Monday, June 2, 2008

Jackie Gleason: From Brooklyn pool hustler to Florida playboy

Jackie Gleason's journey from Brooklyn street kid to national TV star, Florida playboy, and golf partner to presidents seemed unlikely indeed. Gleason's resume--sixth grade dropout, pool hustler, carnival barker--hardly seemed the career fast-track.

In the mid-1930s Gleason began working East Coast nightclubs as a stand-up comic and found his niche. Discovered by Hollywood tycoon Jack Warner, Gleason was soon appearing in movie bit parts, and by the late-1940s on that new-fangled picture box called television.

No entertainer ever seized a TV audience like Jackie Gleason. The success of his 1955-56 sitcom The Honeymooners established Gleason as the medium's top comedian, worthy of his moniker "The Great One." And no entertainer ever lived larger or partied harder; Gleason's all-night antics at Toots Shor's famous New York saloon became legendary.

In 1962 Gleason premiered a Saturday night variety show on ABC, shot in New York, called American Scene Magazine. It was a ratings hit.

Then a Miami Beach public relations executive read a gossip column in which Gleason professed his new-found love of golf. He contacted Jackie: Why not move your show to Miami Beach, he asked, where you can golf year-round?

To sweeten the deal, Gleason was offered a magnificent home on a fairway at the Miami Beach Country Club, a state-of-the-art broadcast theater, and a golf cart shaped like a mini-Rolls-Royce, customized to accommodate Jackie's lifestyle: radio, TV, turn signals, and a fully-stocked liquor cabinet.

Gleason agreed to broadcast American Scene for the 1964 season at a weekly salary of $205,000. Jackie made the New York-to-Florida trip, accompanied by an entourage of 45, on his 85-foot private train car dubbed "The Gleason Express." It was a 2,000-mile non-stop party. (Today, Gleason's private train car is on display at Nashville's Tennessee Central Railway Museum. The car features an elegant dining room with service for 20, a richly-paneled lounge, fully-equipped kitchen, extra-large bedroom for Jackie, and crew quarters).

When Gleason and friends disembarked in Ft. Lauderdale, one journalist described the scene as, "the biggest thing to hit Florida since the land boom."

From 1964 to 1966, American Scene Magazine was TV's only national program broadcast from Florida. The format each week:

Opening shot: Crashing waves, pristine beaches, azure skies.

Voice-over: "From the sun and fun capital of the world..."

Enter: Gleason, a gorgeous babe on each arm, declaring, "How swe-e-et it is..."

Then: Gleason's monolgue, ending with "...and away-y-y we go!" followed by crazily ad-libbed dance steps.

Enter: The June Taylor Dancers, whose synchonized steps were shot by an overhead camera.

Then: Comedy sketches featuring the Poor Soul, Reggie Van Gleason III, Joe the Bartender, and show-stopping baritone Frank Fontaine, who would appear as a punch-drunk named Crazy Guggenheim. After his Guggenheim act, Fontaine would break into song...and bring down the house.

Finally: Gleason would reappear on stage to thunderous applause and proclaim: "Miami Beach audiences are the best in the world!"

To the luckless folks living up north, American Scene was like a living, breathing, dancing postcard from paradise. In Gleason's Florida it appeared everyone was having a ball.

How many northerners vacationed--or picked up and moved--to the Sunshine State due to the allure of Gleason's world? Impossible to know, but it is safe to say Florida never had a more potent Ambassador of the Good Life.

American Scene Magazine was cancelled in 1970 while still top-rated; ABC execs declared Gleason "skewed to an older demographic."

It would be the last regular TV show for the Great One. Instead, Gleason played golf nearly every day, soaked up the Florida sun, and made a string of bad movies. From 1972 to 1980 he hosted a PGA golf tournament in Lauderhill. By the mid-1980s, Jackie's health began to fade. Despite doctors' orders, Gleason continued to smoke six packs a day, and to drink heavily.

