04/26/2013 05:05 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2013

Historic Jackie Gleason Theater Saved


Developer Jack Portman seemed to believe he could erase the legacy of Jackie Gleason from Miami Beach with a quick "And awaaay we go." Portman, Vice Chairman of Portman Holdings and John Portman & Associates, is one of two finalists who will be picked to head a costly renovation of the Miami Beach Convention Center, a project which, in Portman's prior estimation, would have required the demolition of The Fillmore at the Jackie Gleason Theater.

Portman tried to add merit to his idea of scrapping the venue by devaluing the historical worth of the theater and also of comedy legend Jackie Gleason himself.

"This is the way we analyze it," Portman told the Miami Sun Post. "Is it functional? What does it contribute to the area? Is the legacy of Jackie Gleason historically significant?"

Ignorant statements such as these from Portman brought local citizens, intimately aware of the significance of both the entertainer and the venue, to the forefront of the Convention Center renovation plans.

Through community meetings overflowing with irate citizens and a "Save the Fillmore" Facebook petition which garnered over 1,200 supporters, Portman has seen the error of this ways and agreed to revise his uncultured plan to raze the Gleason Theater and formulate one closer to that of his competitor, South Beach ACE, which has opposed the tear-down of the Fillmore from the outset.

A refresher course on "The Great One" as Gleason called himself, is certainly in order for Mr. Portman.

Long before Gleason, without fail, ended his weekly show with "As always, the Miami Beach audience is the greatest audience in the world!" he had cemented his place as one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century.

Gleason was the precursor to portly party animal entertainers such as John Belushi and Chris Farley, yet had immeasurably more talent and discipline in his craft. Gleason could not only out-drink and out-gamble many in his league, he could out-act most all.

Gleason started out his career, like many performers of his generation, working the nightclub circuit. He made his bones at New York City's Club 18 and it was where Gleason got his break, first as a bit-part actor in feature film, then on the small screen, where his big persona was best executed.

In 1952 Gleason became the star of "The Jackie Gleason Show" a sketch comedy platform which introduced popular characters invented and performed by Gleason such as the dim-witted incompetent Fenwick Babbitt and the rakish, impudent Reginald Van Gleason III. The character that most resonated with audiences though was Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden, whose surly yet affectionate lunch-pail persona can be seen in a myriad of later shows from "All in the Family" to the "King of Queens". The character of Kramden was given a show in "The Honeymooners", which had its first run from 1955-1956. "The Honeymooners" worked better than many sitcoms of the era that suffered from clunky woes in awkward attempts to transition entertainment from stage to screen and became a landmark show in television history.

Gleason's talent was not restricted to television. Many revere Gleason's accomplishments as a musician, with his first ten albums selling over a million copies; at 153 weeks Gleason holds the record for an album's stay in the top-ten on the Billboard charts. Gleason also composed the memorable theme songs to both "The Jackie Gleason Show" (Melancholy Serenade) and "The Honeymooners" (You're My Greatest Love). Gleason as musical performer won a Tony Award for his portrayal of tortured lush Sid Davis in "Take Me Along."

Many film lovers remember Gleason best for his role of Minnesota Fats, the hard-drinking, hard-playing pool hall legend whose legend haunts Paul Newman's small-time shark "Fast" Eddie Felson in "The Hustler."

Many in South Florida remember Gleason as the man who put Miami Beach on the map when, in 1964, "The Jackie Gleason Show" moved to its sunny shore. Gleason made Miami a happening place and was happy to do so. The show's new opening took advantage of the locale, the camera flew in from over the water and raced toward the beach-lined coast and high rises. "From the fun and sun capital of the world Miami Beach, we bring you "The Jackie Gleason Show"," boomed the announcer.

Gleason not only made Miami Beach home to his show, but settled in the area himself, where he lived till his death in 1987.

The proposal to tear down the Jackie Gleason Theater was an insult not only to the landmark and the legend, it was an insult to the community that the comic had a hand in building.

South Beach ACE, more cognizant of the foundation of the Miami Beach community released a statement concerned about the aimlessness of Portman's course of action:

"The type of major changes that the Portman team is now proposing to their plan raises serious questions about whether they really have an understanding of the site, and whether they have been listening to the needs and wishes of the community and the convention center stakeholders since the beginning of this process in the same way we have. We hope both the citizens of Miami Beach, as well as the City Commission, will recognize South Beach ACE for being guided from the start of this process by the principles important to the stakeholders and the community."

Clearly the Portman team are the wrong people for the job.