Sometimes, you read stories that answer questions.
Sometimes, you read stories that make you want to ask questions.
And now, I have questions about the Tulsa sliver of Jackie Gleason’s history.
Gleason, who died in 1987, was a comedian, actor and music artist best known for his work in “The Honeymooners,” “The Jackie Gleason Show,” “The Hustler” and “Smokey and the Bandit.”
Gleason was called “The Great One,” a nickname given to him by Orson Welles after a night of excess. Gleason also was called fearful of flying, and that’s how Tulsa figures into his story.
On Gleason’s Wikipedia page, there’s a link to a syndicated newspaper column published on the last day of 1976.
The column delves into Gleason’s fear of flying, and it cites a plane ride in which the actor was bound for New York. Two of the plane’s engines died in the vicinity of Tulsa. No big deal?
The airplane’s captain announced that, after landing, buses would transport passengers to the “main airport” where another plane would be waiting.
If the second plane had to wait on Gleason before departing, it would still be waiting.
Instead of joining passengers on the replacement plane, Gleason stayed on terra firma. The column said he walked into a hardware store and, lacking pocket funds, asked the store’s owner for a loan of $200 to catch a train to New York. Problem: The owner didn’t want to fork over $200 to a stranger.
Gleason explained he was a movie star, which sounds like something a con artist might say, but there was a way for him to prove it. There was a movie theater across the street. A film starring Gleason happened to be playing there. Images of Gleason’s co-stars appeared on promotional items inside the theater, but Gleason’s face was nowhere to be found.
“Listen, mister,” Gleason told the store owner. “I know I’m in that picture. I’ll buy two tickets. If you see me, will you lend me the dough?”
An agreement was reached. They took seats in the balcony and waited through a newsreel, a preview of coming attractions and a Three Stooges flick. By the time Gleason’s movie started, the store owner had fallen asleep. Gleason nudged him awake with an elbow.
Finally, there was Gleason on the movie screen.
“By God, it’s you,” the store owner said.
Gleason got the loan and rode a train to New York. Upon arrival, he borrowed $200 from comedian and Club 18 owner Jack White and mailed it, with thanks, to the store owner in Tulsa.
So many questions...
Any chance this is an urban legend?
Consider that the man (Jim Bishop) who wrote the column also was Gleason’s biographer. Bishop wrote 21 books. One of his early works was “The Day Lincoln Was Shot,” which recapped Abraham Lincoln’s last day of life. It was published in 1955, and it attracted the attention of Gleason, who asked Bishop to write his biography, titled “The Golden Ham.” If anybody would have all the background details about Gleason’s fear of flying, you figure it would be Bishop. Coincidentally, Gleason and Bishop died one month apart in ’87.
Where did Gleason’s plane land?
According to the column, the airplane captain announced that the plane would be landing at a “small field.” Presumably, he meant a small airfield instead of pasture land.
Was the town Gleason visited actually Tulsa or was it another town in the area?
The column described the city as having a main street, two hardware stores, three butchers, one supermarket, a movie theater, a plumber and four filling stations. The time period would have been circa 1941.
Who was the hardware store owner?
In the age of social media, there’s no way a celebrity encounter stays secret. Was the store owner ever identified? Did he ever come forward to tell his version of the story?
Again, so many questions. Here’s another: Did Gleason ever fly again?
Bishop capped his column by saying Gleason took trains for years. The column said Gleason leased whole Pullman cars and invited reporters, June Taylor dancing girls, producer Jack Philbin “and a few cases of wet booze” to join him on trips. But Gleason eventually reacquainted himself with air travel, which means the last plane trip he ever took landed somewhere other than our backyard.