There was no bigger star in the 1950s than Jackie Gleason, who was called “The Great One” by many of his peers. I first became aware of Jackie with his mid-60s variety show hosted in Miami Beach, and through re-runs of The Honeymooners. If you take early television and mention Jackie, Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Sid Caesar, Jack Paar, Garry Moore, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Steve Allen, you have hit nearly all the highlights that made the new medium of television welcome in so many homes. In my opinion, none of the stars mentioned tops Jackie Gleason.
My great friend, the late, remarkable Ed Dye had a wonderful story he told about Jackie Gleason. Ed worked as a stage manager on The Ed Sullivan Show in the late 50s (Ed also worked on The Garry Moore Show) and got to meet many of the biggest stars of the day. He always said the two biggest and awe-inspiring were Tallulah Bankhead and The Great One.
Jackie never traveled without an entourage of assistants and beautiful women, bringing with him a whole host of tag-a-longs everywhere he went. An appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was no different. Jackie would show up with his entire troupe at his beck and call.
When big stars, the biggest stars, were going to be on the show, Ed said that their appearance always brought with it a sense of excitement and nervousness, even though the cast and crew of the show were used to being in such great company. Nothing he had witnessed so far had brought the excitement level up to high state it was in for the scheduled arrival of Jackie for the live rehearsal for that evening’s show. Being the days of live television, there were no second takes, thus the reason for the single live dress-rehearsal prior to the evening’s show. That afternoon everyone was anxious, awaiting the arrival of The Great One, Ed included.
Ed told me several times that the big stars could be difficult to work with: frequently demanding, often unreasonable, and sometimes more than a bit condescending to the show staff. But he also said that the biggest stars were almost never that way, though they could be distant and stand-offish, remaining somewhat subdued until showtime when they let it all out. The biggest stars were never rude to the show staff, though, that being reserved for the up and comers, those who envied the big stars, those who wanted everyone to know that they were something big. The real big ones didn’t need to do that.
As Ed and the crew waited, along with the rest of the lesser performers that would be on that night’s show, a buzz like a bolt of lightning flashed through those gathered when reports came back that Jackie’s limo had pulled up along with several others, and his advance guard was gathering for him to enter the building. Everyone was waiting to see how this would go. Everyone held their breath. They all wanted to see Jackie Gleason and to make his visit to the show a pleasant one for all involved, including those at home watching on TV.
The room dropped to utter silence as the doors opened. In swept several of Jackie’s entourage and in the midst of them, The Great One stormed into the room, changing its atmosphere simply with his powerful presence. He smiled and waved, said nothing, and was immediately escorted to the green room area and dressing room, where in the gathering room a large array of finger foods had been laid out for him and his guests. Jackie took one look at the food on the table, frowned, and the first words out of his mouth were uttered in disgust, “I ain’t eatin’ this swill.”
Ed said that everyone was crestfallen, sad that they had disappointed one they had hoped to please, nervous that this was going to be an extremely tedious day nursing the inflated ego of a very demanding superstar, and more sad and disappointed because of the unexpected rudeness of one that they had admired so much. His behavior, for that reason alone, disappointed them more than anything. The Great One was less than they had imagined. He was not magnanimous. He was not genteel. He was not cool. He was, by all indications, an arrogant ass.
Jackie turned to his adjutant, whispered something in his ear, then stormed off to his dressing room with some of his pals and closed the door. The adjutant turned and immediately sped out the door, dispatched on some mission, and the crew dejectedly returned to their preparation for the rehearsal, crushed at this display.
About an hour later, Jackie’s adjutant returned and the doorway and entrance to the green rooms suddenly filled itself with deliveries from caterers. The food Jackie refused was hauled away and in its place a lavish seafood banquet was spread forth. Everyone stopped to marvel at what was being brought in. There were big fat boiled and fried shrimp as long as a medium-sized carrot, lobsters, fried and steamed scallops and clams, oysters on the half-shell, fried oysters, Oysters Rockefeller, Oysters Bienville, lobster bisque, clam chowder, breads of all kinds, fresh fruits, salads, dressings, china plates, linen napkins, silverware, freshly prepared sauces and condiments, and loads of beverages. Chairs and tables were even brought in. Ed and the crew looked at all this and shook their heads at the excess that was being furnished for Jackie and his retinue.
