Gleason was much more than Ralph Kramden. He had a number of characters he’d trot out on his variety show in the early ‘60s. One of them was Joe the Bartender, who’d banter with the camera as if it were a customer named Mr. Dunahee, and then play straight man after bringing on Frank Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim. I loved Craze. He was like a silly, corny cartoon character. In fact, he was. Fontaine’s Crazy vocal mannerisms were borrowed for cartoon characters at Warner Bros., Walter Lantz and Hanna-Barbera, most famously by Stan Freberg as Pete Puma.
It’s tempting to call Fontaine an overnight success and to give credit to Jack Benny for it. Fontaine’s brain-frozen character first appeared on the Benny radio show on April 9, 1950 as John L.C. Sivoney, the slow-thinking sweepstakes ticket winner. The audience howled. Benny broke up. Then Benny handed him the last third of the show to do an extremely good Winston Churchill and other impressions. Fontaine’s career was on its way. Here’s how Fontaine described it to a columnist for the North American Newspaper Alliance in 1950.
TV, Radio And Pictures All After Frank Fontaine
By HAROLD HEFFERNAN
HOLLYWOOD, July 18—Couple of months ago an undiscovered character actor named Frank Fontaine playing the role of a panhandler stole two successive Jack Benny radio programs by mumbling something like “I was just hanging around . . . I wasn’t doing anything.”
Those two brief air appearances performed one of Hollywood’s minor miracles. Before going on with Benny, Fontaine actually “wasn’t doing anything . . . was just hanging around,” but within a matter of days he became the busiest, most sought-after fellow in the entire Hollywood amusement field—movies, radio and television. He hasn’t done anything definite as yet about his future—and for a very astonishing reason.
“I haven’t had time to sign up with anybody—and I mean just that,” the new-found mimic grinned between scenes of “Call Me Mister,” in which he is playing a comic army sergeant at 20th-Fox.
“CBS wants me to sign a 25-year optionless contract to play Amos and the Kingfish on the Amos-Andy radio show starting next year. Gosh, I haven’t had time to take care of that.
“Columbia wants to star me in a picture, but I haven’t had a chance to go over and check on that deal.”
“This studio (20th-Fox) wants me to sign a long-term contract, but there are problems in connection with that which requires time to think over and talk about.
“NBC has offered me a one-hour television show of my own which would be channeled all over the country. I hope to get a few hours off this week to look into that.”
Fontaine, only 30 years old, is the father of 7 children—oldest 12 and the youngest an infant. His wife and family reside in Boston—and therein lies the greatest of all his “time” problems.
“After all those offers following the Benny show, I knew I was set,” Frank said, “so I wanted my family to join me here—in a hurry. But—in the 2 months since then I haven’t had a chance to go out and look for a house and back yard big enough to take care of them.”
This coming fall and winter Fontaine’s fantastic comedy characterizations will be making their long overdue appearance in one picture after another. First will be Republic’s “Hit Parade of 1951,” followed by “Stella,” with Ann Sheridan and Victor Mature and the currently filming “Call Me Mister,” supporting no less a star than Betty Grable and if radio and television don’t sew him up completely there’ll be other screen roles, too, and in rapid order.
No longer is Mr. Sevony—his Benny radio character—“just hanging around.”
But the Sivoney/sweepstakes routine wasn’t something carefully concocted by Benny’s writers. It was something Fontaine had been doing for some time and one Benny had likely seen or heard. In February that year, he appeared on Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town.” The previous April, Sivoney showed up on radio’s “Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour.” And Billboard’s review of Fontaine’s turn in the Vaughn Monroe road show on July 5, 1947 refers to the sweepstakes routine as “standard.” By the time Fontaine had appeared with Benny, he was already in theatres in the MGM film “Nancy Goes to Rio.” But exposure on a top show like Benny’s couldn’t hurt. CBS signed him to a contract in November 1950.
In fact, the Sivoney character predates Fontaine’s professional career. He talked about it to Anton Remenih of the Chicago Tribune in a story published August 10, 1952. This transcription is missing part of a couple of sentences, including the final one, but you can get the gist.
Frank Fontaine, a rising comedian we confidently predict will be a television hit in 1953, is the only guy in show business we’ve met who made more money as an amateur than as a professional. The creator of the hilarious radio, WBBM, 7 pm, Sundays, and stage character, John L.C. Silvoney, the punchy sweepstakes winner, recalled his hardtack days between appearances at the Chicago theater the other day.
