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Jewish World Review Sept. 1, 2000 / 1 Elul 5760

Greg Crosby

Greg Crosby
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Consumer Reports

In Honor of Those
Who Never Were -- JACKIE GLEASON was a talented actor and comic. They called him “The Greatest” and he certainly was one of the greatest entertainers of his era. He started in show business at the age of 15 performing in carnivals, nightclubs and burlesque. He was signed to a movie contract in 1940 and played a variety of character roles in mostly forgettable pictures before returning to New York and the Broadway stage.

Television made him a popular star, first in “The Life of Riley” (1949-50) then as host of “Cavalcade of Stars” (1950-52) and finally his own hour-long variety program, “The Jackie Gleason Show,” which ran in various forms for almost 20 years. But it was a fifteen minute sketch on that show (later to become half an hour) which would bring Gleason his most famous portrayal, that of Ralph Kramden, the long-suffering but lovable Manhattan bus driver in “The Honeymooners.”

Jackie Gleason was always one of my favorite comedians -- and he still is. Reruns of “The Honeymooners” continue to play all over the world and even though I know practically every episode by heart, it’s easy to get pulled into watching them whenever they’re on. Gleason was great as Ralph Kramden. As I said, Jackie Gleason was a talented actor and comic. He was also very much a real living and breathing person.

Ralph Kramden, on the other hand, is a fictional character -- a made up, non-existent person. Not real. Fabricated. Pretend. Once again, RALPH KRAMDEN IS NOT A REAL PERSON. Thank heavens I still have enough wits about me to discern between a real person and a fictional person on a television show. But why, you might ask, do I state the obvious? Well, because it seems that NOT ALL OF US are able to tell the difference between real human beings and fictional characters these days. Take New York City for example:

Recently an 8-foot bronze statue of Jackie Gleason’s bus driver character, Ralph Kramden, was unveiled in front of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. Wait. Let me repeat this a little louder in case some of you may have misunderstood: RALPH KRAMDEN, A PRETEND, FICTIONAL MAKE-BELIEVE BUS DRIVER CHARACTER FROM AN OLD TELEVISION SHOW, HAS BEEN HONORED WITH A STATUE OF HIS LIKENESS IN FRONT OF NEW YORK CITY’S PORT AUTHORITY BUS TERMINAL.

Not real people

Remember, this is not Jackie Gleason being honored, it is a pretend character that he played on TV. This would be like the teacher’s unions honoring Eve Arden’s “Our Miss Brooks” character. Or scientific organizations erecting a statue of Jerry Lewis’ “The Nutty Professor.” Maybe the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department should build a monument to Barney Fife?

How about the AMA coming out with a Marcus Welby, MD award or a statue commemorating Dr. Kildare? On the other hand, I think it would actually be inspirational for the American Bar Association to unveil a bronze of Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason character at their national headquarters. At least it might give those people something ethical to shoot for.

And speaking of positive role models, I guess Congress could do worse than erecting a statue of Jimmy Stewart’s character from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in the rotunda of the Capitol.

But getting back to Gleason, wouldn’t it be better to honor the real man then one of his characters? Wouldn’t it be better to place the bronze statue in front of the Museum of Radio and Television or in the lobby of the network that his show ran on? The irony is that Jackie Gleason (the real-live person) never won an Emmy in all those years on television -- even though others from his show did.

And as far as the New York Port Authority is concerned, c’mon you guys -- don’t you have a real living and breathing bus driver worthy of being honored with a statue? Think about it. Considering all the years that buses have been driven up and down those avenues and across those streets in New York City, I’ll bet you could come up with quite a few real-life heroes if you tried.

JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. You may contact him by clicking here.


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© 2000, Greg Crosby