It was 1955 when the American television audience was introduced to a lovable group of characters known as “The Honeymooners”, which starred Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Audrey Meadows and Joyce Randolph. Gleason, who was in charge of production, portrayed Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden, a hapless spirit in search of his next big break or investment scheme. His best friend, Ed Norton, was a bumbling sewer worker who wasn’t exactly blessed in the brains department. Their wives, Alice and Trixie, may have seemed subtle in their roles, but they frequently kept their husbands in check or got the upper hand in each episode.
This was also the year that the civil rights period was launched. On December 1, a weary seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus. Parks was actually sitting in the “colored” section when the driver ordered her to move. She was well within her rights to remain seated when the monsters called racism and segregation reared their ugly heads and attacked. Parks, like the biblical David, stood up to the beasts and issued the initial blow in the form of defiance. As a result, a force of one became an army of thousands. A Black brigade came forth and boycotted the Alabama bus system, and within a year or so they managed to slay these evil beasts.
I recently caught an episode of The Honeymooners. I laughed hysterically, as usual, but this time I actually stopped and analyzed Ralph Kramden’s character. I thought about the fact that he drove for the Gotham Bus Company and would have no problem getting in someone’s face if they pissed him off. He may have come off as a loose canon in each episode, but he was always levelheaded, kind, and reasonable in the end. Moreover, I don’t think Ralph had a racist bone in his body. Why do I say this? Well, any man that was willing to admit that he grossly misjudged someone and their culture, as he did in the episode with “Carlos”, the Mambo dancer, you have to believe that man was on point when it came to race.
The bus segregation that Rosa Parks fought against was commonplace in southern states. However, if it had been a common practice in New York City, and had Gleason decided to tackle the issue in an episode, I strongly believe Ralph would’ve defended his Rosa Parks-like character. More than likely, Ralph would’ve gone as far as to tell anybody that hassled the character, “Keep it up pal and you are gonna get yours!”
Undoubtedly, the other characters would've stood firmly behind him. Alice and Trixie gave you the impression they were always willing to engage in “girl talk” with anyone, and Alice frequently associated with people in her building. “Mrs. Manicotti.”, an Italian neighbor, is a perfect example. The wives probably would have wasted no time inviting Parks over for dinner upon hearing about the incident. With Ed Norton, you always got the sense that he was cool with everybody; especially if they had a refrigerator that was always fully stocked. He probably would have summed up the situation by saying, “Geez! You did the right thing there, Ralphie Boy! It’s like we say down in the sewer. White or Black, we all smell the same at some point!”
If Gleason had been able to write and produce such an episode, it would've been a monumental television event. I'd like to think that he considered it, but given the state of race relations in the country at that time, and the fact that he couldn’t risk angering the CBS station managers during the show’s first season, he may have been forced to dismiss the idea. I believe Gleason would've written the episode, and I offer the following as proof.
“Keeping Time: The Life, Music and Photographs of Milt Hinton” is an amazing documentary film that chronicles the life of legendary jazz bassist Milt Hinton. Hinton, who died in 2000 at the age of 90, played with Cab Calloway and other legends of the Big Band era. The documentary noted the following: “After the disbanding of the big bands, many Blacks were not able to get work as studio musicians because of the racist belief that they could not read music. Hinton became one of very few Blacks to break the color barrier and secure a job as a studio musician thanks to a chance meeting with longtime friend Jackie Gleason. Gleason insisted that Hinton join his television show orchestra.”
Furthermore, Gleason, who had an intense love for jazz, frequently showcased Black artists, such as Nat King Cole, when he hosted The Jackie Gleason Show. Airing in 1952, the show made Gleason a national star and provided exposure for many Black stars that were shunned by other networks and shows. Based on these revelations, I'm more than confident that if Gleason had written the controversial episode, the legendary, tough-talking Ralph Kramden would've stared down racism while uttering those immortal words...“Bang, Zoom!”
This commentary is from the heart and....From The G-Man.
Author: Associated Press
Permission: Public Domain