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Thomas Patrick Robinson, Ph.D., a sometime college professor who grew up with Jackie (and was lateras Bookshelf Robinsongiven frequent mention on Gleason's TV shows, along with such other neighborhood immortals as Duddy Duddelson, Crazy Guggenham, and Fatso Fogarty), remembers Jackie as "a big hero in the neighborhoodbecause of the pool, and also because he was so funny. He had a slouchy mannerism, a duck-waddling walk." Gleason's mother worked in a subway change booth and had small regard for her son's comic talents, and when Jackie brought down the house with his clowning in the P.S. 73 eighth-grade graduation play, he shouted at her from the stage: "I told you. Mom! I told you!" His formal education ceased at that level and, to his mother's dismay, he spent the next few years standing around on street corners, usually dressed in a grey suit, a pearl grey double-breasted vest, a yellow polka-dot tie, a polka-dot handkerchief, a polka-dot scarf, a chesterfield, a derby and spatsdoing absolutely nothing.
In the Alley. For $3 a night, he started to emcee amateur shows all over the city, keeping a joke book with the dirty ones circled and the clean ones starred. When his mother died of erysipelas. Jackie, not yet 20, moved to Manhattan and began to seek bookings in nightclubs. During a three-year job at something called Club Miami in Newark, N.J.. he kept the crowds amused by insulting them, occasionally stepping into the alley to fight it out with a customer. One night a patron smashed him into unconsciousness. It turned out that the patron was boxing's Two-Ton Tony Galento.
He served as house comic in a burlesque hall, gave a snake-oil spiel for a stunt-driving show, and worked the circuit as a comic diverbut when he was ordered to plunge 90 ft. into a 7-ft. tub of water, he quit, saying "Look. I'm getting $16 a week, and that won't even pay for the iodine." His first big-time comedian's job came at Manhattan's Club 18. a downstairs bin where everybody on the staff took part in the act. even the waiters and chef. One day Hollywood's Jack L. Warner caught his act and signed him to a motion picture contract.
"I'll take Hollywood by storm." Gleason told his friends, but Warner Bros, today does not even remember that he was there. He was miscast (gangster, blue-eyed Arab) in a few pictures and spent most of his time performing at Slapsie Maxie's nightclub. Gleason would drink iced-tea tumblers full of whisky ("No booze, no laughs" was his motto) before going onstage to sing and dance and do improvisations, low comedy, and devastating imitations of more celebrated performers. Retreating to New York, and turned down for service in World War II on physical grounds, Gleason spent several professionally lean years doing club work and bit parts in Broadway shows.