"When I turned pro at 16, I dropped from $52 a week to $18," he chortled. Frank married his wife, Alma, when both were 16. He had no job. "I won a Major Bowes amateur show with some imitations. Every other theater in New York City held amateur nights in those days (1936). I went from one to another, winning most of the time. I averaged $52 a week but this was a precarious living especially after our first two children were born."
When he got an offer of regular employment at $18 a week, Frank took it.
"You could feed a family of four on $1 a meal in those days," he said. Today CBS has Frank signed up to an exclusive seven year radio and television contract. He could, he said, go on TV regularly immediately, but he’s not ready. He’s playing it slow and he hopes smart. Just as he did 16 years ago on the amateur night circuit.
"As everybody knows, amateurs often win on sentiment not talent. So I appeared on the stage with holes in my shoes and elbows, and if we were especially hungry that week, with a limp. The audience took one fast look at this courageous, struggling youngster, whispered 'O. look at the poor kid,' and voted me first prize. I'm one of the few guys who ever beat a blind accordionist on an amateur night. He made the mistake of appearing well dressed and arriving in an automobile.
"Don’t dress up too good," Frank advises youngsters butting their heads against one of the most competitive professions in the world.
"Love everybody in show business. And don't discuss religion or politics. Show people are sensitive or they wouldn't get in the business."
"You’ve got to get into the money with one gimmick," he said. "Mine is Silvoney. But how long do you think I would last on television with one character?"
Fontaine expects to appear in his own TV show by December. In the meantime he is developing more characters. One is Pop, a toothless old gent always harking back to the good old days. Another Is Fred Frump, a gabby bore and corny joke teller. Everybody knows at least one Fred Frump and one Pop.
Fontaine belongs to the Red Skelton-Jackie Gleason school of comedy. All are masters of caricature, specialists in the art of molding hilarious characters from basic human types. You could get by on radio stringing one joke after another, sausage style. In radio, the talent is often reposed in the writers. In television, you need some yourself.
Fontaine was born with it. His father, half of a top flight vaudeville team, perched his 8 year old son on his knee and sang "Sonny Boy." He became a teachers pet not because of academic prowess but because he could mimic the principal, an irascible character unpopular with the staff.
At 15, Frank’s front porch at Medford, Mass., was mecca for the neighborhood kids who came to hear Henry, a character he assumed to recite "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
Look at the accompanying picture of Silvoney [not in this post]. Henry was simply a 15 year old Silvoney.
Fontaine got the idea for this character after seeing Irish sweepstakes winners recite their reactions on the newsreels in the ’30s.
We’ve never met a showman with stronger paternal instincts than Fontaine. Let’s look at the record. There are now 10 in the family. They share four baths in a big 12 room house near Hollywood. They mean to stick together.
"Movie stars love their families, don’t be mistaken about that," he said. "But some of them love their careers more. When necessary, they choose in favor of their careers. Nothing like that is going to happen to us. We’re sticking together.
"I could have gotten into television this summer as a replacement for Jackie Gleason. But that meant going to New York and leaving my family. I could pick up money, a lot of it, at the Palladium in London. But London is even farther away from home. We could really live it up."
Fontaine let it go at that, but we think this guy will make out all right. At 32, with the best years still ahead on television, he hasn’t forgotten a sure fire formula he learned at 16.
Despite the comparisons with Gleason and Skelton, Fontaine never accomplished what they did and made a career of hosting a variety show doing a multitude of characters of his own creation. People only wanted one—the one with the wheezy laugh he developed as a teenager during the Depression. Being boxed in must have grated on him after awhile. He expanded a bit on the Gleason show by interrupting his Crazy schtick for a song in a straight baritone, popular (if not schmaltzy) with some, but oddly jarring to others.
Frank seems to have worked steadily but ran into money troubles. In 1971, he filed for bankruptcy and his 12-room house was put up for auction to pay an almost half-million-dollar tax bill. He was $850,000 in debt. Frank Sinatra and others came to his rescue with a benefit show. His health wasn’t good. He had been hospitalised in 1970 after collapsing following a lengthy performance on the Jerry Lewis telethon. In 1977, he lay unconscious in hospital after what may have been a heart attack. And then the following August, he had just finished his fourth encore before a crowd of 3,000 in Spokane and had accepted a $25,000 cheque to be donated to heart research when he dropped to the boards backstage. A heart attack claimed Fontaine at age 58.
Here’s a great clip of Fontaine with Gleason as Joe the Bartender. The best part, besides the model at the opening who doesn’t seem to know when to talk, is Gleason alternating between Joe and Gleason-playing-Joe. Gleason generously acts as straight man to Fontaine, and then Fontaine stays out of the way to let Gleason’s reactions get laughs.