During the past week or so, I have been watching a number of skits from the Jackie Gleason Show with Joe the Bartender and Crazy Guggenheim in them. Not only have I laughed, but I cried a few times as I listened to Crazy sing after getting the best of Jackie Gleason in his comedy.
His humor is much like Foster Brooks, Arthur Houseman and Jack Norton, as a laid back drunk, telling stories and captivating audiences while they waited for his punch lines. Don't forget, this was before the days of filmed episodes and re-takes. Applause and laughter were the only ways he could tell if he was getting over with his routine. He had plenty of both.
Frank Fontaine was born on April 19, 1920 in Cambridge, Massachusetts and had a show business upbringing. His father Ray was a strong man with the circus, and his mom, Anna McCarthy, was a trapeze artist.
He got into Vaudeville and made a good living until he was called by Jack Benny to be on his radio program. During an episode which aired on April 16, 1950, Fontaine played a bum (named "John L. C. Silvoney") who asked Benny for a dime for a cup of coffee. The smallest coin Benny had to offer was a fifty-cent piece, so he gave it to him. The story Benny told about this event became a running gag during later shows. Fontaine's goofy laugh and other voice mannerisms made a hit with the audience, and Benny brought him back for several more radio shows between 1950 and 1952. He also later appeared in several of Benny's television shows.
On the Jackie Gleason show, he played the character of Crazy Guggenheim during Gleason's "Joe The Bartender" skits. His trademark was a bug-eyed grin, the same silly laugh he did on Jack Benny's radio show, and a surprisingly good voice when he sang songs. His singing was so good that, when he later released an album called "Songs I Sing On The Jackie Gleason Show," it went to number one on the Billboard Magazine Album Charts in 1962.
Normally, Gleason would open the skit with a pair of swinging doors with stained glass at the top opening to a singing Joe the Bartender, who would greet the never-seen "Mr. Dunnaghy." After pouring him a beer that he thrust his index finger into to stop the flow of foam, he would do a short skit using the American Scene Magazine and relating a joke from it. Then, the best part. Gleason would pause and say, "What's that, Mr. Dunnaghy? Oh, he's in the back, I'll call him out. Hey, Craz'!" And the applause would start again, even bigger.
He was funny. "Crazy" would shamble out and stumble over and, in the sweetest, happiest way, say, "Oh, hello, Joe. Hiya, Mr. Dunnaghy-hee-hee-hee-hee." The same every week, like everything else, and the same reactions: howls and applause.
Joe and Crazy would go into a few jokes in the timeless, vaudevillian structure that were used so well by Burns and Allen, among others, where one partner tries to get a logical response from the other, who is sweet and willing, but not that bright. A running gag with Crazy was when Joe asked him about his friend, "Flootchey Tooley." "Flootchey Tooley?!" Crazy would repeat exuberantly, and spit in Joe's eye doing it. Gleason would wipe the eye theatrically--never angrily, by the way--and the bit would continue.
That was the point in the sketch where Joe would say, "Hey, Craz', how about a song? Hey, Mr. Dunnaghy, put a dime in number fifteen, Joe would say. The orchestra would start, and, soon, the purest voice in the Universe would begin to take you into another world where everything around you would just stop, and you listened as Crazy Guggenheim went out of character and Frank Fontaine took over. He'd take his worn hat off, the brim turned up in front, place it gently on the bar, and his face would change completely, and, when he opened his mouth, you knew he was about to sing the most beautiful song you'd ever heard.
The song would end, his rich, sweet voice trailing off, and, as the applause thundered just warm applause. Fontaine would smile shyly, pick up the hat from the bar, dust it off once and shake hands with Gleason before going back into character.
Fontaine was involved heavily with the movie industry. Some of the films he was in during the 50's include Nancy Goes To Rio, Hit Parade of 1951, Here Comes the Groom and Call Me Mister.
His private life was filled with a lot of happiness and joy as he was the father of 11 children, all of whom made him very happy and proud. Frank Fontaine died in Spokane, Washington on August 4, 1978 at the tender age of 58 from a massive heart attack.
If remembered for nothing else, he will be trademarked as the character that kept the world laughing with his unique style of humor, but mostly for his singing voice that captivated audiences every week, almost to the point of crying.
If you would like to share some of my experience ... go to www.youtube.com and type in Crazy Guggenheim, and enjoy yourself as I have.
Percival A. Friend,
Comments to Percival can be made and a reply will be given if you include your addy in the E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
E-mail the site designer at email@example.com