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TV Land's 'Honeymooners' marathon plays it for classic laughs

Monday, March 13, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A little time-traveling music, please.

TV Land this week is paying tribute to "The Honeymooners" with a 48-hour marathon, a musical episode about the Kramdens adopting a baby that hasn't been seen since Dec. 31, 1965, a couple of documentary salutes to the classic comedy and a 1953 installment of "Studio One" featuring Jackie Gleason and Art Carney in dramatic, antagonistic roles.

In "The Laugh Maker," airing at 10 p.m. today on TV Land (check your cable guide for channel), Gleason is Jerry Giles, a successful comic actor who is vain and overbearing in public and terribly insecure in private. Carney is Bill Barkson, a jaundiced Manhattan reporter who is sent to Hollywood to do a profile on Giles. Bill takes an immediate disliking to Jerry, especially when an old girlfriend cozies up to the star to advance her flagging career.

It's a triumphant piece of dramatic work, with no trace of the jocular "Ralphy-boy" and Ed Norton relationship that continues to tickle fans today. A serious counterpoint to "The Honeymooners," it is March's installment of "The Museum of Television & Radio Showcase." As you might expect, it's in black and white.

As most human beings with TV sets know, "The Honeymooners" starred Gleason as Ralph Kramden, a quick-tempered, loud-mouthed New York bus driver who shared a tiny Brooklyn apartment with his wife, Alice (Audrey Meadows). Their best friends, Ed Norton (Carney) and Trixie Norton (Joyce Randolph) lived upstairs.

Ralph was full of bluster, bravado and get-rich-quick schemes and, in his hotheaded outbursts, frequently threatened to send Alice to the moon. But he was bluffing and usually conceded by show's end, "Baby, you're the greatest."

As actor Ray Romano, now a mainstay of the CBS lineup as Gleason once was, says: "You know that there's real heart there. They really do love each other, no matter how hard it gets, no matter how much they scream at each other."

In a 1985 interview promoting the return of "The Honeymooners" reruns, Gleason said once the audience liked the characters, he was home free. "There were a thousand Ralphs living in my [Brooklyn] neighborhood when I was a kid, and a couple of hundred Nortons. The first show we did clicked."

Evidence of that can be seen weeknights at 11 p.m. on TV Land, which has been airing the reruns since January. At 10 p.m. tomorrow, it will present "Inside TV Land: The Honeymooners," a new hour-long look at Gleason and the show, combining fresh and old interviews. Gleason, who died of cancer in 1987, and co-star Audrey Meadows, who died a decade later, appear on film or tape.

It's a good primer on "The Honeymooners" and Gleason, a New Yorker who once worked as a Coney Island stunt diver (there's a clip to prove it). Gleason was a man of big appetites, when it came to food, drink, cigarettes (he was almost never without one) and temperament.

Meadows initially was rejected for Alice as being "too young, too pretty." She hired a photographer and posed without makeup and with pots and pans, to prove she could play a blue-collar housewife. She reported for rehearsal a mere week before the premiere.

At 10 p.m. Wednesday, TV Land will present a 34-year-old installment of what was called "Jackie Gleason and His American Scene Magazine" show.

Gleason was reunited with Meadows and Carney for a musical adaptation of "The Honeymooners." This time, Ralph and Alice both were over the moon -- at the prospect of adopting a child.

To impress the adoption agency, the Kramdens borrow and beg furniture and furnishings from their neighbors, transforming their drab apartment into an almost cozy space. The jig is up when the iceman arrives with a block of ice for their icebox, replaced for a day by a newfangled loaner refrigerator. But the agency woman recognizes their desperate desire for a child.

The son Ralph dreamed of turns out to be a girl (a scene in which he makes peace with her is a gem), but their weeklong glory as parents is interrupted by a visit from the doctor. The birth mother has changed her mind. What do they do now? Despite the obvious use of a doll -- and not even a lifelike one -- the show strikes a timeless, touching chord about the primal pull of parenthood.

