Museums show early 'Honeymooners'

March 17, 1993|By New York Times News Service

When television viewers on Oct. 5, 1951, tuned into Jackie Gleason's "Cavalcade of Stars," they expected to see such popular Gleason characters as Joe the Bartender, the Poor Soul, Reggie van Gleason. But this program delivered a surprise.

"You know, friends, that great institution, the honeymoon, is the time when the ship of life is launched on the sea of matrimony," said the show's announcer, Don Russell. "Well, tonight Jackie Gleason introduces two brand-new characters, Ralph and Alice Kramden -- the Honeymooners -- whose boat has sprung a leak."

The four-minute sketch that followed, with Pert Kelton playing Alice, was the wobbly first step toward "The Honeymooners," whose 39 episodes on CBS in the 1955-'56 season are among the most watched and studied comedies in TV history.

The show's origins can now be traced in a series of sketches on "Cavalcade of Stars," a variety show on the DuMont network, most of which have not been seen publicly since they were first broadcast more than 40 years ago.

Seven sketches, some of them discovered only in the last few months, will be shown on Friday at both the Museum of Television and Radio in Manhattan and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Manhattan museum will continue showing the sketches through June 13.

The material is uneven, with occasional flashes of "Honeymooner" inspiration transforming a rather crude, variety-stage comic situation. The first episode is little more than a shouting match between Ralph and Alice about dinner that turns into a competition to see who can throw the biggest object out the window.

As the battle escalates, Alice starts to climb out the window. When Ralph shouts, "No! No!" she turns slowly and says, "I wouldn't give ya the satisfaction." The fight stops when Art Carney, playing a policeman, shows up at the Kramden apartment covered in flour.

The sketches get longer and more complex, but the emotional atmosphere remains harsh. "Some of the comedy is almost painful, because it's so real," said Rob Simon, TV curator at the museum. "There's always a reconciliation at the end, but you never quite believe it."

As played by Kelton, a character actress who specialized in gangsters' molls and hard-boiled Brooklyn gals, Alice is a tough bird with some hard miles on her. "She plays a very beaten Alice," Simon said. "You can see a dispirited marriage on display."

Trixie was originally played by Elaine Strich, but Gleason had his eye on Joyce Randolph, whom he had seen in a live TV commercial for Colgate on "Cavalcade of Bands," another DuMont program. He invited her to join him in a serious sketch, which has since disappeared, on "Cavalcade of Stars," and soon after told his producer to sign her up.

Carney's Norton, in signature pork-pie hat and vest, but a long-sleeved shirt, is stupid, loutish and prone to violence, with a thick, marbles-in-the-mouth Brooklyn accent.

"Obviously he was a stock comic character, and there was no way you could develop a relationship with him," Mr. Simon said. "Also, the Norton marriage is an exact duplicate of what you see with Ralph and Alice. You can see that they didn't really expect the thing to have a life beyond a couple of months."

After leaving DuMont, Gleason continued "The Honeymooners" in sketch form on "The Jackie Gleason Show" from 1952 to 1955, when he decided to pursue film projects.

To fill the hour that he owned on CBS, he filmed "The Honeymooners" as 39 independent half-hour episodes and subcontracted the remaining half hours to bandleaders Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.

A year later, Gleason resumed the hour-long "Jackie Gleason Show," and The Honeymooners again became a series of sketches, until Art Carney left the show in 1957.

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