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“One of these days . . . one of these days, Alice . . . Pow! Right in the kisser!”
The Honeymooners first aired in 1955 – but it was not a new creation. Jackie Gleason bought the television rights to classic radio comedy The Bickersons (with Don Ameche and Frances Langford), which had featured a shrill, constantly arguing husband and wife as its preoccupation.
On his DuMont comedy/variety programme Cavalcade of Stars (1950) however, Gleason and his writers changed the concept – the ‘honeymooners’ were renamed, made a bit more sympathetic and three-dimensional, placed in a lower-middle-class apartment at 328 Chauncey Street, Brooklyn (NY) and given neighbours.
Gleason (playing Ralph Kramden) was joined by Pert Kelton (she of grating voice) as his level-headed wife, Alice.
When Gleason inaugurated The Jackie Gleason Show on CBS in 1952 ‘the honeymooners’ were an occasional skit on his hour-long show. In 1955 the segment became its own programme, a half-hour replacing the regular Gleason show.
Inexplicably – in hindsight, it seems hard to believe – the series failed to establish itself, and in 1956 the hour-long variety show returned, again with The Honeymooners as a segment.
The 1955 season was recorded on a process developed by DuMont – the ElectroniCam system of filming before a live audience – and it is these ‘Classic 39’ episodes that have lived on in syndication, although in 1985 Gleason resurrected many more segments from his variety show that did not happen to fit neatly into 30-minute formats: these were shown on cable.
In one of the finest creations of the age, Gleason and his ensemble perfectly captured a mixture of love, pretence, angst and futility that provided a slice of Brooklyn tenement life – it was set, by the way, in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn – the very neighbourhood where Gleason grew up.
The show featured Kramden, a blustery and scheming but good-hearted Madison Avenue bus driver (who earned $62 a week); his wife Alice, an unglamorous, long-suffering house-worn partner; his buddy Ed Norton, a happy-go-lucky and gullible sewer worker (or “underground engineer”); and Ed’s wife, ex-burlesque star Trixie Norton.
Kramden and Norton were members of the Raccoon Lodge and frequently engaged in schemes to alleviate their lowly financial states.
A superb staff of comedy writers supplied serviceable premises and clever lines in the stories, and the performances were consistently inspired.
Carney was the quintessential fall-guy, and Gleason’s persona – blustery, braggadocio inevitably giving way to humble contrition – fit into the childlike mould that had traditionally served comedians so well.
The Honeymooners gave us a wealth of memorable lines and phrases, such as, “Bang, zoom,” “One of these days, Alice, pow, right in the kisser,” “You’re goin’ to the moon, Alice,” “Norton, you are a mental case,” “You are a blabbermouth,” “Hey, Ralphie boy,” “Can it core a apple?,” “Luu-luuuuuu,” and, of course, at the end of every episode, “Baby, you’re the greatest”.
The Honeymooners also contained indefinable chemistry that assured its immortality: Kramden could take advantage of Norton, but there was a boy-and-his-dog bond between them.
The Kramdens could fight, but they always embraced at the close of each episode. Ralph threw up many fronts but was utterly transparent.
Warm sighs were as important to The Honeymooners as belly laughs, and viewers were extremely fortunate to witness a magic convergence of quality writing and acting in Jackie Gleason’s classic sitcom.
Audrey Meadows (1955-1956)
Sheila MacRae (1971)
Joyce Randolph (1955-1956)
Jane Kean (1971)