He died in Ft. Lauderdale on June 24, 1987, and was laid to rest at Miami's Our Lady of Mercy Cemetary. The gravesite features a reproduction of a four-columned Roman temple. There are four steps leading to the gazebo. Engraved on the last step are the words:

"And away we go!"

In death as in life, the Great One knew how to leave 'em laughing.

--Ken Brooks, Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 20

The Inverrary Classic, 1972-80: the Great One plays host to PGA stars

Following ABC-TV's cancellation of American Scene Magazine in 1971, Jackie Gleason retreated into semi-retirement. There were offers from other networks, but Gleason--ex-pool hustler from the streets of Brooklyn--was living the Florida Dream. "Look at that beautiful golf course and blue sky," he told reporters. "Why would anyone work with a life like mine?"

Gleason was soon approached by the Broward County developers of Lauderhill, a ready-made community of towering palms, majestic waterfalls, and shimmering waterways. Trouble was, less than 100 homesites had been sold. Developers asked Gleason to lend his name to a PGA golf tournament, to be held at Lauderhill's posh Inverrary Country Club. Gleason agreed, and from 1972 to 1980 the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic was a regular stop on the PGA tour.

Not coincidentally, Lauderhill's population swelled by 30,000 between 1970 and 1980. In appreciation, developers presented The Great One with a gift: a 14-room mansion along an Inverrary fairway, tweaked to Gleason's specifications. The home featured a billiard room designed by champion pool shooter Willie Mosconi, and a circular saloon, a replica of the bar at Toots Shors. Gleason even designed bar stools with high arm rests. "They're impossible to fall off," he boasted, "no matter how sloshed you get."

For nine years, the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic attracted golf's biggest stars. Past winners included Tom Weiskopf, Johnny Miller, Lee Trevino, and--most famously--Jack Nicklaus, who in 1978 birdied the final five holes to win by a stroke.

Each year Jackie's tournament featured a pro-am event, played the day before the actual competition, in which A-list celebrities and well-heeled industrialists played alongside their PGA heroes.

The 1974 pro-am even attracted President Richard Nixon. Gleason and Nixon addressed the spectators before the event.

Nixon: "I'm delighted to be here. I understand you don't start playing until Thursday, except for the celebrities. Do you call that playing?"

Gleason: "Only when the girls are here."

Nixon: "I know it will be a very safe tournament this year because I've ordered the Vice President to remain in Washington."

Nixon was referring to Spiro Agnew, his veep who--in 1971 during a pro-am in California--beaned PGA pro Doug Saunders with an errant shot.

The dour, humorless Richard Nixon--cracking wise? Proof positive Gleason could make anyone shine.

During the pro-am that year Gleason was paired with Bob Hope (known as Hollywood's most accomplished golfer) and PGA pro Lee Trevino. Gleason and Hope were playing for $25,000 which the winner would donate to the charity of his choice.

Over 40,000 spectators jammed the fairways. "It was a bigger crowd," Trevino observed, "than I ever saw at a U.S. Open." The gallery sensed there was more than money at stake; this was a showdown for Hollywood bragging rights.

Gleason and Hope were tied as they played the final hole. Gleason hit his second shot on the par four into a greenside bunker, while Hope's approach found the front of the green. Jackie, always the athlete despite his enormous girth, blasted out of the trap to five feet. When Hope three-putted and Gleason sank his putt for par and the win, the Great One couldn't resist. He pulled his ball out of the cup, broke into his famous Gleason shuffle, and sang out: "...and away-y-y-y we go!"

The crowd went wild.

Gleason stepped down as host following the 1980 event after a dispute with sponsors. Today the event is known as the Honda Classic, and has been won in recent years by PGA stars Fred Couples, Nick Price, and Vijay Singh.

No matter who wins each year's tournament, however, Jackie Gleason will forever be remembered as the biggest name associated with the event...
literally and figuratively!

--Ken Brooks, Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 20

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Jack and family move to Florida: Golf's greatest becomes a transplanted Floridian

If ever there was a golfer associated with his homestate, it was Jack Nicklaus and Ohio. Jack was born a third-generation resident of Columbus, where both dad and granddad earned reputations as standout local athletes. Young Jack quickly made a name for himself on the state's amateur golf circuit.