At 10 p.m. Thursday, the network will rerun "The Honeymooners ... The Really Lost Debut Episodes," a 1993 special hosted by Paul Reiser. It offers a glimpse into the early stages of the show, including the Oct. 5, 1951, debut on DuMont Network's "Cavalcade of Stars," plus five other sketches.

In that very first sketch, Gleason was Ralph, but Pert Kelton was Alice and Carney was a police officer. Kelton later was blacklisted, and when "The Honeymooners" moved to CBS, the network refused to hire her.

Kelton wasn't the only original replaced; Elaine Strich lasted one sketch as Trixie, a role later assumed by Randolph. In 1964, after Gleason had moved his operation to Miami Beach, Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean were hired to play Alice and Trixie, respectively.

In the last piece of the puzzle, TV Land's "Fandemonium Marathon" starts at 6 a.m. Saturday and will include the "Classic 39" episodes, unedited and restored. It also will rebroadcast "Inside TV Land: The Honeymooners" at 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Sprinkled among the shows will be new 30-second spots with Carney, reprising his role as Ed Norton. He'll be back in battered hat, white undershirt and vest, dispensing "Ed-Vice." Surrounding him will be memorabilia from his work in the sewer, including a stuffed, mounted alligator and a manhole cover.

In the documentary "Inside TV Land," series writer Leonard Stern calls Norton a "joyous character," representing everything we would want a friend to be. He was a bowling buddy, a fellow Raccoon, and an all-around good guy and neighbor.

"I've always felt extremely fortunate and grateful to have had the chance to bring Norton to life and to be a part of the magic that is 'The Honeymooners.' When TV Land approached me about portraying this character again, I jumped at the opportunity," says Carney, who gets more fan mail now than in his working heyday.

"The Honeymooners" was very, very good to Carney, who took home Emmys for three years straight in the mid-1950s for his supporting work. He later would win an Oscar, for "Harry & Tonto," but both top prizes eluded Gleason during his lifetime.

When TV Guide assembled its list of 100 most memorable moments, it picked as No. 56 a scene from an Oct. 15, 1955, episode in which the boys take up golf. Sort of. Ralph has made a golf date with a big shot at his company, and he knows nothing about the sport.

He puts together an eye-popping outfit -- complete with plaid pants and floppy Scottish tam -- and asks Norton for some help. "Address the ball," the manual says. So Norton addresses the ball: "Hellooo, ball!"

On Jan. 28, 1956, the pair starred in an episode that TV Guide ranked as the sixth best of all time, which put it comfortably between an episode of "Cheers" and one of "The Odd Couple." The episode capitalized on the nation's obsession with quiz shows and featured Ralph preparing for a stint as a popular-music expert on "The $99,000 Answer." Piano player Norton quizzes him at home, always warming up with a few bars of "Swanee River." Ralph gets onto the show and is asked who wrote "Swanee River." What is his final answer?

The episode gave Gleason what he loved the most: the chance to react to the actors around him. Some of the best lines belonged not to Gleason but to Meadows or Carney, which often is a hallmark of a good ensemble show such as "Seinfeld" or "Cheers."

The specials are chock-full of tidbits, including:

*When CBS lured Gleason away from DuMont in 1952, he invited Carney to go with him at a starting salary of $1,000 a week. Carney was thrilled by the prospect and said yes.

*Gleason admittedly hated to rehearse. The cast and crew had one run-through the afternoon before the show was done -- live.

Jane Kean, who took over the role of Trixie in the mid-'60s, thinks Gleason's appellation as "The Great One" worked against him at awards time when he was inexplicably snubbed.

Carney attributed some of his character's fussy flourishes -- the comic business before he signed a document, for instance -- to his father's obsessive-compulsive disorder. "I have it to a certain degree. Everything's gotta be just right," a condition he exaggerated and milked for laughs.

For the 1955-56 TV season, Gleason produced two shows ("Stage Show" and "The Honeymooners") although he only appeared on one. The exhaustion often drove him to suck on oxygen by the end of the night.

The Kramden apartment looked so impoverished that a viewer once sent curtains and a dime to buy the rods to hang them.



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