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Retro : Honeymoon Memories : AUDREY MEADOWS RECALLS THE CLASSIC SERIES, NOW ON VIDEO

June 20, 1993|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"To the moon, Alice. ..."

"One of these days Alice, one of these days ... Pow! Right in the kisser!"

"Alice ... you're the greatest!"

On the surface, it would seem making the classic TV series "The Honeymooners" was a real nightmare. The cast shot two episodes a week. Rehearsals were unheard of. There were no directors. The actors had to request their own props.

And Audrey Meadows, who immortalized the role of the sensible and long-suffering Alice Kramden, was initially rejected for the part because she was considered too young to play a Brooklyn housewife.

But Meadows only has fond memories of her years on "The Honeymooners."

In fact, she says warmly, "it was the best time I ever had."

It may be hard to believe, but "The Honeymooners" only aired one season (1955-56) on CBS. However, "The Honeymooners" have remained immortal over the decades thanks to syndication--and now the 39 episodes just released on CBS Video, starring Jackie Gleason as the blustery, portly bus driver Ralph Kramden, Meadows as his wife Alice, Art Carney as nervous neighbor Ed Norton and Joyce Randolph as Ed's wife, Trixie.

"The Honeymooners" was a popular sketch on Gleason's hit live CBS variety series "The Jackie Gleason Show." After three seasons, though, Gleason wanted a break from the rigors of producing a weekly hourlong live show. So, in 1955, "The Honeymooners" became a series. Though most shows in the 1950s were done live, "The Honeymooners" was filmed before a studio audience on an advanced filming system called Electronicam.

Meadows, who was a recurring regular two years ago on CBS' "Uncle Buck," recalls the cast received their scripts usually the night before they filmed an episode. And they never really rehearsed. "Our call was usually 2 in the afternoon and we went through it once or twice at the most," she says. "Then we did errands or phone calls and would come back and put our makeup on and did the show. We did those 39 just like a live show. We did two half-hours a week."

Despite filming two shows a week, Meadows only worked Tuesdays and Fridays. "It was the best job I ever had working with Jackie Gleason," she says.

Doing the show in front of an audience with a minimum of rehearsal was actually beneficial for the cast. "The level of performance is very energetic," Meadows says. "There's a lot of vitality. I think that's what's so wonderful and why the shows have held up so well so long."

Meadows was actually the second actress to play Alice. Pert Kelton played Alice when Gleason introduced "The Honeymooners" in 1950 on the variety series "Cavalcade of Stars," which aired on the short-lived fourth network, DuMont. After two seasons on "Cavalcade," CBS lured Gleason to do his own series. Meadows took over the role when Kelton suffered a heart attack.

However, Gleason, who died in 1987, originally rejected Meadows for the role of Alice because, she says, he thought she was too young and pretty. Meadows was 28 at the time. "I said, 'I will show him.' "

So Meadows, who was appearing on Broadway at the time with Phil Silvers in "Top Banana," hired a photographer to shoot unglamorous pictures of herself. "I had no makeup, did my hair all funny, took an old blouse and an old apron and posed in a kitchen with a frying pan," she says, laughing.

The next day, Gleason's manager took the photographs to his client. Gleason, she says, "took one look and said, 'Oh, my God! That's Alice. Where is she?' When he found it was me, he said, 'Hire her. Any dame with a sense of humor like that deserves the job.' Isn't that something?"

The first 10 volumes of "The Honeymooners: The Classic 39" collection are available on CBS Video. Volume I is $6; all other volumes (two episodes each) are $10; 10 more volumes are due in October; repeats of "The Honeymooners" air weekdays at 12:30 a.m. on KTLA and 10:30 a.m. on XETV: 1:35 a.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, Friday; 1:05 a.m. Saturday; and 2:05 a.m. next Sunday on TBS.

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