BOOTLEG FILES 635: “The Honeymooners – The REALLY Lost Debut Episodes” (1993 television special).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The program was never re-released to home entertainment channels.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.
In 1993, fans of “The Honeymooners” were shocked to learn that some of the earliest episodes of the classic comedy were rediscovered after being presumed lost for more than 40 years. These episodes, which consisted of eight- to twelve-minute sketches performed on the “Cavalcade of Stars” variety program broadcast on the DuMont network, were presented during the spring at special screenings at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. On October 30, 1993, six of the sketches were gathered into a Disney Channel special called “The Honeymooners – The REALLY Lost Debut Episodes.”
For no clear reason, comic Paul Reiser was recruited as the host of the program. Dressed in a too-large black jacket, white t-shirt and jeans, Reiser was the picture of what passed for hipster chic in the early ‘90s. But his awkward posture and none-too-graceful recitation of cue card-based commentary made him a less-than-ideal host. Mercifully, he was not on screen long enough to spoil the show.
Ever since “The Honeymooners – The REALLY Lost Debut Episodes” was broadcast, many fans of the Classic 39 complained that the early work was below par, with a great deal of the complaints aimed at Pert Kelton, who originated the role of Alice Kramden. However, these complaints are mostly unfair and even somewhat ridiculous. After all, a beloved production that is widely considered as sitcom perfection had to evolve from somewhere – no series comes charging out of the gate with everything in prime working order. If anything, these early DuMont “Honeymooners” sketches might be more fascinating than the Classic 39 for their unexpectedly raw energy and unapologetic consideration of flawed emotional souls.
The debut of “The Honeymooners” occurred on October 5, 1951, with on-screen announcer Don Russell cheerfully telling the “Cavalcade of Stars” audience: “You know, friends, that great institution, the honeymoon, is the time when the ship of life is launched on the sea of matrimony. “Well, tonight Jackie Gleason introduces two brand-new characters, Ralph and Alice Kramden – the Honeymooners – whose boat has sprung a leak.” In the six-minute sketch that followed, Gleason’s Ralph Kramden comes home in a foul mood while Kelton’s Alice is frying up his dinner. Alice asks Ralph to go down to the grocery store to buy bread, which infuriates him. “What did you do all day?” he bellows. The couple begins to get into a yelling match and then starts to throw things out of the window, including the bread box, a flour tin, and even a chair. Alice threatens to jump from the window, but pauses and sneers at Ralph, “I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction.” A knock at the door reveals Art Carney as a policeman whose uniform is covered with flour. Alice lies and claims that she was to blame for accidentally dropping the flour tin out of the window. When Carney leaves, the Kramdens reconcile and Ralph offers to take Alice out for a pizza dinner.
As the first go-round, this sketch (later dubbed “Bread”) was a feral and somewhat silly start. The fight is stupid and the violent throwing of objects from the window is not funny. Perhaps the only genuinely amusing aspect of the sketch is the presence of a boom microphone shadow is visible just above the actors. But what is fascinating is the energy that Gleason and Kelton invested into their acting, pushing their high-temper characters into a sadomasochistic frenzy before their abrupt and almost cloying reconciliation. There was something that could be plumbed here – you can envision Gleason and Kelton doing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” – but the material missed the mark.
The second sketch in this presentation, “New Television Set” (broadcast November 2, 1951), finds Alice agreeing to a try-before-you-buy deal for a television set and purchasing extra food and beer for a party to celebrate the new appliance. Ralph returns home from work and is aghast that Alice is spending money on what he considers frivolities. The party guests are upstairs neighbors Ed and Trixie Norton, played by Art Carney and Elaine Stritch. The Nortons are unpleasantly argumentative, bickering with each other upon entering the Kramdens’ apartment. Trixie storms out to go to her mother’s, with Ed following behind, and Alice is upset that the evening was spoiled. But when the television salesman shows up to see about getting a sales contract signed, Ralph agrees and surprises his wife.
Obviously, the Nortons would be significantly rewritten as “The Honeymooners” progressed, and Stritch – who seemed Amazonian compared to Carney – was dropped. That’s sort of a shame, because she was the funniest person on screen and had the best line in the sketch, complaining to her husband: “I hang over a hot stove all day while you’re down in a nice cool sewer.” Kelton, who had a long career as a film and radio character actress prior to “Cavalcade of Stars,” brings amazing versatility to the sketch, angrily humiliating Ralph by stating “I know it’s going to be an effort but try to act like a human being” and closing the sketch by approaching her newly-purchased television with a near-childlike wonder.
