I read that Sheila MacRae died on Thursday. She was the second Alice Kramden on "The Honeymooners," that wonderfully stark comedy that was part of the Jackie Gleason Show. I don't think I ever saw MacRae in the role of Alice. But I did see the original Alice, Audrey Meadows. And thereby hangs a tale.
The original show, starred Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden, a Brooklyn bus driver; Audrey Meadows as his wife, Alice; Art Carney as his upstairs neighbor, Ed Norton and Joyce Randolph as Ed's wife, Trixie. It was filmed live and ran—and I have a hard time believing this—for just one year. The show was set in the Kramden's apartment in Brooklyn and gave a whole new meaning to minimalism. The program was in black and white. The characters dressed plainly—Ralph in his bus driver's uniform, Norton wearing a white T-shirt and vest and a battered hat, Alice and Trixie in housewives dresses.
|Ralph, Norton and Alice|
I could go on, but that would make this post far longer that it should be and deviate from the aforementioned hanging tale. But you do need to know—if you never saw the show—that Alice—Audrey Meadows—had the most dry, deadpan responses to Ralph's absurd demands. And that nasalized beauty of a voice of hers! Our family watched it. Millions did. And for me, a kid in 1950s southeastern Virginia, this was like being transported to a kind of Baghdad on a flying carpet with rabbit ears.
I guess I was about ten. I remember my mother gathered the three of us kids—my brother, sister and I—together one afternoon and said, "We're going to have a very special guest tonight. I want you to be on your best behavior."
The special guest was Audrey Meadows.
And why was Audrey Meadows coming to our house at 107 63rd Street in Virginia Beach, Virginia? Because, as it turned out, she was married to a good friend of my father's. Now, you have to understand that the only Audrey Meadows we knew was Alice Kramden, and she was a plain woman--sharp as she was, she was still plain. In any case, I remember that when she and her husband arrived, we had already changed into out pajamas. The four adults had dinner, and then we—including a friend of my brothers' who was spending the night—were allowed to come down and meet Miss Meadows.
"Come on down, all of you!" she said. And we did. Introductions were made. The friend of my brother's had broken his foot recently and wore a cast. When she saw that, she said, "What happened to you? Did you break your foot?" Our little friend was so shy he almost disappeared into himself.
"Come over here," she said. Sit next to me," she said. He did, changing colors rapidly as if he were a magic trick.
"Now, look here," she said. And she raised her many-layered skirt up an inch or so to reveal her knee. "Do you see that? she asked out friend. I don't think he could stand to look. "See that scar? I broke my leg when I was a little girl. It was before the doctors knew what they do now, and so they left me with this scar."
"Ok, now, all of you," my mother said, "scoot upstairs and go to bed."
We walked upstairs and before disappearing into our rooms turned around. And Audrey Meadows waved a big wave at us and threw us all a kiss that, sometimes, when I close my eyes and reach back in my mind, I still feel today.