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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

June 24, 1987

Today's edition of the Tuesday Timeline will feature a spotlight on an actor who many remember from one show and one show only...but as you will see in this blog entry, he did so much more than that!

In the meantime, take a look at some of the other events that happened on June 24 throughout history.

637 - The largest battle in the history of Ireland - The Battle of Moira - is fought between the High King of Ireland and the Kings of Ulster and Dalraida

1374 - A sudden outbreak of St. John's Dance (dancing mania) causes people in the community of Aachen, Germany to experience hallucinations and dance and twitch uncontrollably to the point of collapsing on the streets from exhaustion

1497 - Explorer John Cabot lands in North America at Newfoundland leading the first European exploration of the region since the Vikings

1509 - Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon are crowned King and Queen of England

1604 - Explorer Samuel de Champlain discovers the mouth of the Saint John River - the present location of St. John, New Brunswick, Canada

1812 - Napoleon's army crosses the Neman River, which begins France's invasion of Russia

1846 - Adolphe Sax patents the saxophone in Paris, France

1880 - The first public performance of the Canadian national anthem, "O Canada" is held at the Congres national des Canadiens-Francais

1916 - Mary Pickford becomes the first female film star to sign a million dollar contract

1918 - Canada begins air mail service between Toronto and Montreal

1932 - The absolute power of King Prajadhipok of Siam (now Thailand) is ended following a bloodless Revolution instigated by the People's Party

1939 - Siam is officially renamed Thailand

1947 - A man by the name of Kenneth Arnold makes the first widely reported UFO sighting in the area of Rainier, Washington

1949 - The first western to air on network television "Hopalong Cassidy" makes its debut on NBC

1966 - Actress and director Adrienne Shelly (d. 1996) is born in Queens, New York

1981 - The Humber Bridge opens to traffic and becomes the world's longest single-span suspension bridge, holding that record until 1998

1982 - British Airways Flight 9 flies through a cloud of volcanic ash from the erupting Mount Galunggung which subsequently shuts down all four engines - all passengers survive

2005 - American actor and ventriloquist Paul Winchell dies at the age of 82

2007 - Canadian wrestler Chris Benoit is found dead in his hotel room, just two days after killing his wife and son

2010 - John Isner of the United States defeats Nicolas Mahut of France at Wimbledon in what is the longest match in professional tennis history

And while we're here, let's wish Al Molinaro, Billy Casper, Sam Jones, Terry Reilly, Michele Lee, Jeff Beck, Kathryn Lasky, Mick Fleetwood, Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Mercedes Lackey, Betsy Randle, Joe Penny, Terence "Astro" Wilson, Tom Lister Jr., Siedah Garrett, Curt Smith, Sherry Stringfield, Glenn Medeiros, Christopher Showerman, Mindy Kaling, Petra Nemcova, Minka Kelly, Kyle Searles, Solange Knowles, and Raven Goodwin a very happy birthday!

So, after all that, which year will we be going back to this week?

Well, we're going back in time 27 years to June 24, 1987.

So, what was happening in the world in June 1987?  Well, I graduated kindergarten, the movie "Spaceballs" debuted in theatres, and the #1 song of the day was "Head to Toe" by Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam.  Remember that one?

On a sad note, June 24, 1987 was the date in which a famous comedian and actor drew his last breath.  The cause of death was directly linked to cancer, and in the case of today's Tuesday Timeline subject, he was dealt a double whammy.  Ultimately, it was colon cancer that killed him, but he was also diagnosed with liver cancer and suffered from dangerous thrombosed hemorrhoids as a result.  Prior to his cancer diagnosis in 1986, this man also underwent emergency heart surgery in the late 1970s after undergoing severe chest pains on more than one occasion - likely brought about by the fact that he was addicted to cigarettes - smoking as much as four packs a day at the peak of his addiction.

He died peacefully in his Lauderhill, Florida home at the age of 71, and his body was entombed in a sarcophagus in a private mausoleum in Miami.  The engraving on the sarcophagus?  "And Away We Go".

Have you guessed our mystery celebrity yet?  

We've already talked about how Jackie Gleason died.  Now let's talk about how he lived.

Born in Brooklyn, New York on February 26, 1916, John Herbert Gleason was one of two children born to Maisie and Herb Gleason.  His brother Clemence passed away at the age of 14 from spinal meningitis, and his father abandoned the family when Jackie was still a child.  Gleason's love of acting was born after he appeared in a school play, and although Gleason never finished his secondary school education, he did land his first job when he was a teenager, working as a master of ceremonies at a nearby theater for four dollars a night.  He also took turns as a carnival barker and a stunt driver during this time.

By the time Gleason was nineteen, his mother had died, and he was left on his own with just forty cents in his pocket.  Despite this, Gleason was determined to make a success of himself.  Getting his first big break in Reading, Pennsylvania where he made $19 a day was the beginning of what would become a long standing career in stand-up comedy.

He eventually worked his way up to a job in New York's "Club 18", in which he used his ability to heckle and insult the people who came to see him perform to his advantage.  His style of comedy certainly got him noticed by Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, who signed him to a movie contract for $250 a week.  Some of the films he appeared in during this time were "Navy Blues", "All Through The Night", "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp", and "Springtime in the Rockies".

