Ninety-six years ago today, on Feb. 26, 1916, Herbert Walton Gleason, Jr. was born at 364 Chauncey Street in Brooklyn, New York. Not long after, he was baptized John Herbert Gleason, but for those of you old enough to remember him, you probably know him as Jackie Gleason, one of the funniest comedians of the 20th century.
Jackie had a tough childhood, which probably contributed to many of the characters he created throughout his years in vaudeville, TV and the movies. His brother, Clemence, died of spinal meningitis at age 14, and Jackie’s father left the family for good soon after. Jackie started hustling pool in the neighborhood and also put together skits to be performed in the local clubs. His mother died when Jackie was 19 and he was on his own for the rest of his life. He was soon on his way to stardom; both in the movies and on the stage. Until his own death in 1987, Gleason was always in the public limelight and played a number of memorable roles in some of the most famous movies of all time – such as The Hustler, with Paul Newman.
Of course, much of this happened before I ever knew who he was and although Gleason created a number of well know characters for his skits, such as the Poor Soul, Joe the Bartender and Reginald Van Gleason III, by far and away his most famous character was Ralph Kramden, a New York City bus driver. Eventually, the character was paired with a wife, Alice, and neighbors Ed Norton and his wife, Trixie. Throughout the years, the actresses playing the roles of the women changed, eventually culminating with Audrey Meadows, the most famous Alice, and Joyce Randolph in the role of Trixie – naming the program “The Honeymooners.”
This is probably more information than you need to know but The Honeymooners was one of the first programs that I remember watching. My Dad absolutely loved it. As I sit here writing this evening, I can picture my father howling at the antics of Ralph and his friend, Ed. The big idea each week was that there was always some get rich quick scheme that never worked out, of course. At the end of the program, Ralph and his wife Alice would kiss and make up; showing a real part of Gleason – that he had always hoped for the love of a committed and devoted wife.
My Dad was built like Jackie Gleason and I also remember that he would imitate him; except that Dad could never finish his impression without breaking into laughter. I loved to see my Dad laugh – it was infectious. And even today, people who remember my father still tell me that I laugh like he did – what a compliment. Dad would never miss the Honeymooners on TV and it was one of the programs that I was raised on. I saw a number of the episodes more than once, but it didn’t matter – they were still funny. And Art Carney, the actor who played Ed Norton, was the perfect foil for Gleason.
They were dear friends in real life as well as on the screen and Gleason always saved the introduction of Carney until last at the conclusion of each show. They were just priceless together; that’s all there is to it. And, not coincidentally, the show was “set” at 328 Chauncey Street in Brooklyn, where Jackie was raised, down the street from where he was born. But the greatest joy of all was the laughter my father generated every time that program came on the air.
Gleason, as a result of all the successes he had during his career, even started referring to himself as “The Great One” after Orson Welles bestowed the name upon him after a night on the town together. It stuck, and for the rest of his career, he loved being referred to as the “Great One.”
Now, you know where I’m going with this, I hope. Because there is a “Great One” even greater than Jackie Gleason – and that is God almighty. And I’m sure that Gleason had many encounters with Him throughout his life – seeing as how his mother was so devout and made sure that the young Jackie took the sacraments and attended mass frequently. But what Gleason’s beliefs were have never been publicly discussed since his death.
That shouldn’t stop us from discussing the God of the universe; the Creator of everything. Because, for those of us who believe in the power of the cross, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the awesome nature of God the Father, in addition to the presence of the Holy Spirit, there is nothing greater. The verse for this evening reflects the Scriptural affirmation of this point. In Psalm 95:3, we are told, “For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.”
My encouragement this evening is to let you know that we serve the greatest one of all – the eternal God. There is nothing that He can’t do – and that includes caring for the “Poor Souls”, the everyday working class men and women, as well as the Reginald Van Gleasons of the world. My prayer is that no matter where you personally fall in the scheme of things, you will run to the Father – the ultimate Great One when you have a need or a concern that you can lay at the foot of the cross.
So, for tonight, grace and peace, as we know that God is on the throne and we get to spend eternity with Him.