They were like a comedy Mount Rushmore, minus one, come to life, huddled together in front of shoving, shouting photographers: Jackie Gleason, Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph, known to several generations of TV viewers as Ralph Kramden, his wife Alice and their neighbor Trixie.
"The Honeymooners" were together again tonight without Art Carney (Ed Norton, sovereign of the sewer, who could not be present because he was suffering from the flu) at the 21 Club to celebrate the fact that long-lost episodes of the blue-collar comedy classic have been discovered and will soon be available to viewers of Showtime, a pay cable network, and eventually to free TV viewers via syndication. The event was billed as a press conference but it really was a mob scene with about 100 reporters jammed into a tiny room on the third floor, a turnout that astounded even representatives of Viacom Enterprises, which will be syndicating and packaging the shows.
Gleason, resplendent as always, a bright red carnation festooning his lapel, was asked why he decided to make the additional episodes available to the public for the first time in 30 years. "I think this is the right time," Gleason said. "I'm sick of watching those other 'Honeymooners.' " He was referring to 39 original half-hour episodes of the series which have been in continuous circulation since they were first shown in 1955 and 1956. Fans of the program thought that's all there were, but Gleason recently revealed a vault full of kinescopes from the days when "The Honeymooners" was a featured segment of the one-hour "Jackie Gleason Show."
These "Honeymooners" sketches are "my personal copies," Gleason said, suggesting he had been harboring them until the right offer came along. "No one asked for anything and we had them there nicely stacked up in an air-conditioned room waiting for the phone to ring and finally it did," he said. Financial arrangements of the deal were not disclosed but Gleason said he'd mainly be making money from doing new "wraparounds" to introduce the segments when the episodes are repackaged for cable and regular TV. Some 52 new half hours will be compiled plus at least two specials, each two hours long, using material from the programs.
He was asked how he felt watching the old episodes after all these years. "I guess they were pretty funny," he said. "I haven't seen them in so long it's like watching someone else." Yes, he thought he was funny but he said "Art might have been a little funnier."
After the press conference, such as it was, while the crowd of reporters, pushy photographers, professional hors d'oeuvres eaters and others milled and munched, media gentry came forward to beseech television royalty. In a back room near the kitchen, Gleason granted an audience to David Hartman of "Good Morning America," and later, one floor down, received Bryant Gumbel of the "Today" show. A Showtime publicist went apopleptic when Hartman asked Gleason where the newly released programs could be seen and Gleason replied, "HBO." Oh, no! That's Home Box Office, Showtime's big competition. The tape was stopped and restarted.
Sitting at a small round table with a glass of J & B on the rocks later, Gleason talked briefly about the legend of "The Honeymooners" and the legend of himself. He really was auteur, not just actor, partly because he helped create the characters from his own recollections of growing up poor ("There were a thousand Ralphs living in my neighborhood when I was a kid," he had said earlier, "and a couple of hundred Nortons"), but also because of Gleason's refusal to rehearse the show. It forced him to ad lib.
"Audrey got upset with me many times 'cause I didn't rehearse," he said. "I'd come in, go through it once, and say, 'Okay, see you tonight.' And that's gotta disturb people. But once they realized they had to learn the script and really know it, it gave them a spontaneity they wouldn't have had if we'd dragged out the rehearsals for hours. The funny thing about 'The Honeymooners' is, you can't tell when a fluff is made 'cause they're all going crazy. Ralph is talking off the top of his head. Many of those long speeches I gave weren't written. I knew where I had to go, and I'd start and I'd try to get there. Like at the end we'd make those speeches to Alice. They were never written."
The newly released "Honeymooners" sketches were first aired live. Kinescopes, or filmed copies, were made for showing in other time zones. Those are the copies that were preserved. In effect, viewers will be teleported into the past and see small comedy plays just as they were first performed and become a part of a national audience of the early '50s.