Though his career in Hollywood didn't get a whole lot of attention at first, he supplemented his income by performing a nightclub act where he performed comedy and music.  Interestingly enough, Gleason also gained a reputation for being an all-night partier.  Hotel suites would actually take the effort to soundproof his suite so that he wouldn't disturb the other guests on the floor!  I don't know why I felt the need to mention that little detail.  I suppose I just found it interesting.

Now, you might think that a show that he did in the 1950s was his big break (and we'll get to that in a moment), but in actuality his first break came in the year 1949 when the radio program "The Life of Riley" was going to transition into television.  The problem was that William Bendix, who played the role of aircraft worker Chester A. Riley on the radio show was unable to commit to the role due to prior commitments, so Jackie Gleason was given the role instead.  And for what it was worth, Jackie Gleason's performance did earn positive reviews, and the show was a modest success.  Sadly, that show was cancelled after one season, and when Bendix became available for filming again, the show was rebooted and ran for five more seasons.

But don't feel too bad for Gleason.  The best was still yet to come.

On October 1, 1955, Gleason, along with Art Carney, Audrey Meadows, and Joyce Randolph made up the cast of the CBS sitcom "The Honeymooners".  The program was actually based off of a sketch comedy piece that aired on DuMont's "Cavalcade of Stars" (which later became the variety show "The Jackie Gleason Show").  The success of the sketch prompted CBS to order a full season of thirty-nine episodes (yes, there was a time in which seasons were that long), and when it first debuted on television it was the #2 program in the nation.

And, why wouldn't it be?  The show was groundbreaking in the sense that it depicted two working-class married couples living in a Brooklyn apartment building that had seen better days.  Gleason played the role of bus driver Ralph Kramden, a man who is frustrated with being stuck in a job with no rewards and accolades, and who always dreamed of ways to get ahead...even if his plans didn't work.  He was so frustrated that he often took his frustrations out on his homemaker wife Alice (Meadows).  

Yeah, I don't know if any modern sitcoms these days would have men threatening to give them a punch in the kisser these days.  But we all know that Ralph would never abuse his wife in that manner.  Ralph and Alice were good for each other.  Besides, Audrey could hold her own with her sharp tongue and acerbic wit.  Have a look at this classic scene below.

Throw in Art Carney and Joyce Randolph as Ed and Trixie Norton and you had a cast that was worth watching.  I don't know of any other cast that had so much chemistry with each other (except for maybe "The Facts of Life", "Friends", or "Melrose Place").

TRIVIA:  Gleason and Carney were the only actors to play their characters on both "The Honeymooners" sketches and television shows.  The original Audrey and Trixie were played by Pert Kelton and Elaine Stritch respectively.

Here's the surprising part about "The Honeymooners".  It started off strong, and people enjoyed it.  The problem is that it aired opposite the ratings winner "The Perry Como Show" on NBC, and it slipped from #2 all the way down to #19 (which normally wouldn't be that bad except for the fact that there weren't nearly as many television programs on the air in 1955 as there are now).  The show was cancelled after nearly one year - its last episode airing on September 22, 1956.  But the good news is that the show helped Jackie Gleason's career big time.  And you can purchase the entire series of "The Honeymooners" on both Blu-Ray and DVD.

After "The Honeymooners" wrapped up, Jackie Gleason continued to balance comedy with music.  Over the course of his life, he released several mood albums despite the fact that he didn't know how to read or write music at all.  In fact, Gleason's debut album, "Music for Lovers Only" still holds the record for the longest time spent on the Billboard Top Ten charts - 153 weeks (that's nearly three years!), and his first ten albums all sold at least one million copies each!  That's not bad for someone who claimed to be completely illiterate in music!

And of course his television career didn't stop after "The Honeymooners" ended in 1956.  In fact, he was credited with saving a train wreck of a game show by dedicating the second episode to making an apology on the air over how horrible the show was!  I won't go into too much detail here, but if you Google the words "You're In The Picture 1961 Game Show", you can read the humourous story behind it!

He also resurrected both "The Honeymooners" and his variety show in the 1960s (Trixie and Alice were recast as by that time the shows were filmed in Miami Beach, Florida), and for audiences it was the first time that they would see Jackie Gleason in color television.  He also had a contract with CBS until the early 1970s when Gleason's contract expired. 

And, here's one final piece of trivia to wrap up this blog entry on Jackie Gleason.  Did you know that Gleason had a photographic memory?  He absolutely hated doing rehearsals for any of his television projects, so what he would do was read the script once, watch his stand-in interact with the other co-stars in the scene, and shot the show later that day.  If he made mistakes during taping, he just blamed the cue cards.  Still, you have to admire true talent like that.

Talent which will forever be immortalized.  Sometimes it doesn't even seem like it's been twenty-seven years since Jackie Gleason died, as he has been the source of inspiration for many up and coming actors and comedians, and will likely continue to be an inspiration for decades to come. 

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