Monday, September 22, 2014

FORGOTTEN ONES: FRANK FONTAINE

I first noticed a goofball type of clown on one of Jackie Gleason's old variety shows. He talked and looked crazy. He was hilarious, and then one day I was at the flea market and I found an LP featuring this clown singing beautifully and I could not believe it. The clown as well as the wonderful singer was the forgotten Frank Fontaine. Born on April 19, 1920 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he is best known for his appearances on television shows of the 1950s and 1960s, including The Jackie Gleason Show, The Jack Benny Show, and The Tonight Show.
 One of his earliest appearances was on the radio show, The Jack Benny Program. During an episode which aired on April 9, 1950, Fontaine played a bum (named "John L. C. Silvoney") who asked Benny for a dime for a cup of coffee. The smallest coin Benny had to offer was a fifty-cent piece, so he gave it to him. The story Benny told about this event became a running gag during later shows. Fontaine's goofy laugh and other voice mannerisms made a hit with the audience, and Benny brought him back for several more radio shows between 1950 and 1952. He also later appeared in several of Benny's television shows. On The Jackie Gleason Show, he played the character Crazy Guggenheim during Gleason's "Joe The Bartender" skits. His trademark was a bug-eyed grin and the same silly laugh he had done on Jack Benny's radio show. At the end of his Guggenheim sketch, he would usually sing a song, demonstrating a surprisingly good singing voice In 1963, he released the album Songs I Sing on the Jackie Gleason Show, which collected some of these songs and reached number one on Billboard magazine's Top LP's chart in 1963. Despite the comparisons with Gleason and Red 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. He died there of a heart attack on August 4, 1978...


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