And like all of Gleason's best work, this wasn't just comedy. There was an undercurrent of melancholy realism that helps give "The Honeymooners" its distinctive longevity. Ralph and Alice remained trapped in their shabby digs. All of Ralph's schemes of glory collapsed. And the struggling, poverty-line couple remained childless after 15 years of marriage.
Gleason never considered making Alice pregnant. "Always in the back of the audience's mind was a sentimentality, the fact that Ralph and Alice never had a child," Gleason said. "Her desire to have a puppy all the time, and me saying 'No. No dogs, no puppies, nothing.' And for some reason or other, the audience got that, the message that the one blight in their life was the fact that they couldn't have a child." A sadness crosses his face.
They don't call Gleason The Great One for nothing. "The Honeymooners" is proletarian grand opera as much as it is situation comedy.
Some people may say Gleason is releasing these shows now because he needs the money, Gleason was told. That doesn't bother him. "You don't need the money," he said, "but you sure need the praise. Praise sometimes becomes more valuable than money." He was bowled over, Gleason said, by the enthusiastic response he'd gotten a little earlier upstairs at the press conference. And he is gratified that so many kids are drawn to "The Honeymooners," even though so much contemporary programming is aimed specifically at them. "With all these shows that are supposed to appeal to the younger set, that younger set is going for 'The Honeymooners,' " Gleason said. Bright of eye, rakish of glint, he looked himself like the younger set incarnate.
Gleason, while not deploring the present state of television comedy, did say there was too much "sexual innuendo" and too few "real funny moves," adding, "There's nobody in television now like Art Carney. That's a cinch."
Told that the huge turnout at the press conference indicated there was more interest in his old comedies than in new ones, Gleason said simply, "Well, isn't that nice?" According to a Viacom executive, the original 39 episodes of "The Honeymooners" are now in their 93rd run on a New York TV station and still getting respectable ratings.
One person who has seen nearly all 93 runs of each episode was among those in the throng. Peter Crescenti, 33, is one of America's foremost "Honeymooners" fans, as is his pal Bob Columbe, 39, and together they founded RALPH, the Royal Association for the Longevity and Preservation of the Honeymooners. "I could kiss whoever is responsible for finding these old episodes," Columbe said excitedly. And Crescenti said that of all sitcoms on television "Honeymooners" is the best. "There's nothing that compares with it," he said. He and Columbe arrived with a small supply of RALPH T-shirts which include the legend "A Regular Riot," one of Gleason's many trademark expressions from the old days on television, and something that the press conference occasionally threatened to turn into.
Gleason was accompanied by his wife Marilyn. Meadows and Randolph were somewhat shocked to discover each had arrived wearing a dress of the same bright color, magenta. "We have the same color on, and there's going to be hell to pay," Randolph joked before the press conference began. "It's just like the episode where Ralph won the safe-driving award and both Trixie and Alice showed up in the same dresses," said Columbe gleefully. One reporter asked Gleason if it had been fun making the original shows. It had, he said, and from the crowd, Meadows called out, "It was a ball!"
A brief sampler of clips from the newly discovered episodes was shown before Gleason spoke. In one, the ever-portly Ralph is boasting to his wife that he's just lost a pound, and she says, "When you lose a pound, it's like Bayonne losing a mosquito." In another clip he growls, "I am going to the ball game, and that's that." She says, "Ooo, and they say all fat men are jolly!" And he says, in one of the show's many contributions to the American language, "One of these days, Alice, one of these days -- pow, right in the kisser!"
And in yet another clip Gleason and Carney waltz through housework in the Kramden's definitively dingy Brooklyn apartment singing the song "Ragmop" and dancing jauntily. At that moment, in that room, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that these episodes of "The Honeymooners" were worth reviving.
Symbolically enough, the old sketches usually concluded with two popular songs sneaked in during one of Ralph's innumerable apologies to his wife. One of the songs was the Gershwins' "Our Love Is Here to Stay." The other was Irving Berlin's "Always." Both tunes seemed appropriate themes for tonight's gala announcement.
The press conference officially ended when Jackie Gleason said, "Well, I believe it's time for a little drink."