Audrey Meadows' first Honeymooners' sketch was a test of courage

The lights were set, the audience was live, and the cameras were rolling. There was just one problem: Jackie Gleason didn't like to rehearse.

Image: Everett Collection

Nobody ever tells you that once you finally get everything you've ever wanted, you then have to reconcile with the reality of what it actually is. Audrey Meadows fought hard to get the role of Alice Kramden, finally winning the role with even Jackie Gleason's glowing approval. 

However, that doesn't mean that everything was smooth sailing from then on. According to How Sweet It Is: The Jackie Gleason Story written by James Bacon, Meadows remembered her first sketch on The Honeymooners, and her description is... interesting, to say the least.

She said, "I came out of the theater, where everybody is rehearsal happy. Even Phil loved to rehearse. Everybody does but Jackie. We had a read-through of the script, and all week I kept wondering where Jackie was. Finally, when it came close to airtime, I asked Art, 'When do we rehearse?' Art answered, 'Do you remember that first read-through? That was all the rehearsal you'll get."

In her autobiography, Love, Alice: My Life as a Honeymooner, Meadows revealed the reason that Gleason didn't prefer to rehearse. In the book, written with Joe Daley, Meadows wrote, "Another thing I learned on or about that first night was the reason that Jackie delayed rehearsals until they would somehow go away. It wasn't that he was capricious or lazy or unprofessional. It was his firm feeling that the repetition of comedic situations or lines injured the delivery by dulling the reception."

Luckily, Meadows was able to think fast and act even faster, even when the unexpected happened. She described a scene in her first sketch and said, "Ralph came home screaming, 'You're not going to serve me frozen steak again?' He picked up the steak, which wasn't steak but a piece of wood painted like a steak. It was the first time any of us had seen this prop. Jackie slammed the phony steak on the table as only he could slam. It broke into two pieces and one of them flew out into the audience."

She continued, "Now it's live going out to fifty million people. And Jackie is staring at me, wondering how the new girl is going to handle this unexpected development. I picked up the one half of the wooden steak that stayed on the table and said, 'No, Ralph, I'm not serving you frozen steak again. I'm serving you half a frozen steak.'"

In Bacon's book, Meadows called her first Honeymooners show "a baptism by fire." However, Bacon commended Meadows's quick adaptability to the challenge and said, "Jackie had found his perfect Alice. Here was a girl who could cope with crisis."

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Pacificsun 7 months ago
The impressiveness of the early Classic TV actors in particular, is well-discussed in this enjoyable article (as presented so clearly). Meaning for the reason of their stage and theater training. Where, and during which, a performer gained experience in order to survive that kind of unpredictability. Working on film with the option of retakes, turned into a no brainer by comparison. What I enjoy thoroughly about Audrey Meadows was maintaining her (stage) presence in such an unflappable manner. Her expressions barely change. Are pretty "stock" to a fair degree. And her impeccable timing, amazing. Meaning able to hold the "bit" to the very last moment before breaking the suspense of the scene. This is also what Lucille Ball worked so diligently to perfect (and achieved). But the Honeymooners is probably the most evident example of the effect. Imagine working around Art Carney, as well. Sort of a "Tim Conway" of his day. Never knowing in what direction he was going to launch himself, as well. In agreement, regarding how the minimal rehearsal of that Series is what made it so uniquely special! And, one of a kind. I'm not sure if there was any subsequent comedy who attempted the same arrangement.
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