The Honeymooners

The Honeymooners is an American situation comedy, based on a recurring 1951–55 sketch of the same name.  It originally aired on the DuMont network’s Cavalcade of Stars and subsequently on the CBS network’s The Jackie Gleason Show, which was filmed before a live audience.

The Honeymooners debuted as a half-hour series on October 1st, 1955.  Although initially a ratings success—becoming the #2 show in the United States its first season—it faced stiff competition from The Perry Como Show, and eventually dropped to #19, ending its production after only 39 episodes (now referred to as the “Classic 39”).

In July 1950, Jackie Gleason took over as the host of Cavalcade of Stars, a variety show that aired on the DuMont Television Network.  After the first year, Gleason and his writing staff developed a sketch that drew upon familiar domestic situations for its material.  Based on the popular radio show The Bickersons, Gleason wanted a realistic portrayal of life for a poor husband and wife living in Brooklyn.  The couple would fight constantly, but ultimately show their love for each other.  After rejecting titles such as “The Beast”, “The Lovers”, and “The Couple Next Door”, Gleason and his staff settled on “The Honeymooners” for the name of the new sketch.  Gleason took the role of Ralph Kramden, a blustery bus driver, and he chose veteran comedy movie actress Pert Kelton for the role of Alice Kramden, Ralph’s acerbic wife.
“The Honeymooners” made its debut on October 5, 1951, as a six-minute sketch.  Cast member Art Carney made a brief appearance as a police officer who gets hit with flour Ralph had thrown out the window.  The tone of these early sketches was much darker than the later series, with Ralph exhibiting extreme bitterness and frustration with his marriage to an equally bitter and argumentative middle-aged woman (Kelton was nine years older than Gleason).  The Kramdens’ financial struggles mirrored those of Gleason’s early life in Brooklyn, and he took great pains to duplicate on set the interior of the apartment where he grew up (right down to his boyhood address of 328 Chauncey Street).  The Kramdens (and later the Nortons) are childless, an issue never explored, but a condition on which Gleason insisted.  Ralph and Alice did legally adopt a baby girl whom they named Ralphina (because he actually wanted a baby boy which he could name after himself but fell in love with the baby girl whom the agency had placed with them).  The biological mother requested to have her baby back, and the agency asked whether the Kramdens would be willing to return her even though they were the legal parents of the girl.  Ralph agreed and stated that they would visit her and she would have a real life Santa Claus every Christmas.
Early additions to the cast of later sketches were upstairs neighbors Ed and Trixie Norton.  Ed (played by Carney) was a sewer worker and Ralph’s best friend, although his innocent and guileless nature was the source of many arguments between the two.  Trixie Norton, Ed’s wife, was originally portrayed as a burlesque dancer by Elaine Stritch, but was replaced by the more wholesome looking Joyce Randolph, after just one appearance.  Trixie is a foil to Ed, just as Alice is for Ralph, but derivatively, and almost always off-screen.
CBS president William S. Paley convinced Gleason to leave the DuMont Network and bring his show to CBS.  In July 1952, the cast of The Jackie Gleason Show embarked on a highly successful five-week promotional tour across the United States, performing a variety of musical numbers and sketches (including the popular “Honeymooners”).  However, actress Pert Kelton was blacklisted at the time and replaced on the tour by Beulah actress Ginger Jones, who subsequently was also blacklisted (having earlier been named on the Red Channels blacklist) by CBS, which meant that a new Alice was needed.
Jones’ replacement was Audrey Meadows, already known for her work in the 1951 musical Top Banana and on Bob and Ray’s television show.  Before receiving the role, Meadows had to overcome Gleason’s reservations about her being too attractive to make a credible Alice.  To accomplish this, she hired a photographer to come to her apartment early in the morning and take pictures of her with no make-up on, wearing a torn housecoat, and with her hair undone.  When the pictures were delivered to Gleason, he looked at them and said, “That’s our Alice.”  When it was explained to him who it was he said, “Any dame who has a sense of humor like that deserves the job.”  With the addition of Meadows the now-famous “Honeymooners” lineup of Gleason, Carney, Meadows, and Randolph was in place.
The rising popularity of The Honeymooners was reflected in its increasing prominence as part of The Jackie Gleason Show.  During the first season, it appeared on a regular basis (although not weekly) as a short sketch during part of the larger variety show.  The sketches ranged in length from seven to thirteen minutes.  For the 1953–54 season, the shorter sketches were outnumbered by ones that ran for a half-hour or longer.  During the 1954–55 season, most episodes consisted entirely of The Honeymooners.  Fan response was overwhelming.  Meadows received hundreds of curtains and aprons in the mail from fans who wanted to help Alice lead a fancier life.  By January 1955, The Jackie Gleason Show was competing with (and sometimes beating) I Love Lucy as the most-watched show in the United States.  Audience members lined up around the block hours in advance to attend the show.
Before Gleason’s initial three-year contract with CBS expired, he was offered a much larger one by CBS and General Motors’ Buick division (the car maker having dropped their sponsorship of Milton Berle’s Buick-Berle Show after two seasons on NBC).  The three-year contract, reportedly valued at $11 million, was one of the largest in show business history.  It called for Gleason to produce 78 filmed episodes of The Honeymooners over two seasons, with an option for a third season of 39 more.  He was scheduled to receive $65,000 for each episode ($70,000 per episode in the second season), but had to pay all production costs out of that amount.  Art Carney received $3,500 per week, Audrey Meadows received $2,000 per week, and Joyce Randolph (who did not appear in every episode) received $500 per week.  Production for The Honeymooners was handled by Jackie Gleason Enterprises, Inc., which also produced the show’s lead-in, Stage Show, starring The Dorsey Brothers.  Reportedly, only Audrey Meadows, who later became a banker, received residuals by inserting language to that effect into her contract.
The first episode of the new half-hour series aired Saturday, October 1st, 1955, at 8:30 pm Eastern Time (during prime time), opposite Ozark Jubilee on ABC and The Perry Como Show on NBC and had aired every Saturday since.  As it was sponsored by Buick, the opening credits originally ended with a sponsor identification by announcer Jack Lescoulie (“Brought to you by … Your Buick Dealer. And away we go!”), and the show concluded with a brief Gleason sales pitch for the company.  All references to the car maker were removed when the show entered syndication in 1957.
Critical reaction to The Honeymooners was mixed.  The New York Times and Broadcasting and Telecasting Magazine wrote that it was “labored” and lacked the spontaneity of the live sketches, but TV Guide praised it as “rollicking”, “slap-sticky” and “fast-paced.”  In February 1956, the show was moved to the 8 pm(et) time slot, but had already started to lose viewers to the hugely popular Perry Como Show.  Gleason’s writers had also begun to feel confined by the restrictive half-hour format (in previous seasons, Honeymooners sketches typically ran 35 minutes or more), and Gleason felt that they were starting to run out of original ideas.  After just one season, Gleason and CBS agreed to cancel The Honeymooners, which aired its 39th and last original episode on September 22nd, 1956.  In explaining his decision to end the show with $7 million remaining on his contract Gleason said, “the excellence of the material could not be maintained, and I had too much fondness for the show to cheapen it.”
The final episode of The Honeymooners aired on September 22nd, 1956.

 

 

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