BY STEVE ROTHAUS
Even before man reached outer space, Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden threatened to send wife Alice, “Pow! To the moon!”
“Har-har-hardy-har-har,” she’d look him straight in the eye and the audience howled.
Fifty-nine years later, fans have a new reason to laugh: The Honeymooners, in glorious black-and-white, has gone high definition. CBS Home Entertainment has released on Blu-ray “the Classic 39” 1955-56 half-hour episodes starring Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph. CBS has also released the complete first seasons of I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show on Blu-ray.
“Jackie was a very talented and self-thinking person. He had original ideas and original thoughts,” says his widow, Marilyn Taylor Gleason, who still lives in Fort Lauderdale. That’s not far from Inverrary, where the Great One spent the last 23 years of his life. He died of cancer at age 71 in 1987
“When I first met him, he was that way. I don’t know what made him that way. God. He always had great ideas. Onward and upward. That was his motif.”
Gleason and longtime co-star Carney, who played neighbor and sewer worker Ed Norton, were like real-life brothers, she said.
“They got along absolutely beautifully,” recalls Marilyn Gleason, now 88. “They were both very talented and opposites. Opposites attract. There was great respect between them. Magic happened when they got on stage with each other.”
The Honeymooners began in 1951 as a sketch on Gleason’s variety show, Cavalcade of Stars, on the old DuMont Television Network. Gleason moved to CBS in 1952 and began The Jackie Gleason Show, which often featured Honeymooners sketches — some only a few minutes long.
In 1955, The Honeymooners became a full-fledged half-hour series. Those 39 episodes were filmed in New York rather than broadcast and recorded on lesser-quality kinescope. That allowed the series to live on in syndication and become the basis for the high-definition Blu-ray discs.
After one year, Gleason pulled the plug on the half-hour Honeymooners.
“I’ve done 39. We’ve gone in every direction we can. There’s no telephone in the apartment. We can’t do another 39 without rehashing the stories,” Gleason said, according to Marilyn’s son, Craig Horwich, an owner of Jackie Gleason Enterprises.
In 1956, Gleason returned to the variety show format and The Honeymooners reverted to being a short occasional sketch on the program.
Gleason left television around 1958 to perform on Broadway (winning a Tony in the musical Take Me Along) and in films (The Hustler in an Oscar-nominated turn as pool player Minnesota Fats, and the Chaplinesque Gigot, as a mute janitor).
In 1962, Gleason returned to CBS in a revived variety show from New York, American Scene Magazine. The show featured occasional Honeymooners sketches.
Two years into the run, with great fanfare, Gleason moved the show to South Florida, where it was taped at the hall that now includes his name, The Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater. Each program opened with announcer Johnny Olson exclaiming, “From the sun and fun capital of the world, Miami Beach, we bring you The Jackie Gleason Show!”
In 1966, Gleason revived The Honeymooners on American Scene Magazine. “The Adoption,” based on a 1950s Honeymooners sketch starring Gleason, Carney and Meadows as Alice, is included in its entirety on the new Blu-ray set.
“‘The Adoption’ hasn’t been seen since it aired in January 1966. It’s a valuable little bonus piece,” Horwich says.
The Jackie Gleason Show remained on CBS’s Saturday night schedule until 1970. Many of the shows were one-hour color Honeymooners musicals, with Sheila MacRae as Alice and Jane Kean replacing Randolph as Trixie Norton, which are available on DVD.
Marilyn Gleason said she’s not surprised her husband is still a beloved show business figure. No one took his work more seriously, she says.
“It’s marvelous and correct,” she says. “He left that kind of impression. If you speak to anyone who has a few years behind them, they’ll say they remember that well.”