It was a stunt designed to promote Jackie Gleason's new CBS television series and it certainly attracted a lot of attention.
"It" was The Great Gleason Express," an elaborate coast-to-coast train ride and a publicity stunt the likes of which you don't see anymore. Even in 1962 this stunt was unique.
I was working at the Akron Beacon Journal at the time, writing for the newspaper's new television magazine. Photographer Bill Samaras and I were assigned to do a story about Gleason.
We caught up with the train in Pittsburgh and what follows is a condensed version of the story I wrote:
|Jackie Gleason put himself in an awkward position last week (August 20-24). As his train — The Great Gleason Express — roared from the West Coast to New York to publicize the comedian's new TV show, Gleason attempted the impossible task of trying to live down a reputation and live up to it at the same time.
The train left Los Angeles on August 9 loaded with 40 cast members, a Dixieland band, writers and CBS publicity people. As soon as the express started moving, it became known for its "booze and broads."
GLEASON reportedly got madder and madder at this notoriety as the train went along ... to Phoenix, Colorado Springs, Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago.
He was so incensed at one point he kicked a reporter off the train because his articles emphasized drinking. By the time the train reached Pittsburgh on August 17, Gleason and the CBS publicity crew were spreading counter stories on the train's sobriety.
"Gleason hasn't had a drink in four days," said a network employee.
When The Great One — as Gleason calls himself — was introduced at a Pittsburgh luncheon, he wasted no time. "I'd like to clear up some misconceptions about my drinking ... "
However, moments later he played off that reputation as a heavy drinker. It helped him get laughs when the Pittsburgh Bartenders Association presented a membership card.
THEN THERE was the "broads" situation ...
The Gleason Express had as passengers five young women — average age 22 — who will be featured on the TV show. These women, along with Gleason's new co-star, Sue Ane Langdon, were shown off as much as possible during the nine-day trip. But Gleason tried to make it clear he was only the daddy type.
Someone in Pittsburgh asked the comedian what he likes most about girls. It was a harmless question from a woman reporter obviously looking seeking a female angle for her story. But Gleason used the question to launch a speech on how much he respects women, especially his daughters, Geraldine, 22, and Linda, 20.
"Whenever I look at them it takes away any bad thoughts I might have about girls."
Until then — in Pittsburgh, anyway — no one suggested Gleason ever had bad thoughts.
GLEASON'S television show, which starts September 29, comes at a time Gleason is one of the hottest movie actors in the country. It would be unusual if Gleason willingly decided to forgo a movie career for another crack at TV.
Everyone at CBS thought they had a great gimmick to announce Gleason's return to the network. The train cost somebody — CBS claims it was Gleason — $90,000 for the cross-country ride. And no one, especially Gleason, is hiding the fact the express was strictly for publicity. But everyone on the train has been disappointed with the kind of publicity that followed them.
"It got better after awhile," said Cliff Mandell of CBS, "but when we started the stories were strictly that booze and broads routine."
The train ride turned out to be an exhaustive experience. Members of the express were kept on the go each day from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. or later. Each city they visited had a tight schedule that included parades, receptions and interviews.
Gleason, because of his terrific performance as pool shark Minnesota Fats in "The Hustler," also spent a lot of time proving his skill against local pool sharks he faced at several stops.
IN PITTSBURGH he also was taken to Forbes Field where he was introduced prior to a Pirates-Philadelphia Phillies baseball game. He did some hitting against former big league hurler Virgil "Fire" Trucks, then took the mound to pitch to Smoky Burgess, who obliged Gleason by striking out.
Then it was back to the train for The Great One and all his little subordinates.
Gleason's show is officially titled "The American Scene Magazine." In addition to Langdon, the program will feature the five Glea Girls – Ann Warner, Sally Carter, Greta Randall, Darlene Enlow and Karen Flynn.
Gleason will bring back his popular characters — Reggie Van Gleason, Joe the Bartender, The Poor Soul and Ralph Kramden. Along with them will be Oklahoma Idaho, the saddest cowboy in the West.
Art Carney will be back with Gleason for at least five shows this season and June Taylor's 16 dancers will be regularly featured. CBS made an effort to sign Audrey Meadows for "The Honeymooners" sketches, but she was unavailable. She'll be replaced by Langdon, who's still considered an unknown despite several guest appearances on prime time TV shows last season.
AFTER THE TRAIN reached New York the Gleason gang was given a two-week vacation before starting work on the show. From Gleason on down, the riders agreed the train was — at best — a doubtful success.
"We created a sensation," said one crew member as he plopped into a chair to rest, "but there must have been an easier way."
Added Gleason, "I just hope the program is easier than the publicity campaign."
"I lost a pound a day while were on the trip," Gleason told reporters when he arrived in New York, the day after he left Pittsburgh. "That was an expensive diet."
POSTSCRIPT: "The American Scene Magazine," never a popular title, was better known as "The Jackie Gleason Show," which became its official title a couple of years later. The show left New York City for Miami Beach in 1964 and remained on the air until 1970.
Sue Ane Langdon, who spelled her middle name Ann for much of her career, didn't work out as Alice Kramden. She left the show after one season and eventually was replaced by Sheila MacRae who was a big hit when Gleason turned "The Honeymooners" skits into mini-musicals.
Frank Fontaine joined the show as Crazy Guggenheim and, like Jim Nabors did with Gomer Pyle, mixed his in-your-face comedy style with straight, old-fashioned singing, displaying a surprisingly good voice which Gleason used to good advantage.
I'm still uncertain about Karen Flynn, one of the Glea Girls who was aboard The Great Gleason Express. I do know that actress Ellen Burstyn, who for awhile would be a big, big movie star, was a Glea Girl at one time and for awhile went by the name of Keri Flynn.
Also not mentioned in my article was the Gleason TV series that preceded "The American Scene Magazine." I guess the press who met Gleason in Pittsburgh wanted to spare Gleason the embarrassment of discussing that program, one of the all-time bombs. In 1961 Gleason agreed to host a game show called "You're in the Picture," and it was put on the air without sufficient testing.
The game, such as it was, featured celebrity guests who stuck their heads through holes to become characters in what were supposed to be funny scenes that they couldn't see. The challenge: to identify the scene.
It turned out to be a game not worth playing, and it wasn't funny at all. It was so bad that Gleason abandoned it during the first telecast, returning a week later, by himself, to apologize for the fiasco. Thereafter he filled the timeslot with a one-on-one talk show. Guests included Bobby Darin, Jayne Mansfield and Art Carney. Meanwhile CBS wanted to re-tool the game show, but Gleason wanted no part of it. CBS pulled the plug on the talk show after two months.