Izzy and Moe, which aired on CBS in 1985.
In 1985, three decades after their broadcast, Gleason revealed that he had carefully preserved kinescopes of his live 1950s programs in a vault for future use, including Honeymooners sketches with Pert Kelton as Alice. These so-called “Classic 39” episodes were initially previewed at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City, then first aired on the Showtime cable network in 1985, and were later syndicated to local TV stations and released on home video.
In 1986, Gleason delivered a critically acclaimed performance as an infirm, but acerbic and somewhat Archie Bunker-like character in the Tom Hanks comedy-drama Nothing in Common. The film was Gleason’s final role, as he was fighting colon and liver cancer during production.
Gleason was hospitalized at one point in 1986–87, but checked himself out when told that he had little chance of recovering. He returned to his Inverrary home, and died peacefully on June 24, 1987, at age 71. Gleason is interred in an outdoor mausoleum at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery in Miami, Florida. At the base of the mausoleum is the inscription: "And Away We Go."
In 1987, the City of Miami Beach honored Gleason by renaming the Miami Beach Auditorium as the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts. On June 30, 1988, the Sunset Park Bus Depot in Brooklyn was renamed the Jackie Gleason Depot in honor of the native Brooklynite. Local signs on the Brooklyn Bridge, which indicate to drivers that they are entering Brooklyn, have the Gleason catch-phrase "How Sweet It Is!" as part of the sign. A statue of Gleason as Ralph Kramden in his bus driver’s uniform was dedicated in August 2000 in New York City at 40th Street and Eighth Avenue at the entrance to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Its inscription reads "Ralph Kramden: New Yorker, Bus Driver, Dreamer". Another such statue stands at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame in North Hollywood, California, showing Gleason in his famous "And away we go!" pose. A city park near his home in the Inverrary neighborhood of Lauderhill, Florida is named "Jackie Gleason Park".