When he turned professional in 1960, Jack was every bit the Midwestern Boy Next Door--assuming the boy next door could drive a golf ball 335 yards down the middle of a fairway.

By 1964 Nicklaus was already a 14-time winner on Tour. That year he and bride Barbara built a 9,000 square-foot home outside Columbus--"believing," as Jack would recall later, "that we would never permanently leave Ohio."

But earning a living on the PGA Tour necessitated more golfer-friendly climes, so the Nicklaus' purchased a ranch-style home in North Palm Beach where Jack could hone his skills.

"I (fell) totally in love with the easygoing Florida lifestyle," Nicklaus told a biographer. "Outdoors most of the daylight hours, rarely needing to dress in more than shorts and golf shirt...and none of the pressures (of) big cities." When first-born son Jackie entered kindergarden in 1966, the Nicklaus' decided to move to Florida for good.

In 1970, a season in which Nicklaus recorded five tournament wins including the British Open, the family moved into their present home overlooking Lake Worth at Lost Tree Village.

These days Nicklaus, 67, is retired from competitive golf. Mostly he runs Nicklaus Design, his flourishing course architect business in North Palm Beach. The firm has designed over 250 courses in 27 countries and 36 states--including 27 courses in Florida alone.

In a career spanning five decades and 73 Tour wins, Jack transformed himself from a top amateur to golf's greatest player. Along the way, another transformation occured as well: from Midwestern Buckeye to unabashed Floridaphile.


Jack Nicklaus' victories in Florida:

PGA Championship at Palm Beach Gardens
Walt Disney World Open at Lake Buena Vista
MiamiDoral Open at Walt Disney World Open at Lake Buena Vista
Walt Disney World Open at Lake Buena Vista
Doral Open at Miami
Players Championship at Lauderhill
Gleason Inverarry Classic at Lauderhill
Gleason Inverarry Classic at Lauderhill
Players Championship at Ponte Vedra
Team Championship (with Johnny Miller) at Boca Raton
PGA Senior Championship at Palm Beach Gardens
Suncoast Senior Classic at Lutz

--Ken Brooks, Yesterday in Florida, Issue18

The education of a funnyman: Oliver Hardy in Jacksonville

Hollywood's comedy team of Laurel and Hardy never had a more devout fan than my father. Whenever one of their 106 shorts or 23 feature films turned up on TV--which was often during the 1950s--my Dad would park himself in front of the TV.

Me--I preferred the Three Stooges.

Only later in life did I come to appreciate the artistry of Oliver Hardy. Sure, Stan Laurel was the slim, slapstick funnyman of the duo. It's just that I preferred the other guy. To this day I'm convinced nobody in the history of comedy performed funnier "takes" than the slow-burning, long-suffering Hardy.

And only later in life did I come to learn that Oliver Hardy's show business roots dug deep into Florida's sandy soil.

He was born Norville Hardy in Harlem, Georgia, on January 18, 1892. Young Norville expressed no interest in school. It was the silent films that he loved, and as a teen he secured a job as a handyman in a Millegeville, Georgia theater.

In 1913 a friend returned from a Florida vacation with news of a film studio opening in Jacksonville, barely 200 miles away. Hardy quit his job and moved south.

In Jacksonville Hardy's rich baritone earned him a job at the Orpheum Theater, where nightly he sang and told jokes for $40 a week. By day Hardy volunteered to run errands at the Lubin Film Studio, located in the old Jacksonville Yacht Club building. Within weeks Hardy was appearing in bit parts. Four months later, in August 1914, he received star billing (as "Babe" Hardy) in Back to the Farm.

The nickname, which Hardy would keep the rest of his life, was acquired at a barbershop next door to Lubin's, where the Italian proprietor greeted the hefty Hardy each morning with: "You-a nice-a babe-e-e."

