GLEN RIDGE, NJ — Former Glen Ridge resident Dick Gersh, 88, still says so: After 55 years in show business, Jackie Gleason remains the most extraordinary person he has ever met. Even from the first.
It was 1952 and Gersh, by his own admission, had the top music publicity office in America. He knew that Gleason wanted to make a record but he also knew that no record company was interested: Gleason could not read music, play an instrument, and besides, he was a comic. This was before “The Honeymooners” sitcom which began in 1955. But in 1952, Gleason was on TV, honing what would become the classic program, in periodic sketches on another TV show, “The Cavalcade of Stars.”
Gersh knew what Gleason wanted to do because he commuted from New Jersey to his Manhattan office with Marvin Marx, one of Gleason’s writers. Marx told him that Gleason was extraordinary, a genius, that he could do anything and he wanted to make a record. Gersh figured that a guy who could do anything could also make records.
“So I told Marvin I thought I knew how to get Jackie a deal,” Gersh recalled in a booth at Holstein’s this past Sunday. “There was a fellow I knew named Bobby Brenner and he was very tight with Capitol Records and I thought I could get Jackie a deal.”
Marx set up a meeting with Gleason at Patsy’s, a Manhattan restaurant, and not Toots Shor’s Restaurant, where Gleason practically lived. Gleason wanted more privacy for this meeting.
“It was the first time I saw how extraordinary he was,” Gersh said. “After dinner, the waiter wanted to know what he wanted for dessert. And Jackie said, ‘Not yet; do it over.’”
And at this, Gersh pointed around the table as though to say, “For everyone.” Gleason had just order another round of everything for everybody.
“He was larger than life,” Gersh said. “Eating, drinking, women, and I represented a lot of people.”
Gleason listened to Gersh and hired him on the spot as his personal publicist.
The record was cut at Capitol Studios, not far from the Park Sheridan Hotel where Jackie Gleason Enterprises occupied the penthouse. Gleason employed 140 people.
“He picked out popular love songs,” Gersh said about that first recording. “It was called, ‘Music for Lovers Only.’ Think Mantovani. Lush music, real love songs. If you were thinking of seducing a girl, this would be the background.”
Gleason did not like what he heard.
“I thought it was lovely but he wanted to do it again,” Gersh said. “He had come up with this sound but it wasn’t exactly the sound he wanted.’
Gersh said Gleason was paying for everything and had already spent $10,000 on the record, a lot of money in 1952.
“I told him if you do it over again it will cost you more,” Gersh said. “He did it again for another $5,000. That album was the first of three million-copy sellers for him. He was incredible.”
Larger-than-life, Gleason also had three sets of wardrobe to match his weight at the time. One size fit him when he was 200 pounds; another when he was 240 pounds; and a third when he was 280.
“When he got to 280, his doctor would tell him he’d have to diet,” Gersh said.
Gleason would slim down at Doctor’s Hospital, where he had a suite.
“There were no hours, you could come and go,” Gersh said. “It was like a resort.”
According to Gersh, Gleason did not like it when his weight fell under 200. He would get grumpy and be convinced he was not funny anymore and started imagining he was sick.
“He was a pretty good hypochondriac,” Gersh said. “He was a voracious reader and read medical magazines and would argue with the doctors. But when he was under 200, he was the handsomest man I ever saw.”
And Gresh said Gleason needed people around him constantly.
“Half the time, he didn’t know the people he was picking up the tab for,” Gersh said. “He was very generous with people with hard-luck stories or if you had been nice to him and needed money. He was the original soft touch. He never forgot anyone who was nice to him. He called everyone ‘Pal ‘o mine.’”
Gersh will be at the Glen Ridge Public Library next Thursday evening, Sept. 22, to discuss a particular “Honeymooner” episode in which Gleason played a practical joke on him.
His co-star on “The Honeymooners,” Audrey Meadows, Gleason met at Toots Shor’s.
“She was tough,” Gersh said. “Most women would have made a play for Jackie but not her.”
Gersh said the people around Gleason did not think she was right for the part of Alice, the stoic wife of the blustering Ralph. They thought she was too pretty. But Gleason knew better and made the decision. He figured if Jackie Gleason did not impress her one bit, she could stand up to Ralph Kramden, too.