The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me.
A lot of attention is being paid this year to Lucy, who is celebrating her 100th birthday this year as her famous TV show celebrates it’s 60th. But you may not have realized that another television classic (sort of) just had its 60th birthday as well, two days ago. On October 5th, 1951, the long-gone DuMont Network broadcast Jackie Gleason’s Cavalcade of Stars, which showed it’s very first “Honeymooners” sketch featuring Alice and Ralph Kramden.
If you’ve never seen it, The Honeymooners as a series still holds up and, in my opinion, is owed more by the sitcom genre than Lucy. (At the very least, The Flintstones does.) However, according to Jeff Kisseloff’s oral history on the early days of television, The Box, it almost didn’t make it to the air. Cavalcade of Stars writer Harry Crane says, “Jackie didn’t want to do it. He said, ‘There’s no bits. There’s no action. They’re talkin’.’” Eventually Crane got his way, and after this performance the switchboard lit up immediately. It wasn’t long before Gleason was doing Honeymooners bits every single week on Cavalcade.
The announcer Don Russell introduces the sketch by saying “that great institution the honeymoon is the time at which the ship of life is launched onto the sea of matrimony,” and then introduces us to Ralph and Alice, a couple whose “boat has sprung a leak.” The sketch runs only five minutes, easily the shortest segment of the hour-long show, and moves very quickly. It resembles the Honeymooners series in many ways: the stark dining room/kitchen set, Ralph’s bus driver uniform, the fight between husband and wife. But, there are just as many differences, most notably the lack of Art Carney as Norton (he appears at the end of the sketch as a police officer) and instead of Audrey Meadows, we see veteran character actress Pert Kelton as Alice. Ms. Kelton brings a much different energy to the role, feeling much more caustic, abrasive, and quite frankly, a more logical pairing for Ralph. She reminded me of a less horrible Jerri Blank from Strangers with Candy, which might be the worst compliment ever given.
But Gleason was right: there are no bits. It is just talking. Ralph comes home from work, and Alice asks him to “go down to Krauss’ to get some bread.” Ralph doesn’t feel he should have to and they begin to fight. Alice throws the two bread heels out the window, so Ralph throws the bread box out, and so on and so on until Art Carney comes to the door as a cop, covered in flour. Then the sketch ends like pretty much every episode of The Honeymooners would: Ralph sheepishly apologizes, Alice forgives him and Ralph says “C’mere baby” (the prototype for “Baby, you’re the greatest.”) and the pair kisses and the curtains close. It’s a pretty inauspicious secret origin, but you know what? It works. It feels like a real post-war urban couple that’s scraping to make ends meet.
The rest of the show is more of what was in Gleason’s comfort zone. He sings an opening number, does a series of monologue jokes about the bandleader and sends out his condolences to Ralph Branca, the pitcher who had just blown the latest game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The June Taylor Dancers do a number, as does Pearl Bailey, and so on and so on. The original idea for Cavalcade of the Stars was to bring the feel of vaudeville to television, and as far as I know, this feels successful. We also get the appearance of two of Gleason’s other characters: Joe the Bartender, who does a monologue of one liners and stories about customers (He talks about one who recently got a new car. The joke, “it’s a Plymouth. He put a beard on it. Now everyone thinks it’s a Lincoln,” is a pretty typical example of the style of humor you can expect there.). We also get a (long) sketch from Reggie Van Gleason, a fancy man about town who has recently been disowned by his family and is living in the local dump. The most notable thing I can say about it is that Art Carney appears as the butler.
But is it still funny? This is one of those Paley Center items I’d file more under the “culturally important” section than “funny.” There are some jokes that land, and once Ralph and Alice start bickering, I can’t say that I expected an entire chair to be thrown out of a New York City apartment window. Frankly, if you’re looking for a lot of laughs, your time would probably be better spent elsewhere in the Paley collection (or at the very least, skip past the boring dance numbers). But if you want to see a night of television from which sprang many of the classic shows that you love, take a stop by the Kramden’s first apartment.