Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Fat Man Dances

When I was a kid, my grandfather and I used to watch Jackie Gleason every Saturday night. Even though the Honeymooners had become pretty bad by then (no Audrey Meadows), we loved Joe the Bartender, with Frank Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim, a character that would be impossible to feature on TV today: a mentally retarded drunk with an quasi- autistic compensity for singing maudlin Irish ballads. Ah, the good old days!

Looking back, however, the most amazing aspect of that show was when Jackie Gleason danced. The graceful fat man is an old cliche, but it shouldn't be. There are very few fat men who are genuinely graceful. Sure, they have economy of movement and all that other crap, but when you get right down to it, it's pretty rare that a fat man can really dance.

All this makes Gleason's dance all the more remarkable.

Okay, so it's the same dance every time, usually performed by Reginald Van Gleason, the mustachioed playboy character, joined in this clip by beautiful Audrey Meadows as a hottie vamp. For those who have only seen Meadows as Alice Kramden, this may come as a surprise. The dance begins at 3:10:

Sometimes Ralph Kramden does the dance (here begun by the incomparable Art Carney at 1:24):

People born before 1960 may recognize Gleason's dance as the prototype of the "Hippie Dance" usually performed at Grateful Dead shows. Of course, THAT dance is as obnoxious as the Dead's music was, whereas Gleason's dance is sublime.

Gleason was justifiably proud of his dance. By the 1956, he claimed he had been doing it for twenty years. He never did fully complete the ending somersault, at least not to my knowledge, but he never stopped attempting it, until, of course, he got too old.

Music and dance were very important to Jackie Gleason He married Marilyn Taylor, his choreographer June Taylor's sister, late in life after a tumultuous first marriage to a dancer that ended in 1971, and a brief second marriage that ended in 1974, and, from all accounts, they lived as happily ever after as anyone one could with an egomaniac like Gleason.

For myself and my grandfather, an appreciation of Gleason's dance was one of the many things we shared: the essential ballet of life for the fat man. Here he does a soft shoe that ends with his partial somersault, beginning at 3:25:

A little traveling music, Ray! And awaaaay we go!