Hardy filmed dozens of ten-minute comedies--known as "shorts"--for Lubin, but the firm went belly-up in August 1915. Hardy and his new bride (the Orpheum's piano player) performed instead at Jacksonville's posh Burbidge Hotel, where Babe earned a reputation as city's most popular entertainer. Hardy, his wife, and their pet monkey--also named Babe--moved into a suite at the Atlantic Hotel and acclimated themselves to life in Jacksonville. Babe even joined the local Masons.

In 1916 Lubin was purchased by the Vim Comedy Company, and over the next two years Babe appeared in 50 Vim shorts. Here Hardy honed the comedic techniques that would define his career: the fuss-budget tie-twiddling, the exaggerated double-takes, the exasperated stare into the camera lens.

One afternoon in the Vim offices Hardy happened upon a sheet of paper he was definitely not supposed to see. It was a ledger listing salaries of Vim's various actors. One problem: the ledger indicated Babe was making much more than he actually received. Where, he wondered, was the extra money going? The Jacksonville Times Union reported that "company auditors" were investigating "a large shortage of company money." When it was revealed that an unscrupulous partner was skimming funds, Vim Comedy Company tumbled into financial turmoil.

Vim folded in the spring of 1917 and reformed as King Bee Films, but the episode finished Jacksonville's silent-film industry. By the end of the year King Bee had moved to New Jersey. Most of the old Vim players--Babe Hardy included--migrated west, to Hollywood, where it was rumored there was money and fame to be had. A year later, Babe--now billed as Oliver Hardy--teamed with a skinny funnyman named Stan and the chemistry clicked.

Their artistry endured. Nearly a century has passed since they first appeared together: the overweight fussbudget, master of the comedic "take," and his undersized head-scratching dumbbell companion.

Sure enough, Oliver Hardy ended his career firmly entrenched in the Hollywood firmament. But his roots ran pure southern.

--Ken Brooks, Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 20

A symbol of the Old South, gone in a flash

Exactly fifty years, from dust to ashes.

The history of Panama City's Cove Hotel--from the pouring of its foundation in January 1926, to the fire that claimed its life on January 2, 1976--unfolded with tidy symmetry.

The hotel, located on Cherry Street in the heart of a sleepy, leafy area still known locally as "the Cove," had been Panama City's first great first-rate hostelry.

Fifty rooms--each with private bath, a rarity then--stretched along a quarter-mile of pristine bayfront. The interior--hardwood floors, deep-cushioned upholstery, and priceless antiques--was a collector's vision. Manicured grounds offered walkways, gardens and wading pools. Dinners were to die for: the first chef, in fact, was a Swiss native who had worked many of the great hotels of Europe.

Over the years, proprietor Ruby Harris played host to a bevy of celebrities. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor once stopped for dinner, en route to a fishing trip on the Dead Lakes. Movie star Clark Gable and baseball's Ted Williams were guests. In the early 1950s, presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson gave a campaign speech on the hotel lawn. Even the Three Stooges spent the night.

During World War II, Mrs. Harris threw lavish parties in the dining room each time a ship was launched from Wainwright Shipyard: 99 ships, 99 parties. "The champagne flowed like water," Harris was quoted as saying.

In later years, the plantation-like grounds were the scene of countless Bay County weddings and receptions.

In 1974, however, Harris closed the Cove Hotel for good, then auctioned most of her precious furnishings. By the time of the fire, the once grand structure was vacant.

At least, it was supposed to be.

"There were constantly transients going in and out, looking for a place to spend the night," recalls Jack Alexander, 74, who was Panama City Fire Marshall in 1976. Indeed, investigators discovered liquor bottles and remnants of a small fire in the basement, indicating the inferno's origin.

Fifty years, dust to ashes.

It could be argued that the flames that January night, now a quarter-century distant, claimed not just the Cove Hotel, but one of Florida's last remaining symbols of the Old South as well.

--Ken Brooks, Panama City News Herald, Jan.1, 2001

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Panhandle ner'do'well transforms the American legal system

To understand the importance of Gideon vs Wainwright--the landmark case guaranteeing legal representation for all Americans, no matter how poor--you must travel back in time to June 1961, to a typically sultry evening in the Florida Panhandle.

