328 Chauncey Street, in Brooklyn NY is what I remember most about Jackie Gleason’s character, Ralph Kramden in “The Honeymooners.” You see, that building and street does exist in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, NY, where Jackie grew up and where I was born. I didn’t live in the same building, but born and lived for a few years in the Bushwick area. So I’ve always felt an affinity with Ralph because of this. I have the DVD collection of all 39 episodes of “The Honeymooners”, and another set of the lost episodes of “The Honeymooners,” and I’ve watched them over and over again. And each time I watch them I laugh till my belly aches! It’s a New York thing. New Yorkers love the “The Honeymooners!”
Jackie Gleason patterned the Kramden apartment after the one he lived in with his mom at 328 Chauncey street. The building, like in the series, Gleason said, “… was dull. The bulbs weren’t very bright. The surroundings were very bare.” If you asked anyone who knew Jackie, about him, they’d all say the same, he was “hilarious and had a heart as big as a house.” He was known to be generous, giving, and helpful, but his greatest gift was laughter. And if you are a fan, you know exactly what I mean. His true self came out in the character of Ralph Kramden, and he even said that. Ralph, although big, loud, and imposing, had a soft spot. The soft spot totally overpowered anything negative about Ralph. And maybe that’s why Ralph’s character was Gleason’s most loved one. He said of the character, “The poor soul hasn’t got a hell of a lot of ability. But he keeps trying. He gets schemes to make he and Alice happy. He fails. When he fails he feels a great deal of affection toward her and she knows why he did it. And he apologizes all the time. He’s just an ordinary guy who is trying to make it and can’t do it.”
For a guy who made everyone laugh, he had a hard life, and offers valuable lessons we can learn from. Growing up in Brooklyn’s Bushwick area, I’m sure, was no paradise. He lost his older brother when he was 3, his father skipped town when he was nine, and he was raised by an overprotective mother. The loss of his father haunted him the rest of his days, and often he wondered if his dad was part of the audience which watched him. He once said: “I would always wonder whether the old man was somewhere out there in the audience, perhaps a few seats away. I guess I always kind of expected him to appear backstage suddenly, saying ‘Hi, I’m your old man.’ Then one day, I realized that wherever he was, it would be easy for him to contact me–if he really wanted to.” He adored his mom, but because she was afraid to lose him, she overly protected him. He wasn’t allowed to go out and play with the kids. He didn’t even start school until he turned 8. He once said, that he got the “poor soul” look from the days he’d pressed his face against the window watching the kids play outside.
Eventually his mom loosened up a bit and at the age of 12 Gleason landed a job racking up balls for a local pool hall. And we know how he used this experience in movies like, his Oscar nominated role in “The Hustler” (1961) & The Sting II (1982). I have you know that most actors will use stunt doubles for pool playing shots, but Gleason did not. So, how did he enter show business? In a 60 Minute interview he said, “I was in a grammar school graduation play and I got a laugh. That laugh was the greatest thing that happened to me. And if you can go out in front of an audience and do things that make them happy and make them laugh, there’s no greater thrill. The instant critique of laughter and when you achieve it—it’s wonderful.” What a guy, huh? At 19, his mom died, and Gleason had 32 cents to his name. He said, “I knew no fear. I was stupid, brash, arrogant and broke.” I think we can all say the same for ourselves when were 19! He took the subway to Times Square and the angels of fame kissed his brow.
Not all in Gleason’s life was “peachy cream.” We all know he had alcohol issues, but he denied ever drinking on the set. His appetite for food is said to have been due to childhood deprivation. He married three times, and by-the-way, his grandson is actor, and hottie, Jason Patic. His third time at marriage with Marilyn Taylor is said to have been his happiest. Marilyn and he married in 1972 and she was by his side when he died in 1987.
We can say that Gleason modeled a lot of his well known characters after himself. Reginald Van Gleason, big drinker and extravagant spender that Gleason was known to be and Ralph Kramden the hustler always trying to make the big time. But it’s all good because it seems to me, that Gleason fulfilled his mission on earth, he made us all laugh. Thank you Jackie, Ralph, and Reginald! “Baby you’re the greatest!”