When the food was all ready to eat, servers in white coats and hats were stationed at their places, and a line was beginning to form at the buffet, when The Great One walked out of his dressing room. The place fell silent.
Jackie looked them all over with a stern look on his face, and in his best Ralph Kramden impression, which was about the best that there was, yelled so everyone could hear, “If I won’t eat it, I don’t expect anyone to eat it. And when I eat, everyone eats. Everyone. All of you!!” He swept his hand towards the food. The gathered crowd erupted in applause as the show staff and crew looked around nervously, knowing that this didn’t apply to them.
But with that, Jackie’s aides-de-camp came and escorted every member of the harried staff and crew of the show, and everyone else they could find on the set, putting them in front of the receiving line. Work on the show came to a complete stop. Even Ed Sullivan joined in with a smile on his normally stiff face. Every single person on the set of the show sat down to of the fabulous food that Jackie had ordered in at his own expense. Jackie, himself, refused to be served until every single person on the set was served and seated: the staff, the set crew, the stage crew, the camera crew, the grips, the electricians, the audio people, the musicians, the dancers, literally a hundred or more people, right down to the building janitor. He greeted and shook hands with each staff and crew member, receiving them as they all passed in before him as his guests, proceeding on to enjoy the largesse of this noted big spender, The Great One.
For the next hour, Jackie ate, they all ate, and they all enjoyed listening to his stories, hanging on every word. The Great One had redeemed himself in their eyes as truly great. Jackie, the boy from the poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, had shared his bounty with everyone within his reach, including a star-struck remarkable young working man from Montgomery, Alabama, who had had the great fortune of meeting this great man on the set of a magic place. And if there ever was a magic place in the world of television, it was on the set of The Ed Sullivan Show, located in The CBS Theatre in downtown Manhattan.
When I first heard this, it brought a tear to my eye. It was what I expected of Jackie. It is what I expect of anyone truly great. The greatest one of them all served others, saying that what one has done for the least of them, one has done for God. While I am not comparing Jackie with the One who uttered the words above, I was thankful then, and still am thankful now, that I learned of the magnanimity of this man who was larger than life, the one who was as cool as Minnesota Fats, the man who lived The Life of Riley on TV, the one who was called The Great One.
Below is a YouTube video from a Sixty Minutes interview Jackie did with Morley Safer a few years prior to his passing. He may have passed into eternity, but he has not passed from our memory, neither he nor Ed…that other Great One. Jackie’s explanation of where the moniker “The Great One” came from is priceless.
Many of you will think that none of this matters or is no longer relevant to us in our modern awareness. History always matters, and the older I get, the more history I seem to know…the more history I seem to be interested in….the more history speaks to me. I suppose this is so because of the number of days that are behind me now are far greater than the number in front.
Welcome to the truth. If you don’t realize it yet, may you be so blessed as to live long enough to discover it for yourself.
Speaking of the truth…Ed’s story comes to me from my memory of his telling it several times. If you have heard it from his lips, you may think it has acquired some embellishments along the way. Well, why not? I just wish I could have been there, too.
By the way, the magic that is The CBS Theatre in downtown Manhattan was renamed The Ed Sullivan Theatre. David Letterman hosts his show there today. You remember it for many reasons, perhaps among them was your first glimpse of Elvis, or John, Paul, George, and Ringo.There’s some serious mojo in that place.
I’ll give you the Tallulah Bankhead story on another day.
Note: LIFE OF RILEY – William Bendix played Riley on radio and TV….so did Jackie Gleason, as early as 1949, which is early for TV. Go to YouTube and search “Life of Riley Jackie Gleason.” There are dozens of episodes for you to watch there.
©2015 Mississippi Chris Sharp