The Bay Harbor Pool Hall and Bar was a popular hang-out in eastern Bay County, and Clarence Gideon, 51, a local ner'do'well and petty thief, was a regular patron. On the evening in question, a case of beer, four fifths of wine, and a handful of quarters turned up missing from the bar. Later that night Panama City police questioned Gideon at a local motel and found $25 in change stuffed in his pockets.

Gideon was promptly arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years in the state prison at Raiford--all without benefit of attorney. (Typically, indigent defendants were provided legal council only in capital cases and special circumstances).

From his prison cell, the eighth-grade drop-out wrote a letter, in pencil on jail stationary, petitioning the United States Supreme Court to grant him a new trial. The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution, Gideon argued, granted all citizens accused of a crime the right to an attorney.

The Supreme Court concurred and returned Gideon to Bay County for re-trial. "Someone--another inmate, I think--mentioned my name to Gideon," retired attorney Fred Turner said, "and he asked me to represent him."

At the retrial, held in 1963 at the Bay County Courthouse, Turner picked apart the state's case: "How could he have stolen a case of beer?" he asked. "No one saw him with any beer. And wouldn't Gideon, a penny-ante gambler, be expected to have a pocketfull of loose change?"

The jury acquitted Clarence Gideon.

Reverberations of Gideon vs Wainwright are felt every day, in every courthouse in America. The case ensured that every defendant would be represented in court by an attorney, and created public defender's offices to handle cases involving defendants too poor to afford an attorney. Gideon vs Wainwright, wrote Robert Kennedy, "changed the course of American legal history."

The case even inspired a best-seller: Gideon's Trumpet by New York Times reporter Anthony Lewis. In 1980, the movie version of Gideon's Trumpet was filmed (largely at the Bay County courthouse) and starred Henry Fonda as Gideon.

The real Clarence Gideon managed to stay out of trouble the rest of his life and died in Ft. Lauderdale in 1972. "He never realized," Turner said, "the importance of his case."

Unquestionably Gideon vs Wainwright made a local legend out of Fred Turner, who was born and raised in the same area of eastern Bay County where the Gideon drama played out in 1961.

Born in Millville--at the time, a tiny impovershed community outside Panama City--in 1922, Turner, the son of a carpenter, joined the Air Force after graduating from high school. In 1945 he entered the University of Florida, where he served as student body president before graduating in three years--with a law degree, yet. Turner returned to his hometown and practiced law until his election in 1979 as circuit judge. He retired in 1991, and was, I'm proud to say, a frequent golf partner of this reporter.

Once, the Judge and I were at Nature Walk golf course in Lynn Haven, just outside Panama City. On the par three seventh hole Fred mis-hit his tee shot, the ball never rising more than a foot off the ground--the dreaded "skull shot," in golf-lingo. The ball bounced five or six times before rolling onto the green and into the cup for a hole-in-one. No one has ever taken more ribbing, or laughed harder, than the Judge himself. We got back to the clubhouse and Fred bought drinks for everyone in the place, adding this toast: "May I live to 100 and be shot to death by a jealous husband."

Fred Turner didn't make it to 100; he died in November 2003 of heart failure at the age of 81, and his obit made no mention of a spurned spouse.

Three months before his death, Turner was the featured honoree at ceremonies held at the Bay County courthouse, where a plaque was unveiled commorating the 40th anniversary of Gideon vs Wainwright, and the momumental contribution to American jurisprudence made by one local ner'do'well and his small-town attorney

--Ken Brooks
Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 14

The murderous reign of the notorious Ashley Gang

The American Mid-West had its John Dillinger. The Dustbowl had its Pretty Boy Floyd. The Southwest boasted Bonnie and Clyde.

Americans have always loved their anti-heroes, those swashbuckling gun-toters who rob from the rich and give to...well, themselves, mostly.

