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"The honeymooners" turns 50: a half-century after they first arrived on TV screens, Ralph and Alice Kramden and Ed Norton continue to delight audiences on countless late-night reruns - Entertainment
USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education),  Nov, 2001  by Wes Gehring
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ON OCT. 5, 1951, Jackie Gleason premiered a new television sketch on his DuMont Network hour-long variety show, "Cavalcade of Stars." Ironically entitled "The Honeymooners," this precursor to the now-famous life and hard times of Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden ran less than five minutes and simply chronicled a marital argument concerning whether he should go back out for a loaf of bread.

Unlike CBS's "I Love Lucy," which also started that fall and represents "The Honeymooners" only competition for most-memorable pioneering television comedy, Gleason's vehicle was still a rough-edged work in progress. For instance, the Alice Kramden of this first "Honeymooners" installment wasn't Audrey Meadows, but, rather, screen comedienne Pert Kelton. Art Carney only briefly surfaced as a neighborhood cop. His now-celebrated Kramden sidekick, Ed Norton, had yet to be created.

Ralph Kramden was just one of the sketch characters Gleason had created for his variety show. His other memorable figures included top-hatted playboy Reggie Van Gleason III, the silent Poor Soul, and Joe the Bartender. Ralph soon became the audience favorite, though, assisted in no small part by Gleason's inspiring teaming with Art Carney as Norton.

The two worked well together regardless of the routine, such as when Carney played Sedgwick Van Gleason, the father of millionaire ne'er-do-well Reggie. However, they were most entertaining in the "Honeymooners" as Brooklyn's answer to Laurel & Hardy. Besides the chemistry, this was Carney's greatest character, too. Indeed, when TV Guide (Oct. 16, 1999) rated "TV's 50 Greatest Characters Ever!," it placed Norton in the number-two spot, ahead of both Lucy Ricardo (3) and Ralph Kramden (13).

Norton was the archetype for the army of loyal, but goofy, neighbors that have followed him onto the small screen, including Kramer (Michael Richards) on "Seinfeld." Carney affectionately called Norton "the one guy in the world who was even dumber than Ralph Kramden." Forever on call to his "pal-o-mine," the skinny Norton assisted the frustration factor for the portly Kramden, just as the skinny Laurel did for the portly Hardy. (In real life, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were early fans of "The Honeymooners.")

In the fall of 1952, Gleason took his variety program from the soon-to-be-defunct Du-Mont Network to CBS. On what was now called "The Jackie Gleason Show," the comedian had a much bigger budget with which to showcase his sketch comedy, especially what was becoming his signature skit--"The Honeymooners." To capitalize on the hype created by this move to CBS, the network sent Gleason and company on a five-week summer tour, a la large city vaudeville, to promote the new show. Gleason and Carney had never been closer, but this proved to be Kelton's last hurrah as Alice, as minor heart problems took her out of the tour. CBS then blacklisted her from the new season for earlier left-wing tendencies. It was the McCarthy witch-hunting 1950s, and alleged communist affiliations were enough to end a career.

Meadows, the new Alice, was only 26, but a successful part of Phil Silvers' hit Broadway musical comedy "Top Banana," after which she joined the "Bob and Ray" variety show in 1951. Among her duties on this popular radio team's short-lived (1951-53) foray into television was playing the part of Linda Lovely in the show's continuing spoof of soap operas.

Initially turned down for the part of Alice because she was "too young and pretty" (Kelton was 45 in 1952), Meadows' role as Linda Lovely no doubt contributed to this image. In contrast, Gleason was constantly after "working-class," less-than-pretty situations for "The Honeymooners." "Make it real" was his constant request of the writers.

This dark approach was best established by the stark "Honeymooners" kitchen set--an old icebox, a tiny sink, a battered sideboard, and that one dominant center stage table. There were no curtains on the window (although fans frequently sent them) and no pictures on the walls. It was a re-creation of the poverty-stricken cold-water Brooklyn flat Gleason had known as a child. In Meadows' 1994 autobiography, Love, Alice: My Life as a Honeymooner, she said the set "would make a dungeon look like a `House Beautiful' profile."

How Meadows ultimately won the part has become the stuff of show business legends. Determined to prove Gleason's image of her wrong, she had a series of stills done of her as a frumpy housewife and had them sent to the star. Supposedly, Gleason was immediately taken with the pictures, proclaiming "That's our Alice," only to be shocked to learn that it was the young and beautiful Meadows. Nevertheless, he was captivated, and more: "Any dame with a sense of humor like that deserves the job!" Meadows quickly became Alice.

The fourth "Honeymooner" regular was Joyce Randolph, who played Trixie Norton, the former stripper and now wife of Ed. Like Carney, she had been part of Gleason's "Cavalcade" ensemble, but was not prominently featured. Initially, all four players continued to turn up on other television programs, like Meadows occasionally resurfacing on "Bob and Ray." Carney, who wanted to avoid being typecast as Norton, was the most active, although this would become increasingly difficult as he won three consecutive Best Series Supporting Actor Emmy Awards for 1954-56. (Meadows would take the 1954 Best Series Supporting Actress Emmy.)

By the second season (1953-54), "The Jackie Gleason Show," featuring "The Honeymooners," placed ninth in the Nielsen ratings. The following season, the program finished at number two. While "The Honeymooners" segments became more polished each year, it was the 1955-56 season that would create the legacy of Brooklyn's Ralph Kramden. Arguably qualifying as television's first spin-off, this was the only season in which "The Honeymooners" appeared as an independent half-hour situation comedy. The 39 episodes have been in almost continuous reruns since 1955-56, second only in their ongoing small-screen presence to "I Love Lucy."

Yet, Gleason pulled the program after one season and returned to his variety show. Given the unique status now accorded these 39 programs, Gleason's explanation at the time has increased credibility today: "We couldn't come up with the same high quality of scripts for a second year. I wanted to go out on top." Ironically, the ratings might also have been a factor. While respectable, the program finished well out of the top 10.

Conjecture has raged ever since on why this occurred, from a weak lead-in to a period preference for the variety show package. Regardless, Gleason never again went the solo route with "The Honeymooners," though it returned in the sketch mode for his 1956-57 variety program. With Carney's exit after this season, Gleason mothballed "The Honeymooners" until 1966-67, when it again surfaced as part of a variety show package. While entertaining and elaborately produced, this final take on the series was not in a class with the 39 classic 1955-56 episodes.

These new "Honeymooners" were overly long (flirting close to an hour in length), often including musical numbers by the cast--another major distraction, as were having some stories away from Brooklyn. While Carney returned for what amounted to an additional four-year run with Gleason (1966-70), there were a new Alice (Sheila MacRae) and Trixie (Jane Kean). Interestingly, as a delayed apology to the formerly blacklisted Kelton, Gleason cast the original Alice in the new version of "The Honeymooners" as Ralph Kramden's mother-in-law.

Still, these overblown "Honeymooners" were popular with the public, as well as representing an ongoing commercial for the series. Of more interest to comedy purists, though, were the "lost episodes" Gleason unveiled in 1983. These were around 80 episodes of "The Honeymooners" shot between 1952 and 1957. Varying in length from seven to 45 minutes, they represented early sketch versions of the series (usually predating the classic 39), when it was part of Gleason's variety show. For the first time in decades, fans and scholars could better trace the evolution of Ralph Kramden and company. Nevertheless, for all practical purposes, the celebrated 39 remain as the cornerstone of "The Honeymooners" legacy.

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