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. …