For 13 years, from 1911 to 1924, Florida had its own brand of daring banditos: the dreaded Ashley Gang. Under the leadership of
dapper John Ashley, the group burgled banks, terrorized trains, and plundered post offices.

The gang's exploits fascinated Floridians. The Miami Herald, in particular, fed the public's thirst, dubbing John the "Swamp Bandit," and reporting each crime in lurid detail.

The gang met its grisly demise one evening in the winter of '24, cut down by gunfire while attempting to escape Broward County. But by then the Ashley Gang had long since passed into legend.

The Ashleys were originally a family of trappers, traders, and moonshiners from Georgia. In the summer of 1911, nineteen-year-old John--a handsome devil, everyone agreed, and already a crack shot--arrived in the Everglades in search of otters and raccoons.

One day, John spied a Seminole Indian loading otter pelts into a canoe. He shot the Indian dead and stole his pelts. John was arrested, but fled the state following a mistrial. He returned a year later with his gang: father Joe, nephew Hanford Mosley, army-deserter Ray Lynn, and friend Kid Lowe.

The crew began a spree of larceny unprecedented in Florida history.
They robbed banks in Miami, Pompano Beach, Ft. Pierce, Cutler Ridge, Stuart...a total of 40 banks from which they netted over $1 million. Between bank heists they stole cars and raided post offices and passenger trains with seeming impunity.

Once, John and Hanford stole a skiff, sailed to Grand Bahamas Island, and returned with $65,000 before the island's liquor-brokers even knew they'd been robbed.

During a bank job in Stuart, Kid Lowe, disguised as a woman, accidentally shot John in the face. At the next robbery, John was seen sporting a mismatched glass eye, leaving him with one blue and one brown eye.

In February 1924, Palm Beach County Sheriff Bobby Baker and his men surrounded the gang's camp and opened fire. The Ashleys blasted back. Two bodies hit the ground, blood seeping into the moist boggy earth. Patriarch Joe Ashley lay dead. But so too did Frank Baker, Bobby's brother. The rest of the Ashleys escaped into the Everglades' primordial blackness. They lay low and hatched plans to flee the area by year's end.

In the fall of 1924, the gang--using a stolen taxicab as a getaway car--relieved the Bank of Pompano of $23,000. Before leaving, John handed the cashier a bullet. "Give this to your sheriff," Ashley said. "Tell him if he comes after me, I've got another one just like it waiting for him."

To local lawmen, the threat was a personal affront. Sheriff J.R. Merritt of St. Lucie County and Bobby Baker hunted the Ashleys with the fervor of Indian trackers. Once, Sheriff Baker trailed the gang into a dense veil of woods, only to find a note nailed to a tree. It read: "You passed 30 feet from me. I could have killed you. Stay out of these woods." It was from John.

On a chill November eve in 1924, the Ashley Gang began their escape, creeping panther-like along a wooden bridge spanning the Sebastian River, on their way to Jacksonville.

On the other side of the bridge lay Sheriff Merritt and his men, tipped off to the gang's presence by John's jilted girlfriend. What happened next is the subject of debate among historians, even after 80 years. Witnesses claim Ashley and his men held their hands aloft in an effort to surrender and spare their lives. Deputies claim John pulled a gun from beneath his vest.

This much, however, is certain: When Sheriff Merritt returned to Ft. Pierce that evening, he delivered four bullet-battered bodies to the local morgue. Within days a coroner's inquest delivered a verdict of justifiable homocide.

At long last the Ashleys, scourge of the Everglades, were no more.


Ashley Gang trivia...
--John girlfriend, Laura Upgrove kept a .38 revolver strapped to her hip and was known as the "Queen of the Everglades."
--John Ashley was 35 years old when he died. Lynn and Lowe were 25. Mobley was 19.
--In the early 1920s the Ashleys robbed a bank at 61 Osceola Street in Stuart, Florida...twice. Today the building houses the Ashley Restaurant, where visitors can read old newpaper clippings describing the robberies. An Ashleyburger sells for $8.95.

--Ken Brooks
Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 14