December 20, 1954…Jackie Glea$on & Buick $ign Large$t Ever TV Deal
Sixty years ago today, General Motors Buick brand signed Jackie Gleason to one of the largest contracts ever entered into with an entertainer at that time.
Buick had just dropped their sponsorship of Milton Berle on NBC and were looking for a big play. Gleason’s one hour live show on Saturday night was their target, and especially The Honeymooners sketches which, since 1949, had been an audience favorite even when the show was at Dumont. Gleason moved to CBS in 1951 and until ’54, was the one hour variety format which returned immediately after the filmed Honeymooners episodes ended.
The three-year contract, reportedly valued at $11 million, was one of the largest in show business history. It called for Gleason to produce 78 filmed episodes of ‘The Honeymooners’ over two seasons, with an option for a third season of 39 more.
He was scheduled to receive $65,000 for each episode ($70,000 per episode in the second season), but had to pay all production costs out of that amount. Art Carney received $3,500 per week, Audrey Meadows received $2,000 per week, and Joyce Randolph (who did not appear in every episode) received $500 per week. Production for The Honeymooners was handled by Jackie Gleason Enterprises, Inc., which also produced the show’s lead-in, ‘Stage Show’, starring The Dorsey Brothers. Reportedly, only Audrey Meadows, who later became a banker, received residuals by inserting language to that effect into her contract.
The first episode of the new half-hour series aired Saturday, October 1, 1955, at 8:30 pm Eastern Time (during prime time), opposite ‘Ozark Jubilee’ on ABC and ‘The Perry Como Show’ on NBC. As it was sponsored by Buick, the opening credits originally ended with a sponsor identification by announcer Jack Lescoulie (“Brought to you by … Your Buick Dealer. And away we go!”), and the show concluded with a brief Gleason sales pitch for the company. All references to the car maker were removed when the show entered syndication in 1957.
In February 1956, the show was moved to the 8 pm time slot, but had already started to lose viewers to the hugely popular ‘Perry Como Show’. Gleason’s writers had also begun to feel confined, and Gleason felt that they were starting to run out of original ideas.
After just one season, Gleason and CBS agreed to cancel ‘The Honeymooners’, which aired its 39th and last original episode on September 22, 1956. In explaining his decision to end the show with $7 million remaining on his contract Gleason said, “the excellence of the material could not be maintained, and I had too much fondness for the show to cheapen it”. Gleason later sold the films of the “Classic 39” episodes of the show to CBS for US$1.5 million. Enjoy and share! -Bobby Ellerbee