The third sketch in the line-up, “Ring Salesman” (broadcast December 7, 1951), inched “The Honeymooners” closer to Classic 39 vibe. Joyce Randolph made her debut as a demure Trixie, but she was only on-screen briefly. This plot had Alice planning to meet with a ring salesman named Joe so she could buy Ralph a ring for Christmas. Ralph finds a note from Joe to Alice and immediately assumes she is running off with the other man. When Joe shows up, Ralph threatens to assault him, but Alice explains the reason for Joe’s presence. Joe leaves and an embarrassed Ralph apologizes and quickly gains her forgiveness.
The fourth sketch in this presentation was actually the second “Honeymooners” sketch, a five-minute trifle called “Razon Blades” (broadcast October 12, 1951). Again, the Kramdens are bickering over stupid stuff, with Ralph trying to find a misplaced pack of razor blades. The fight becomes so overpowering that the neighbors complain, causing Ralph to yell out the window and bang a chair on the floor to silence the irritated downstairs resident. Ralph begins to pull Alice’s clothing from the dresser drawers and tears the dress she wore for their wedding. Although she insists she can easily fix it, he becomes guilt stricken over his boorishness and apologizes.
More much ado about nothing occupies the core of the fifth sketch, “Ralph Threatens to Leave” (broadcast November 16, 1951), when Ralph objects to an unsatisfactory vegetarian version of meatloaf that Alice made for dinner. Ralph is so furious that he packs his bags to move out – and in a brief but astonishing moment, Kelton’s Alice sits down and breaks into a brief but genuinely heartbreaking display of crying. Ralph, again, makes amends for his dumb actions by stating he cannot move away because he has to attend a Knights of Columbus meeting the next night, causing Alice to laugh.
The sixth and final sketch, “Quiz Show” (aired December 14, 1951), was the longest of the bunch at 12 minutes and the closest in spirit to the Classic 39. Ralph and Alice arrive home from a radio quiz show where they were contestants. Alice gave an answer that was incorrect, dooming the couple to a runner-up status with a year’s supply of Krinkly Krax breakfast cereal as a consolation prize. Ralph and a cab driver push two huge boxes of the cereal into the Kramdens’ apartment, and Ralph belittles Alice for getting the wrong answer. The Nortons come downstairs to commiserate, but to everyone’s surprise the quiz show’s emcee and a broadcast crew show up – Alice gave the right answer, so it is up to Ralph to give one last answer to secure the Kramdens the grand prize. You can guess what happens.
Looking back at these early efforts, one could see where improvement was needed. The bickering between the Kramdens is often too visceral to be charming, and the brief running time on the sketches doesn’t allow the residue of unpleasantness from their fights to evaporate in time for the inevitable kiss-and-make-up.
Also, it seemed peculiar that Gleason and his writers did not see the potential in expanding Carney’s Norton – he barely registers in these early sketches and gives no clue of the genius that would come. Randolph has even less to do here than in the Classic 39.
For many people, Kelton is the stumbling block here. There was a strange visual dynamic in her casting, since she was nine years older than Gleason, who was thinner at the time and looked somewhat younger than his age. (Kelton was also saddled with unflattering hairstyles and costuming, which made her look dowdy.) And while her Alice did not possess the warmth and wonderfully stoic exasperation that Audrey Meadows later brought to the role, she was a more complex character who could transition from chip-on-the-shoulder toughness to unexpected vulnerability. She probably would have stayed in the role had she not fallen victim to the McCarthy-era blacklisting – CBS refused to hire her when Gleason brought his show to that network because she was cited in the Red Channels publication. The network gave the phony excuse that she voluntarily withdrew due to health problems. (Oddly, Reiser repeats that lie on the program and makes no mention that Kelton returned in a 1960s “Honeymooners” special as Alice’s mother.)
As for Gleason, his early Ralph was not the lovable bumbler of the Classic 39, but an always-seething loudmouth who could not fathom his inability to control his home. In some ways, his bitterness is not delusional – indeed, it is strange to hear him yell at his wife for being wasteful with money. And, truth be told, Gleason got more comic mileage in his zaftig mid-1950s period by incorporating his girth into the outlandish physical comedy of the Classic 39.
“The Honeymooners – The REALLY Lost Debut Episodes” would be followed up two months later with Paul Reiser hosting a once-lost Christmas episode of “Cavalcade of Stars” that found the “Honeymooners” characters mixing with the other Gleason creations from his variety show, including the gregarious Reggie Van Gleason III and the silent Poor Soul. The DuMont sketches would find their way on DVD, but this Disney Channel special never got a home entertainment release. Fortunately, someone had the prescience to videotape it when it was first broadcast, and an unauthorized posting can be found on YouTube for all “Honeymooners” fans to enjoy. As the Great One would say, how sweet it is!
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