Jackie Gleason’s Miami
(above) Jackie Gleason loved golfing at the Inverarry Country Club. Seen here with Richard Nixon.
“How sweet it is!” Many people remember larger-than-life Jackie Gleason as the star of The Honeymooners, an early 50’s TV classic. As Ralph Kramden, an impoverished Manhattan bus driver, he and his pal Ed Norton (Art Carney) were always up to some get-rich-quick scheme in effort to escape their lackluster tenement life in New York City.
However, not everyone knows that Gleason had a love affair with Miami, and while rat packers Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis, Jr. get much of the credit, it was Gleason who more than anyone established the Magic City as a television hub with his “American Scene Magazine” variety show.
Although the program had begun its run in New York in 1962, Gleason relocated it to Miami by 1964, so he could live closer to his favorite golf course, located at the Inverrary Country Club in Lauderhill, Florida.
His show was taped each week first in New York, and later at the Fillmore Theatre in Miami Beach at 1700 Washington Avenue, which was renamed as “The Fillmore Jackie Gleason Theatre.”
Each week, future Price Is Right announcer Johnny Olson would introduce the program with the words, “from the sun and fun capital of the world” and each night at the end of the show, Gleason would proclaim that “the Miami Beach audience is the greatest audience in the world.”
Gleason’s widow, Marilyn Taylor Gleason, now 83, continues to reside in South Florida, in Ft. Lauderdale near Port Everglades, and made a public appearance in September 2009 to commemorate the release of a new Jackie Gleason postage stamp.
(above) The Jackie Gleason stamp, released in September 2009
THE GREAT ONE
A native of Brooklyn, New York, Gleason was born on February 26, 1916 to immigrant parents from County Cork, Ireland. A high school drop out whose father had abandoned the family and whose mother passed away when he was just 19, Gleason sought a living on the Broadway stage, appearing first in a burlesque review called “Hellzapoppin” in the late 1930s. He supplemented his income selling subway tokens and later as a real life pool shark, an undertaking which would serve him well years later in his portrayal of Minnesota Fats in the 1961 film, “The Hustler.”
Gleason segued from stage into film in 1941, landing his first gig with at age 24 with “Navy Blues.” After a string of movies in 1941 and 1942, working first with Warner Brothers and later at 20th Century Fox, Gleason failed to make a lasting impression at the time with the industry brass. He acquired more attention for his all night hotel booze-ups and his racy nightclub act.
THE GOLDEN AGE
Television was where Gleason would make his mark. After landing the lead role in radio’s “The Life of Reilly” in 1949, he made his television debut a year later as the host of “The Cavalcade of Stars”—a variety show format that served as the inspiration for his later series, “The Jackie Gleason Show,” aka, “American Scene Magazine”, which ran from 1962 through 1970.
It was on “The Cavalcade of Stars” that Gleason first paired with acting partner Art Carney and the June Taylor dancers, and that one of his popular sketches would acquire a life of its own as the classic sit-com “The Honeymooners.” Later, the animated series, “The Flintstones” would borrow heavily from the former series.
During the 50’s Gleason established a successful second career as a music promoter, lending his name to several jazz instrumental albums.
After “The Jackie Gleason Show” ended in 1970, Gleason went on to appear in occasional specials which were taped at the Olympia Theater’s Gusman Center in downtown Miami.
INTEREST IN THE PARANORMAL
(above) items from the Jackie Gleason Collection, housed at the University of Miami Library
Unknown to many, Gleason developed a keen interest in the paranormal. He consulted ouija boards and was fascinated by the idea of extraterrestrial life, going so far as to build a house in the shape of a UFO, which he dubbed “The Mothership.”
Today, the University of Miami houses “The Jackie Gleason Collection”, which includes some 1700 volumes of books, journals and other publications on subjects such as reincarnation, spiritualism, witchcraft, extrasensory perception, mysticism, voodoo, demonology, mental telepathy and the afterlife.
Gleason’s second wife Audrey McKittrick claims that President Nixon took him on a secret tour of the Homestead Air Force Base where Gleason allegedly saw an alien space ship and dead extraterrestrials.
AND AWAY WE GO
After a post-television career which included movies such as “Smokey and the Bandit”, “The Toy” and “Nothing in Common,” Gleason found himself in ill-health by 1986, suffering from colon and liver cancer, as well as thrombosed hemorrhoids.
He was hospitalized in 1986 and 1987, but eventually returned to his home in Inverrary, and passed away peacefully there on June 24, 1987. He was 71.
His final resting place is located at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery in Miami (11411 NW 25th St, Doral, FL 33172). His anonymous-looking tomb is located in an outdoor mausoleum, almost unrecognizable except for the inscription of his popular catch-phrase, “And away we go!”
Gleason remains a legend in his adopted city, where his life and work have attracted throngs of visitors over the years. The lobby at the Fillmore Jackie Gleason Theatre is full of mementos from the actor’s career, and it’s perhaps there that this colorful figure from Miami’s past was able to find the immortality he’d so earnestly searched for in life.
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"Jackie Gleason’s Miami"